On Kings, Kingdoms and Worlds
Today is marks the last Sunday in the regular church year. Next week, the First Sunday of Advent (I know, when did time fly by so quickly?!), is the transition into the next church year — the “New Year’s Eve” of the Liturgical cycle! But before we start thinking about the coming new church year, I think today’s Gospel selection is well-worth considering as the last proclamation of the Good News for this current year. It comes from the end of the Gospel of John where Pilate is interrogating Jesus during his impromptu trial before the Roman Governor. In response to the question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus explains: “My Kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36).
For us to consider are two aspects of Jesus’s response, among the many things on which we could reflect from this set of readings. First, there is this business about a Kingdom and a king. Most readers will inevitably think of medieval Britain or the current Saudi monarchies, but Jesus’s response is not at all in the realm of these earthly domains (hence his “not of this world” line).
What is really alluded to here is the Hebrew notion of the malkuth YHWH, the “Reigning of God” (or in the Greek: basileia tou theou). This eschatological image is not “reigning” like Queen Elizabeth II reigns in England, nor is it the dictatorial monarchies of centuries past, but instead has to do with the actualization of God’s will on earth. In other words, it is an expression of what God has intended from all eternity in the creation event, yet because of our finitude and hubris we have not lived up to our personal and communal vocations to live in the world as if God were reigning. Note the our, meaning human — there are very serious theological questions still open about whether the rest of creation could be implicated in our sinfulness.
My guess, following Francis of Assisi’s notion of the rest of creation’s ability to be what it was intended to be and therefore still able to praise God naturally, is: no, only humanity is responsible here for the stalling of sorts of the basileia tou theou, which is why humanity is the so-called linchpin of salvation. The rest of the created order, as one might flippantly put it, is waiting for you and I (i.e., “humanity”) to get its act together.
What Jesus is talking about with Pilate is a revelation, yet again as he had throughout his life, preaching, and deeds, of what the in-breaking of God’s reign looks like. Therefore, it really bears no resemblance to the worldly conceptualization of control, power, might, authority, and the like — all of which a Roman Governor would have naturally associated with this discussion.
The “other world” is not (pace Augustine) some platonic, actual, and ideal “other world,” but is instead another sense of logic or wisdom against which the logic and wisdom of “this world” stands in contrast. God’s reign, as Jesus demonstrates, does not align with any of the earthly conceptualizations of what it means to be king. So, Christ the King is a reminder — here on this last day of the church year — that what it therefore means for us to be “subjects” or “disciples” of such a king has to do with continually keeping in check the logic and wisdom of the world and instead becoming the servants of all, putting others first, giving voice to the voiceless, prioritizing the needs of the marginalized, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, allowing the last to be first, loving the unlovable, forgiving the unforgivable, and so on and so forth.
These acts, as Jesus lived and modeled them, are the signs of the coming Kingdom — the coming realization of all humanity that this is what God intends for us and how God has always intended us to live.
To talk about Christ the King is to talk about what it means for us to be Christian in a world saturated with the lust for power and the greed for wealth. It means to give everything up so as to inherit the kingdom, to become the servant of all so as to be the greatest among the disciples, and it means be to be like Jesus, the fullest revelation of God, who gives his life for all.
Long live the King!