Reign of Christ/Christ the King – Proper 29 (34), Year B
21 November 2021
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
In the Gospel of John Jesus assumes his reign on the cross. When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32) And so what we see in today’s passage from John’s gospel is not only the interrogation of Jesus by Pilate but one of the last scenes before the crucifixion of Jesus. For John, the crucifixion is the enthronement of Jesus, which is why we are given this reading for Christ the King Sunday.
Pilate seems unsure what to do, asks Jesus questions, goes back to the people, back to Jesus. Seven times he change places.
The first question Pilate asks Jesus is “Are you the King of the Jews?”
When I read the passage earlier this week I was struck by the way Jesus answers. Not only does Jesus begin interrogating Pilate, but when Jesus finally gives his answer, he says, “You say that I am a king.” (v.37)
I remember many years ago a friend interpreting this answer as a “that’s what you say,” suggesting that Jesus denies all messianic titles which gave my friend reason to think that Jesus was only an extraordinary human being.
Yet that is not what is happening here. There are no italics in the Greek text (nor in the English text), and Jesus does speak of a kingdom, of his kingdom. Therefore he must be a king. The question though is what kind of a king he is.
After a little forth and back Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.” If that meant that Jesus’ kingdom was merely spiritual and his reign symbolic, there would have been no insurrection here and no threat to Roman rule and therefore no case. Although occupying forces rarely care much about that sort of thing. A critical word is often enough for the powers to feel threatened.
We have often understood this to mean pretty much this, that Jesus’ kingdom is heavenly, otherworldly, begins after our life here is done. It is a comfort to know that one day we will see Jesus face to face and that there will be no mourning, no crying, no pain, and no death, only life in the presence of God.
Yet to think that this is the only way that God’s kingdom unfolds is to forget that Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” And who are the ones to do God’s will? The ones praying, and they do God’s will by the power of the Holy Spirit.
There is another way to understand the kingdom of God. There are people who once called themselves the moral majority, even though they were a minority, who want to enact God’s laws for everyone, regardless of whether everyone was a believer or not. This is pretty much an extension of the zeal of crusaders and colonizers who would claim the earth for God, by which they really meant for themselves or the worldly king they served. But because they were associated with the church they baptized anything they did. Since they were Christians, the things they did must have been Christian, too. At least that was their logic.
So, what kind of kingdom is it that Jesus claims?
The key to understanding the kind of kingdom Jesus claims lies in the next sentence. Jesus adds, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”
Jesus is not saying that his kingdom is later after we die, or has no relevance for our life here. Jesus says, ‘My kingdom is different and so are my followers. There is no violence in the kingdom of God. My power is love.’
Lutherans often speak of two kingdoms. Followers of Jesus inhabit both,
– the worldly kingdom in which kings, princes, and politicians govern to maintain order and prevent chaos,
– and the realm of the Spirit, where they must live according to the law of love.
However, Luther talks about these two kingdoms in response to both the peasant wars which brought death and devastation, and out of the political calculation that the Reformation needed princes as protectors.
In the course of history the church has systematized it and thereby spiritualized the Gospel, made it an internal reality only, while in the world the Christian conformed to the expectations of government and fought the kings wars.
That this is not what Jesus says became evident following the Nazi rule of Germany when many suggested that the teaching of two kingdoms had tragically contributed to the church’s accommodation and participation in the evils of the Nazi regime and its inability to provide an alternative.
Why was the church silent in the face of such evil? Did the church hold only spiritual values and abdicated responsibility for its neighbours, whether they be Jewish, gay, communist, disabled, Jehovas Witnesses, or simply a critic of the regime?
Jesus is not saying that his kingdom is only a spiritual reality with little bearing on our life here, or a kingdom that only begins after we die. Jesus is saying that his kingdom is an alternative to the violence of the world. This is important to remember today when we like to try people in the court of public opinion and are quick to write people off because they do not share our convictions.
That Jesus is our king means that we do not have to despair at the world because the world is in God’s hands. That the world is in God’s hands means that we need not lose all our energy in our anxiety but can act joyfully in the world, in the way shown by Mother Teresa, not doing great things, but little things with great love.
That Jesus is king means that while we work for justice, it is not our justice we pursue, nor will justice ultimately be brought about by us whose vision is incomplete. Yet in our work for justice we can sing with Mary, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1)
Jesus not only announces his kingdom but he has invited us into it as God’s friends and as servants of all. May God grant us humility to know that we need not save the world, wisdom to know the way of God, and love to walk in it.