Feast of Christ the King.
Saint John 18, verse 36 – My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Our gospel today is from Saint John’s story of the trial of Jesus. The trial of Jesus really is the trial of his accusers and of his judges. It is in truth the trial of the world by our Lord: the trial everyone but Christ by Christ, who is the judge of the quick and the dead. A few verses further on in the story after today’s lesson ends are told that Pontius Pilate ‘brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgement seat in a place that is called the Pavement but in the Hebrew Gabbatha’ (19:13). In the original Greek it is in fact unclear whether Pilate or Jesus sits down in the judgement seat. I think the ambiguity is intentional and not the result of bad Greek. Pilate seems to be the judge, but the apparent defendant sits in the true seat of judgement.
Because today is the feast of Christ the King, and because the kingdom of Christ is the subject of my text, I would like now to look at the ambiguity that hovers over the whole trial story in regard to this one matter of kingship. We might ask, Who is the real judge? who is really on trial? what is truth? who sits in judgement? who is the king? what is the kingdom? All of these questions are posed to us in John’s subtle telling of the story. But in my text three times our Lord speaks of ‘my kingdom’. So what is this kingdom and how does it relate to ‘the world’ from which our Lord distinguishes it?
In John’s gospel the subject of kingship comes up in the very first chapter, as our Lord is gathering his earliest disciples about himself. In 1:49 one of those disciples, Nathaniel, says to our Lord, ‘Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel’. ‘Son of God’ and ‘King of Israel’ are two titles for the messiah, the Christ. Though such titles properly belong to our Lord, he is wary of the title king. In chapter 6, after feeding the five thousand, we are told that our Lord fled up a mountain when he ‘perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king’ (6:15). From this it seems that a mistake about kingship was so serious a danger that it made Jesus run away. Nothing could be more disastrous than a mistake on this point. The title of king is next used for our Lord on Palm Sunday, when the crowds in John’s story say, ‘Blessed is the king of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.’ (12:13) We know how quickly that loyal and royal acclamation lasted. Not long. A few days later it turned to, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ and ‘We have no king but Caesar.’
I think if our Lord had stuck around in chapter 6 and been forced to accept the title of king, then Good Friday would only have come sooner than it did. Again, few problems could be so serious as misunderstanding the nature of the kingship of Christ.
So, what exactly is the mistaken idea, and what is the correct idea? John’s Palm Sunday story offers us a hint. To the royal cries of the crowd, John adds words from the prophet Zechariah (9:9, conflated with 3:16): ‘Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt’ (John 12:15). These words speak of Israel’s king riding, not on a great royal charger, but on a little donkey, not on a mighty war horse, but on the humble transport of the lowly. Not, in modern term, in a tank or a limousine, but in an old Ford or on a battered bicycle. So begin with that: Christ’s kingdom comes in humility, unexpectedly. Christ is the king over life and death, as he proved by his miracles, but he is not a king of worldly power or military force or by the instruments of this world with its wisdom and wealth. The people were looking for a military leader and a political king, to deliver them from the Romans, but that is a kingdom of this world, not the kingdom of our Lord.
The real answer to the nature of the kingship of Christ is given, surprisingly, just before Palm Sunday by our Lord’s enemy, Caiaphas, the high priest. The Pharisees say, ‘What are we to do? …If we let [this man] alone, …the Romans shall come and take away both our place and our nation.’ (11:47f.) Their fear is worldly and political, that the Romans will feel challenged by the instability of a wildly popular rabbi that people were calling a king. Caiaphas replies, ‘Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.’ (11:49f.) What Caiaphas meant is cynical: Let’s use this one man as a convenient scapegoat to deflect criticism from us, and let’s use the Romans to get rid of him.’ But Caiaphas speaks more truly than he knew. In the end our Lord will in fact die for the people, that the whole nation perish not. He will die to save others. His kingdom will be revealed by his self-sacrificing offering of himself upon the altar of the cross. And so it is upon the cross that his kingdom is most publicly proclaimed in John’s gospel, by the writing put up by Pilate above his head in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of Israel of the Jews’.
Until our Lord died, the nature of his kingdom could not be understood. What the cross reveals is that our Lord rules by serving, saves by losing his own life, reigns by submission, and rescues by being defeated. His kingdom is not at all what this world expects, but it becomes for us as Christians a model. Christians do not move the world by use of power and force, but by love and service. It is not for us to know if our nation or any other will perish or not. It is rather for us to imitate our Lord, for the servant is not above his master, but should be as his master.
Let me solemnly assure you, friends, that salvation is not to be found in any prince or president or party or platform. Politicians and platforms may be better or worse, and we must do our best to discern the best – or more likely, the least evil – choices among those set before us. But Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and his kingdom will not be fully present ever in this world. This world is just a door, which opens up beyond this life to God’s kingdom or to another, unhappy place. We only will come to God’s kingdom through the humility that rides on a little donkey, through the wisdom that causes us to run away when people want to force us to be what we are not, and through service to others in love. That is the kingdom of Christ, and it alone (of all the things we are offered in this world) will never end.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.