November 21, 2021
Christ the King is always an interesting day in the church calendar. It’s always the last Sunday before we start the blue season of Advent. Today, we celebrate Jesus as our king—in fact, king of everything! And we have all this great imagery to describe Jesus as king, from our Daniel reading that depicts him as the glorious Son of Man descending with the clouds, to hymns like Come, Thou, Almighty King and Lead On, O King Eternal. When we imagine the return of Christ, we always see him depicted as a great and victorious king, conquering the world.
But then we look at other people we call “king.” In the United States, the last king we had was King George III, and we liked him so much one of our founding documents is basically a Dear John letter to him. And if we don’t think of real-world kings, maybe we think of fantasy shows like Game of Thrones, where kings are horrible, cruel, destructive people. Or maybe we think of silly kings, like King Arthur in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Kings, in most of our experience, are either incompetent, cruel, or irrelevant.
And it doesn’t help that Jesus doesn’t seem terribly keen on the idea of being called “king” in the very gospel we read this morning! When Pilate insists he must be a king, Jesus’ response is “well, you say I am a king.” At best, “king” is a metaphor for who Jesus is. And Jesus makes sure to describe how it’s different from Pilate’s idea of a king this morning.
His kingdom, Jesus points out, is not of this world. But not in the sense that it has nothing to do with the world, or that the only place it can be experienced is in heaven. No, when Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world, he’s pointing out that it doesn’t work like Pilate’s kingdoms—like the world’s kingdoms. Worldly kingdoms need power to sustain themselves; they need propaganda to ensure one story is told; they are built on greed and motivated by vain ambition. Worldly kingdoms are rooted in violently carving out a place in the world and fighting off anyone who would come against them.
Jesus wants Pilate (and us) to understand that there is a very real difference between the world’s kingdoms and his own kingdom. They don’t even have the same basic assumptions about how the world works. The world assumes resources are scarce and you must fight to protect yours; Jesus’ kingdom assumes the abundance of God that allows us to be free with sharing what we have. The world assumes any story that undermines the grand narrative of its own goodness and triumphs will destroy it and so must be destroyed; Jesus’ kingdom is built on the foundation of truth and isn’t threatened by it. The world assumes the only way to control its fear is through violence; Jesus’ kingdom embraces love as the only way to bring peace. The difference is so cavernous that the only way Jesus can explain it is to say that his kingdom is not even from here.
But in case we are tempted to push Jesus’ kingdom into the skies, being so different that it doesn’t even belong here on earth, Jesus insists that it’s here—on earth—that his kingship is found. It’s his purpose for being born. This kingdom is meant to be made here on earth, among us. It’s meant to change lives, to free the oppressed, to fill the world with the good news of God’s love, forgiveness, and goodness. This kingdom is supposed to give the world a different way of being than the ways that worldly kingdoms cling to.
And the thing is, this kingdom has changed the world. It has shown the world a different way of being. Slavery was ended because of the values of this kingdom. We strive for the equality of all people because of this kingdom. There is a tireless push to bring dignity and wholeness to the poor because of this kingdom. The truth that Jesus talks about points us toward treating all people the way that we want to be treated. But much like how Jesus was opposed for preaching this kingdom, the powers are just as threatened today by its truth.
It’s why the J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI purposely branded the Black Panthers as a terrorist organization—because more than the berets and sunglasses, the Black Panthers were a community organization that provided daily free breakfast to underserved children and daycare to working mothers. But it showed that the way of a kingdom not from here could be done, and that threatened the authority of this worldly kingdom.
And it’s why Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered by people opposed to his preaching that lifted up the plight of the poor. Rather than offer the religious support of the church for dehumanizing and oppressive policies, Romero preached liberation from such evil and a way to imagine the world without it. He threatened the authority of the powers, so he was killed.
And it’s why people the world over who insist on living by the way of the kingdom of God are labelled crazy, or idealists without any grounding in reality, or as threats to “good people’s” way of life. When we look to Jesus as our king, and his kingdom as our model, worldly kingdoms that rely on us believing the lie that theirs is the only way to live in the world need to destroy that idea. They react with violence, believing it is the only way to achieve anything.
But there is the biggest difference of all between the kingdoms of this world and Jesus’ own kingdom. “If my kingdom were from here,” he told Pilate, “then my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” When faced with violence, the mark of Jesus’ kingdom is that we do not fight back. We don’t need to fight back, because Jesus’ kingdom is not threatened. It won’t be undone. It won’t be conquered.
Because look around you. Here, 2,000 years later, and between Pilate and Jesus, whose kingdom is still standing? And in 2,000 more years, whose kingdom will still be standing? His kingdom may not be of this world, but it is most certainly in it, and it is most certainly changing it. Even if it’s by fits and starts, Jesus’ kingdom will outlast it all, because his kingdom is not of this world, and Jesus is king.
Thanks be to God. Amen.