Christ the King Celebration
John 18:33b-37 (see below)
In this the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we celebrate the Lord Jesus Christ as the one and only universal King of all peoples, and the one who actually reigns over the whole Cosmos. This is the Sunday in the liturgical year that asks us to call to memory King Jesus' great suffering and final victory, as his actions on Calvary broke the back of sin, death and the powers of darkness.
Likewise, it is also a celebration that anticipates his future, final appearing from glory (a glory which is not far from us), as the vindicated Lord and Judge of all. That is, today’s celebration also pushes us forward, in hope, toward that moment when Christ, the King of all, will come to claim the community of his faithful people -- “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language,” both Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female. In this appearing he reclaims GOD’s good world now marred by sin, and thus finally and forever sets the world right.
Toward that end of present memory and future hope today's Lectionary Gospel Reading offers us that moment in St.John’s Gospel when Jesus is in deep confrontation with Pontius Pilate, the representative of Imperial Rome. But, we must remember that in this confrontation Jesus faces not only the power of empire, but the insidious commingling of empire with the powers of darkness, which formed one of the most brutal and oppressive regimes in the history of the world.
In today's pericope, then, which is of course part of a much larger exchange, we see Pilate asking Jesus point blank:
"Are you the King of the Jews?"
Now, why would this be the question? Simply put, this was the charge that was brought against Jesus:
12 From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor." (Jn.19:12)
Which explains the later (heated?) exchange the between Pilate and the Religious:
19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, "The King of the Jews,' but, "This man said, I am King of the Jews.' " 22 Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written." (Jn.19:19-22)
How can we miss, therefore, the political implications of Jesus' claims, and the direct attack of Jesus' Kingdom upon the powers of darkness and the Kingdoms of this world? GOD never once, neither overlooked the brutality of empire nor let slide the sinister forces coalescing behind it.
This understanding perhaps gives power to, say, a poem like Psalm 94:
1 O Lord, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth! 2 Rise up, O judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve! 3 O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult? 4 They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast. 5 They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage. 6 They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan, 7 and they say, "The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive." 8 Understand, O dullest of the people; fools, when will you be wise? 9 He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see? 10 He who disciplines the nations, he who teaches knowledge to humankind, does he not chastise? 11 The Lord knows our thoughts, that they are but an empty breath. 12 Happy are those whom you discipline, O Lord, and whom you teach out of your law, 13 giving them respite from days of trouble, until a pit is dug for the wicked. 14 For the Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage; 15for justice will return to the righteous, and all the upright in heart will follow it. 16 Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers? 17 If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence. 18 When I thought, "My foot is slipping," your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up. 19 When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul. 20 Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who contrive mischief by statute? 21 They band together against the life of the righteous, and condemn the innocent to death. 22 But the Lord has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge. 23 He will repay them for their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness; the Lord our God will wipe them out. (Psalm 94 (New Revised Standard)
But, I wonder if I can here you say: “But, doesn't our text have Jesus saying the very opposite to Pilate...”
"My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here."
We must be very careful here. As N.T.Wright reminds us:
"...the translation: ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, which has then been read in the straightforward, but deeply mistaken, sense of ‘My kingdom consists of a place called “heaven” which has nothing much to do with this world.’ But the Greek speaks of the kingdom being not ek tou kosmou toutou, not from this world."
This understanding makes all the difference in the world. Let me complete the quote because it is exceedingly important:
[Christ's Kingdom] comes from somewhere else – as, indeed, Jesus had earlier strikingly claimed about himself (8.23), and then, even more strikingly, about his followers (17.14). Granted all that we know about Jesus on the one hand and about first-century Jewish kingdom-of-God language on the other... we must say that the ‘kingdom’ of which Jesus was speaking was not from this world, but was emphatically for this world: a kingdom from the creator, the one Jesus called ‘Father’, and intended as the sovereignty which would replace the usurped sovereignty of ‘the ruler of this world’ and the human agents which that dark power had employed. (emphasis mine)
Therefore, I would assert that we have before us the disobedient universe, in this instance the Roman Empire, locked in a battle to the death with its lawful ruler and its rightful King -- Jesus the Messiah. And, as we would expect, the Empire does what empires always do, it threatens death and it delivers, thinking -- as with all other times past -- they would rid themselves of this you upstart Prophet and pest. "Just who does he think he is, after all? Well, we'll show him whose boss!"
What they did not know, what they could not have foreseen, was that, in their act of pride and hate and violence lay the very seeds of their own destruction and judgment, as well as the power, once unleashed, which would bring deliverance to the entire Cosmos, groaning as it now is under the weight of human abuse and sinful choices.
Therefore, we joyfully proclaim to all who care to hear:
Christ is King! Christ is LORD! And there is no other!
This is the "good news" message of the Gospel, and this is the reason that those early followers of Jesus were so soundly hated and persecuted:
5 But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason's house. 6 When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, "These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, 7 and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus." (Acts 17:5-7)
It seems clear to me that the question which naturally flows from this is: How is Christ's Kingdom demonstrated in this, the in-between time?
That is, how do we who claim Jesus as King demonstrate His LORDship in this time after His resurrection when he defeated death the last great enemy and ascended to the LORDship of the world, but before the moment of the coming vindication at his final, great appearing?
How is Christ's Kingdom demonstrated?
We are the answer. We, who have submitted to His LORDship, must demonstrate its reality! That is, we his people must show to the watching world, in fact we must demonstrate this through a specific way to live, what life is like under the King.
And, what is Jesus' Kingship like? What is this specific way we live? Well, we must follow the Jesus-way. And, how did Jesus demonstrate his reign? Let us remember Jesus own words for our answer:
You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to become great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45, NAB)
Jesus's LORDship is demonstrated in his acts of mercy and passion! Jesus' Kingdom, therefore, must be understood as founded upon humility, sacrificial love and an on-going reconciliation. You do see how this pushes against empire, and it's pride and violence, as well as the works of darkness that flow behind the scenes?
So, what must also be seen is the truth that these same practices of mercy, humility, sacrifice and reconciliation must be, in the final analysis, who we really are and how we genuinely express Jesus' Kingdom. This is the true theocracy! In this theocracy we practice loving care for the other -- those like us and those not like us. We seek the peace of the nations and the wholeness of the broken hearted. Ultimately, this is what is meant by "deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me..."
Pilate said to Jesus,
"Are you the King of the Jews?"
Jesus answered, "Do you say this on your own
or have others told you about me?"
Pilate answered, "I am not a Jew, am I?
Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.
What have you done?"
Jesus answered, "My kingdom does not belong to this world.
If my kingdom did belong to this world,
my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not here."
So Pilate said to him, "Then you are a king?"
Jesus answered, "You say 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."