A version of this sermon was preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on Christ the King Sunday.
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
You never know when you’re standing next to a giant.
I don’t remember exactly when I first met Syngman Rhee, one of the professors where I went to seminary. Knowing me, I probably cut in front of him for the line for desserts or something embarrassing like that. He didn’t glow or wear a halo or a crown or anything to give me a clue that he was… well, extraordinary.
Syngman was born in 1931 in Pyongyang, Korea—what is now North Korea. His father was a Presbyterian minister. When he was a teenager, rumors of war spilled out into violence in his homeland. Worried that they might be conscripted or killed, his parents sent him and his brother south, while their four sisters stayed behind. The family hoped the violence would pass, and the brothers could return in a few weeks, when it was safe.
Syngman never saw his parents again.
Instead, he and his brother were swept up in a flood of refugees in South Korea. He joined the South Korean Marine Corp and trained at Quantico, where he made friends with Christians in the American Marines. They sponsored him to leave South Korea and come to study at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. From there he went on to Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, and was ordained a Presbyterian pastor, like the father he hadn’t seen in more than a decade.
Those early experiences of war and division fueled in him a “lifelong quest for peace and reconciliation, particularly between North and South Korea.”
It would be incredible enough, I think if Syngman had only focused his dreams for peace on his homeland. But he looked around him, and saw lots of divided peoples in need of reconciliation.
In the early 60s, Syngman became the Presbyterian campus minister at the University of Louisville, and while he was there, he met with Martin Luther King Jr, and marched with the students protesting racism and segregation. Syngman had seen what hatred and suspicion and distrust had done to his homeland; he would do all he could to break down barriers in his adopted country.
Eventually, Syngman went on to global ministry, working for the denomination and for my own seminary, Union Presbyterian. He was a captivating preacher; funny, for sure, but also hopeful in a way that seemed almost impossible to believe. He was in his late 70s when I knew him, but he had not given up on his dreams for reconciliation in Korea, and in the Middle East, and in the streets of America; in every place across the world where violence still has too much power. I’ll give up, he seemed to say, when God does. So he never did.
Two thousand years ago, Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, middle management for Rome, certainly had no idea he was standing in front of a giant—God’s own son. For him, Jesus’ arrest and interrogation was just another annoying day at the office. All he had to do was know what Jesus’ crime was, so he could fill out the form and sign off on the Jewish authorities request to execute him.
Are you a king? Pilate asks, several times. But Jesus doesn’t answer. Eventually, he tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”
My followers would be fighting, Jesus says, breaking out their swords and slingshots, if I were a regular, earthly king, only interested in conquest, in winning, in victory. But I’m after something deeper. I’m after the reconciliation of the world. Jews, Gentiles, Romans, everybody. That’s what my kingdom will be like.
Syngman Rhee’s family, his blood, his beloved, are North Korean. In 1978, twenty-eight years after fleeing his home for what he thought would be just a few weeks, a family friend managed to arrange for him to go into North Korea. He learned then that his mother had died eight years before; his father had been arrested and died in prison. But his sisters were there, grown women now, living behind a wall he could only rarely cross. Syngman broke down at that wall. His mission was driven by both pain and hope; pain that this was not what Christ wanted; hope that Christ would work alongside him for something new.
The strength of Syngman’s heart amazes me. He has never once called for vengeance, for a military strike, for North Korea to be wiped off the face of the planet, or for South Korea to be aided to a decisive military victory. It might bring peace, for a while. But the peace that comes from victory and the peace that comes from reconciliation are very, very different.
Syngman loves the people of North Korea. They are his people. He loves the people of South Korea. They are his people. He felt deep in his bones that they were meant to be one people, one body. Meant to be reconciled. Meant to be at peace.
As any diplomat or activist or global pastor or parent will tell you, the path to reconciliation is much, much harder than a path to victory. In a way, it means both sides lose. It means longstanding traditions and structures of power and cultural beliefs end. It means neither side gets to come out unscathed or unchanged.
Victory comes when one side despairs and gives in. Peace—true peace—comes when both sides find hope.
“The book of Revelation says that when Christ comes in glory, the nations will wail. Wail, I think, like children being caught out in a fight. Wail because the injustice that benefits some is ending, and the justice that welcomes all is beginning.
The peace of Christ isn’t pacific,” writes Reverend Victoria Larson. “It will pull down your world to build something else in its place. It dwells hand-in-hand with possibility: possibility that the way things are aren’t the way things always must be. Peace invokes disquiet. It comprises not merely the absence of violence, but the presence of reconciliation, unity, and hope, all of which demand that we name what is wrong in order to work toward what is right.”
Syngman [Rhee] collected turtles, of all things, (not live ones). He said that the turtle had to take risks by sticking out its neck to move forward. He lived the life of a turtle, walking the slow but risky path of peace.
I think of Jesus, standing in that office with the governor of Judea, bound and tortured, with no loyal army of followers coming to save him, no weapon in his hands except the truth, sticking out his neck to save ours.
Our song today is a simple song of hope, and of longing. Titled O So So in Korean, I know the English lyrics better: Come Now, O Prince of Peace, make us one body. Come now, Lord Jesus reconcile all people. The song was written in 1988 by Korean composer Geonyong Lee for a worship service held before a conference for Korean peace and reunification. Lee knew particular people, particular cities, particular families, who deeply longed to be one again.
Each line of Oh So So, which we will play during the offertory, ends in what is known musically as an open fifth, meaning that the chord is not resolved, or that your ear is left wanting one more note. Linnea Clark writes that by ending “with an open fifth rather than a harmonized chord, [it’s] as if [the hymn] leavse space for God and God’s people to take up the work of reconciliation.
In 2015, when I was still in seminary, we got word that Syngman was dying. He was only 83, but the cancer was aggressive. From the hospital, his family posted this message:
“Even in the midst of this situation, every day, Syngman expresses deep gratitude for his life in the church, in ministry, and in the world, and for his many relationships and experiences in ministry over the course of his entire life. They are very much on his mind and in his heart. He feels a sense of unfinished business but he knows that there are many who will continue on as God’s church in the world for justice, peace, and reconciliation.”
The world is full of unfinished business, of unresolved notes, of places where division still festers and hatred lingers and violence is only one wrong word away. Heck, many of us will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner this week with someone we have hurt or who has hurt us, someone we have not forgiven, someone who can say one wrong word and send us spiraling. We are all in need of reconciliation, of peace, of hope for a new beginning, whether we are a nation at war or a family in tension.
Peace means that some things have to end: national pride or personal resentment, cultural righteousness or cherished anger, all the ways that it has always been. Peace means that something new can begin: the reign of Christ, who has set us free.
After all, our King is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. So let peace begin on earth, and let it begin with us.