The election season is over, so isn’t it time to get on with life. After all there’s work to be done. Remember there’s that fiscal cliff to resolve, immigration reform to tackle, and then there’s the ongoing implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Besides all of this there are roads and bridges that need to be built or repaired. The laundry list is long and getting longer. And that’s just the stuff on our government’s plate. As for us, the Christmas shopping season is racing into top gear!
Although we all seem to enjoy complaining about politics and politicians, isn’t it human nature to complain about the people in power. At least in this country, if you don’t like ‘em, you can toss ‘em out. Though with gerrymandering that’s sort of difficult!
But, what if we lived instead under the rule of divinely sanctioned hereditary monarchs. Wouldn’t that be better? Although there are those who raise the cry Vox populi, vox Dei. That’s Latin for “The Voice of the people is the Voice of God.” The 8th century English clergyman Alcuin, writing to Charlemagne, begged to differ. He wrote to the Emperor:
And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.
He may be right!
Since today is Christ the King Sunday, which brings to a close the liturgical or church year, we get to ask the question – what does the kingdom of God look like? If Jesus is king, then what kind of king is he? Is he any different from other rulers, whether hereditary monarchs, military dictators, or elected presidents?
A week from now we will begin a new cycle, and we’ll hear a word of warning – be prepared, be awake, the king is coming! But what should we look for in this coming king? In the 18th chapter of John, Jesus stands before Pilate. As governor, Pilate represents the power of Rome, and in this version of the gospel story, the religious leaders hand over Jesus so that he could be tried for treason. After all, why would Pilate ask: “Are you the king of the Jews?”
When we read the Gospel of John we need to keep in mind the animosity that was brewing between an emergent Christianity and the Jewish community out of which it had emerged. It’s a form of animosity we need to be aware of and steer clear of.
As you hear Pilate’s question to Jesus, does it resonate with you? Does it matter who Jesus is? What he’s up to? If you consider yourself to be a follower of this person who stands before Pilate, accused of treason, what does this mean for you?
Although the Romans permitted certain royal families across the empire to retain their titles, these kings and queens always understood who was in charge. They kept their thrones only as long as Caesar permitted, but Jesus never went to Rome to ask for permission to take his throne. So Pilate wants to know – if you say you’re a king, what kind of king are you?
When you sang our opening hymn this morning which proclaims Christ to be king, what kind of king did you imagine him to be? Think about these words:
“Rejoice, the Lord is King! The risen Christ adore! Rejoice, give thanks, and sing, and triumph evermore: lift up your heart, lift up your voice! Rejoice, again I say rejoice!”
Or what is the message of another powerful hymn, which we’ll be singing in a moment:
“Jesus shall reign where’re the sun does its successive journeys run;
his love shall spread from shore to shore till moons wax and wane no more.”
Yes, what kind of King is Jesus?
Jesus responds to Pilate’s question with these words: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Oh, I get it, he’s a heavenly king, a religious figure, no need to worry about his interfering with human affairs. Jesus isn’t interested in politics, just saving souls for the hereafter. Isn’t that the way this statement is often interpreted?
But is that what Jesus meant? When we hear Jesus speak of the kingdom of God, and he talks a lot about the kingdom or realm of God, what does he have in mind? When Jesus told the gathered throng sitting on the hillside to “seek first the kingdom,” what did he mean? (Mt. 6:33). Or, when we recite that prayer Jesus taught the disciples, a prayer we pray each Sunday, what do these words mean: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Is this just a heavenly prayer? No, we pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
So is Jesus’ kingdom just a heavenly realm, or does it have meaning for the here and now?
If we read that statement from John 18 from the Common English Bible we might get a better sense of what Jesus meant for us to hear. It reads: “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish Leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.” It’s not that Jesus doesn’t reign on earth, it just means that the nature of his reign is different.
Jesus tends to turn things upside down. He says things like the “first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” He says, bring me the children, because the kingdom belongs to them (Mk. 10:13-16). And when James and John ask Jesus to get the best seats in the heavenly throne room, which by the way makes the other disciples mad that they didn’t get there first, Jesus responds by telling them that “among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mk 10:41-44).
Jesus answers Pilate by telling him that his kingdom has a different origin from that of Caesar. Caesar may think he’s the Son of God, but Jesus is the true heavenly king, who reigns on earth as in heaven, and his vision of the kingdom is very different. His kingdom will be inaugurated not with armies, but through the agency of the cross.
Jesus’ vision of power is different from that envisioned by Caesar, Charlemagne, or even the President of the United States, though people like Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero understood.
When Jesus stood there in the presence of Caesar’s representative, he embodied the kingdom of God. He didn’t do so as the representative of a merely spiritual kingdom, but as the representative of a quite earthly kingdom, just one that took on a very different form. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says that this kingdom is as “earthly as Jesus himself was.” And not only that, when we look at the world through the cross of Jesus, “the kingdom of God is ineradicably implanted on this earth. With the resurrection of the crucified Christ the rebirth of the whole tormented creation begins. So ‘remain true to the earth’! For the earth is worth it.”1 Jesus reigns over this earth, which God loves fully and completely. And therefore, as representatives of this realm of God, we’re entrusted with the care of the earth and all its inhabitants.
Yes, what kind of king is this whose “love shall spread from shore to shore till moons wax and wane no more?”
Perhaps the answer can be found in the words of Barbara Lundblad, a Professor at Union Theological Seminary:
Jesus is a king who never rose so high that he couldn’t see those who were down low. Even today, we see Jesus in tent cities where people live together after losing their homes to foreclosure. We see Jesus in public housing where people are still waiting for the power to come on after the storm. We see Jesus in shelters where women have sought refuge from abusers.
If we would see Jesus, we will look in places kings seldom go.2
Yes, if we wish to see the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Alpha and the Omega, we’ll have to go where kings seldom go, but where Jesus is now present on earth as in heaven.
1. Jurgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, (Fortress Press, 1994), p. 20.
2. Barbara Lundblad, “A Different King of King.” – http://odysseynetworks.org/news/onscripture-the-bible-john-18-33-37
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Christ the King Sunday
November 25, 2012