Introduction to the readings.
We have come to the final Sunday in the Church Year. Next week will be the first Sunday of Advent when we start all over again. In the year we are completing today, the focus has been on readings from Mark’s gospel. In the coming year, the focus will be on readings from the gospel of Luke. Readings from John’s gospel, a telling of the story of Jesus that is much different from the other three in the New Testament, pop up at different times when they speak to the particular Sunday or time in the life and teaching of Jesus that seems appropriate. Today is one of those Sundays. We will hear about Jesus in the judgement hall before the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. This story is told in all four gospels, and in all four gospels Pilate asks Jesus if he is “the king of the Jews”. However, John’s gospel records a conversation between Jesus and Pilate that is not in the other gospels, that focuses around Jesus’ kingship and the nature of truth.
The reading was chosen because this Sunday is known as Christ the King Sunday, or the Reign of Christ Sunday. Before we move into Advent and the focus on the coming of Christ in Bethlehem and preparing for Christ’s coming again, we focus on what it means to call Christ “King”. The other readings also reflect on the theme of kingship. The Psalm speaks of God as the king of the universe. The other two readings, from Daniel and from Revelation are from books that are in large part apocalyptic. There is apocalyptic literature in other books of the bible too – Will mentioned that the reading from Mark’s gospel was also apocalyptic. This is literature that is often focussed on the end times and is filled with fantastic images and symbolism. It seems that often it was written to avoid speaking directly to the atrocities and blasphemies committed by the powers of the day to avoid the deadly consequences that might bring. We could think of them as something like the Marvel and DC worlds of modern day comics and films. Here we have two pages torn out of graphic novels that we are trying to make sense of. We can understand something here in what they say about kingship, but you need to go much deeper into the world of apocalyptic to gain a deeper understanding, just as you would need to read the whole graphic novel, and indeed much more, in order to understand one of these fantastic worlds.
“So you are a king. Pilate was confused. The charge that had been brought against him was that Jesus had claimed to be the King of the Jews. That would be treason and a reason to have Jesus executed. If there was to be a King of the Jews that title would have to have been given by the Roman Emperor. Self appointment would be a direct threat to Roman power. But in the judgement hall, Jesus does not make that claim for himself. He wonders why Pilate is asking the question and he says that his kingdom is not of this world. Pilate seizes on that, “So you are a king”. No straight answer. He says Pilate is calling him a king, but he has come into the world to testify to the truth. “And what is truth”. Pilate did not know.
We can perhaps forgive Pilate for his confusion. Sometimes Jesus is depicted as a king and is called a king. Like the fantastic apocalyptic visions of cosmic kings in Daniel and Revelation, Jesus can resemble the grandeur and splendour of the throne rooms of the kingdoms and empires of the ancient world writ large in the cosmic realm: “As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.” Or perhaps: “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” “He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” This is what the writers wanted to portray and what many wanted Jesus to be. Bigger, stronger, mightier, more powerful, with dominion over the universe, able to humble and defeat even the greatest of human kings or emperors. A superhero whose powers continue to grow and indeed whose powers cannot be known because they are far beyond anything that has yet been demonstrated. This is what many were looking for in Roman occupied Palestine. “We’ll show Caesar who is the real king. No legion will be strong enough to withstand him. Finally the kingdom of God will defeat all its enemies and its rivals and the great king will sit on the throne.”
We want that too. Think of our first hymn today. “Blessing and honour and glory and power, wisdom and riches and strength evermore give we to Christ who our battle has won, whose are the kingdom, the crown and the throne.” Those fantastic images are powerful and stir our imaginations even in our more secular and democratic age. We want Jesus to be king. Step out of the pages of scripture, or better yet fly out of the pages of scripture on the clouds and just say once and for all, “I am the king. All other power is subdued under my feet and under my powerful army. All the world must bow the knee to me.” That is what Pilate feared. Here in his little corner of the Empire, the one who would be the next great ruler would emerge and overwhelm the greatest empire the world had ever known. He wanted to know if Jesus was a king. He wanted to know if there was a threat to his power.
There was not a denial or an affirmation. Perhaps he was a king but his kingdom was not of this world. Hard for Pilate to grasp. Hard for us to grasp. What can a kingdom be if it is not what we know? Not about blessing and honour and glory and power necessarily. Take away the throne room scene and the fantastic powers and the mighty armies and the thousands and thousands prostrating themselves before him. The legitimacy of Jesus’ kingship comes from somewhere else. But from where? Pilate could not imagine. We cannot imagine.
As so often happens in the gospels, we have to allow ourselves to ponder paradox to begin to understand what is being revealed. The prisoner standing before Pilate holds a power and a majesty that surpasses anything he can imagine. The prisoner. The one who has had all power and dignity stripped from him is supreme over the one he faces who represents the ruler of the known universe. Pilate had not followed Jesus’ career or teachings. He had not heard, “‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
It is like we haven’t heard that either. That’s just not the way it works. Look at any other model of kingship or leadership or power and authority structures in the world. You need to be a king to be a king or you won’t remain a king very long. It’s true. “But my kingdom is not of this world.” If it was Jesus’ followers would have been swarming the Judgement Hall and fighting with the Romans. Authority, and kingship, come from a different place with Jesus. From service. That does not take you into the throne room. It does not get you seated at the table. It gets you putting on an apron and serving others. It gets you sitting in the waiting room of the Immigration and Refugee Board waiting for the decision on an asylum seeker’s status in the place they have come for refuge. It gets you filling in the holes in the communal kitchen to keep the roaches out. It gets you exercising some pretty old bones to get up at 5 a.m. and do a walk to raise money for people in some pretty difficult circumstances. It gets you to stop and take the time to chat with someone who has come into this sanctuary looking for some comfort and hope in a very harsh and unforgiving world. None of those are very kingly actions, at least not what pops into one’s mind when you think about a king. And yet, it seems that is where Jesus’ kingship begins and what makes him a king. And where he calls his followers to go.
The hymn we are going to sing tries to help us sit with this paradox: “You, Lord are both lamb and shepherd, You Lord, are both prince and slave. . . . You, who walk each day beside us, sit in power at God’s side.” This is not easy. This is not the usual. But perhaps this is the truth that Jesus is pointing to, the truth that Pilate did not grasp. Not of this world. Not where our minds immediately go. But kingship in God’s kingdom, in God’s reign, is different. Jesus was not a super Caesar. We’re not called to follow him into greatness as defined in this world. In fact it may lead us to difficult places where we need to challenge the kings of this world. It leads us in the via crucis, the way of the cross. Usually seen as a failure if you are a king.
But this is Christ the King. The one to whom we owe our allegiance and our very lives. Thanks be to God.