Scripture Readings: Psalm 93

John 18.28-38a

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

On this Sunday which is designated as ‘Christ the King’, perhaps the first thing we should admit is that Jesus nowhere in the Gospels referred to himself as a King. But the word ‘Christ’ in Greek literally means ‘the anointed One’[1]– and as kings are anointed, that implies that Christ is a king of some sort. According to Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus was born, the wise men from the East came to King Herod looking for a king, and were told to look for him in Bethlehem. Afterwards, King Herod tried to murder the baby king, leading to a slaughter of innocents[2]. And today’s Gospel reading, from near the end of Jesus’ life, puts him once again in front of a secular ruler in Jerusalem, with his life at stake.

The Greek word ‘Christ’ was also a translation of the Hebrew ‘Messiah’, whom the Jewish people await as the king representing God at the end of time. For the God of Israel, creator of all that is, was also understood as a king. Psalm 93 states it  boldly:

The Lord is king.
He is clothed with majesty and strength.

People, even in ancient times, knew a king when they saw one. In those pre-democratic times, kings were all-powerful, within their domains, but they had many responsibilities. The Biblical image of a perfect king was one who ensured that their nation prospered, that justice was done (for the poor as well as the rich), that there was order in the land so that the people could live in peace. It was an image of strength, but for the protection and flourishing of all of society, and not for the glorification of the king himself.

The Psalmist takes these ideas and applies them to Israel’s God, the King of Creation. The King of Creation stands firm, even against the most terrifying chaos the Psalmist can imagine. For the Israelites were not a seagoing people. They feared the sea, the depths, and the mythical monsters they imagined inhabited its depths. When the prophet Jonah goes to sea, gets caught in a storm, and swallowed by a huge sea creature, that’s a horror story for Israelites. And according to the first verses of Genesis, before creation there was nothing but the chaos of waters, until the spirit of God moved over the waters and created dry land. And so the Psalmist imagines the waters roaring, like the sea crashing against the rocks and cliffs:

The ocean depths raise their voice, O Lord;
they raise their voice and roar.
[But] [t]he Lord rules supreme in heaven,
greater than the roar of the ocean,
more powerful than the waves of the sea.

This is the majestic, powerful king of all creation. Perhaps in our day, we might say that God rules supreme over all things, greater than the power inside an atom, stronger than the gravitational forces of a black hole. God the King of Creation is a king unlike any other.

Yet, as Jesus stands before Pilate, there is little sign that he is the Christ, the one anointed by the God of Israel, the Lord of Sea and Sky. Jesus stands alone, a young preacher before a powerful, wily, experienced politician. Pilate represents Caesar, and the great superpower of Rome. Jesus is the leader of a few followers, ordinary folk from the countryside and the villages, some of whom have already begun to desert him. What kind of a king is this?

By Antonio Ciseri – http://www.most-famous-paintings.org/Ecce-Homo-large.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10356430

So asks Jesus the question which had tormented King Herod: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’- in a sneering, ironic manner. In fact, once the conversation is over, Pilate will send Jesus to be whipped- because Pilate has all the power in this situation. The soldiers, who have also heard this rumour about Jesus, will mockingly dress him in an old purple robe and crown him with thorns, and in that ridiculous state, the will be brought back to Pilate, who will display him to the crowd with the words: Behold the man! Ecce homo![3] Pilate and his soldiers were mocking and humiliating Jesus. Behold the man: look at him! What kind of king is this?

For Pilate had asked him ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’, and received an answer which he did not understand. For Jesus replied,

“My kingdom does not belong to this world; if my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. No, my kingdom does not belong here!”

“My kingdom does not belong here” is perhaps better translated as “my kingdom is not from here”[4]. It is not that Christ’s kingdom has nothing to do with the kingdoms and republics and powers of this world. Rather, this is Jesus claiming that his reign has a different origin. Behind Pilate are armies, soldiers, slavery, crucifixion- the cruel power of Rome. Jesus is standing up to Rome, and is about to be crushed by Rome, for Pilate has the power not just to whip and humiliate Jesus, but to crucify him. Entire cities have been flattened for resisting Rome. Vast numbers of people were enslaved by Rome, because they lived in lands which tried to resist.

But Jesus’ power does not come from here. If it did, his followers would fight for him, take up arms for him. The reign of Jesus does not depend on force and violence. Jesus reigns because his kingdom is not from earth, but from heaven. His authority is of God.

Because Jesus told Pilate that is reign was “not from this world”, some Christians have thought that the reign of Christ doesn’t have much to do with this world. They have imagined that the Kingdom of God is something which does not sully itself with the affairs of the kingdoms of this world. They have thought that the things of Christ are entirely separate from affairs of state, from the world of politics. They have claimed that the rule of God which Jesus spoke of is something which is still to come, and that meanwhile we should stick to spiritual matters, not get involved in politics beyond praying for our politicians, don’t worry whether the sick are healed, the hungry are fed, or if the poor are forgotten about.

But when Jesus tells us to love our neighbours, he means that we are to love them here and now. The command to love is not a theoretical idea, but a practical command. If we want to be part of the Kingdom of God, we are to love one another, and love our neighbours, today, not in the distant future. Thy Kingdom come, on earth, and not only in heaven.

Look at the Gospels. The story of Jesus is a story about how the reign of God constantly crashes up against the injustices which permeate our human attempts to run society. At his birth, Jesus is seen as a threat King Herod. He takes fishermen away from their jobs because he promises something better. He goes to dinner with a corrupt tax man who the promises to pay back the people he’s diddled. He goes to a simple country wedding, and suddenly they have best quality wine. He meets people who are marginalised and discriminated against because they are ill or disabled, and restores them to society.

“My kingdom does not belong to this world” is not a saying about the location of Christ’s kingdom. Jesus does not reign somewhere separate from this world. Jesus reigns here and now, whenever his followers carry out his commands. If we have a political system and an economy which keeps people in poverty, then loving our neighbours will mean working to make things fairer for people. If we are not looking after the sick, the disabled and the elderly properly, then healing the sick will involve trying to make good healthcare possible for as many people as possible. If the powers of this world turn to violence and war, then our task is to be peacemakers and reconcilers, as God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself[5].

For Jesus, witnessing to his Father’s Kingdom inevitably meant that he found himself in conflict with those powers ‘of this world’ who stood opposed to the power which he embodied, which came from elsewhere. There are always going to be conflicts between the reign of Jesus Christ, and the powers that rule in this world. It is not easy to navigate those conflicts. But if we are sincere in confessing that Christ is our King, then the conflicts will happen.

By the way, I do think we should pray for those who rule us on earth. Certainly in this country today, our political leaders need all the prayers for wisdom they can get. For they have managed to get us into a real pickle, haven’t they? For a long time, all the argument about how the UK should relate to the European Union seemed a bit academic. But now we hear that our trade with the EU and the rest of the world could end up in tatters. There are reports that there is a shortage of cold storage for food, that lorries could end up queued for miles to the ports, that patients might run out of life-saving medicines, even that the army is considering what role they might have if things get bad. This is a ludicrous prospect for a prosperous nation at peace.

However, some of our leaders today seem to either don’t understand or don’t care about what might happen to their country. For if the economy does take a nosedive, the poorest, most vulnerable people in society will suffer most. Even our democracy seems to be under threat, as we learn more about how anonymous wealthy individuals, and even foreign states like Russia have been muddying our politics with lies and rumours and misinformation. We have not faced such a crisis in my lifetime, and yet leadership seems to be lacking.

When Christ stood before Pilate, he reminded Pilate that there are principles which are higher than the brute force and the power of Rome. We need to be reminding our political leaders anew of that truth. Even if they do not believe in God, they should know that there are principles which outweigh their own careers, or their political beliefs, or their economic ideas, or the good of their party. It cannot be right to tumble your country into chaos. Our leaders should not be putting our economy at risk for no good reason. They should be rooting out the fake newsmongers, taking on the complacent internet giants, resisting those who want to make racism respectable again. They like to talk about hard working families, so they should be ensuring that such people are not facing losing jobs and income. We should be praying for wisdom for our politicians, but also for compassion, for clear thinking, and for honest talking. And above all, for them to show the ultimate in political courage- the courage to do the right thing- the courage which Pilate, of course, famously lacked.

The sixteenth century philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, ‘“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer’[6]. Today we celebrate the truths of God’s love and grace as we in this congregation gather around a table. Here we celebrate that God did not reject us, but instead invites us to eat and drink in a way which represents the Kingdom of Christ. For Jesus gave himself for us, and still gives himself for us. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world because it is a kingdom of grace, of generosity and of peace. The Lord God of Creation stands strong and powerful, a force of love which not even the storms and the depths of the sea can shake. For the Kingdom of his Christ stands for generosity, inclusion, and the eternal power of love.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

NB For a critical view of the the festival of Christ the King, see this Twitter thread by Diana Butler Bass.

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] ‘Christ’, in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1997)

[2] Matthew 2

[3][3] John 19.6

[4] NRSV

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:19

[6] Essays (1625) ‘Of Truth’: see Oxford Dictionary of Quotations 48.10