This Sunday is the celebration of “Christ the King,” the last Sunday in the Western Church year.
Christ the King
Mainline Protestantism seem to take this celebration in stride, as if it were as ancient and venerable a part of the calendar as Easter, or Lent, or even Christmas. The youngest of those key celebrations go back a millennium and a half. The oldest go back to the very beginning.
Christ the King? Not quite a century.
The Roman Catholics instituted Christ the King in 1925.
But then they created the three year lectionary after Vatican 2 in the 1960s.
It seems that when the Protestants adapted and adopted the Catholic lectionary (completing the process with the RCL in 1994) Christ the King came along for the ride.
Personally, I like it.
We live in a world where all matters of religious and spiritual conviction have been reduced to a sort of marketplace. We pick and choose, using our individual discernment and taste to take what we like, or want, or need, and leave the rest behind.
And in our well-intentioned efforts to love our neighbors who hold different convictions, we soften any, or at least many, claims of particularity for our faith.
So on Christ the King Sunday we should remember that the risen Christ said, when he gave his followers their Great Commission,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18, NRSV)
That’s the authority of Christ, the King. His cross and resurrection had wrested that authority from the opposing team who, when Christ was tempted in the desert, showed him all the kingdoms of the earth and proclaimed blithely,
All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9)
The story of the Good News of Jesus is that the world was under Satan’s reign, but it is no longer.
Christ reigns as the Ruler of All, the “Pantokrator,” which is the name of the icon inside the dome of many an Orthodox church.
He looks down on us, his followers, who presumably are under his more particular reign, despite our behavior to the contrary.
Some versions of the icon have him looking rather grumpily at his subjects. But in the better renditions, like the great mosaic in the ancient church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople/Istanbul, his expression is more inscrutable:
He is the serene and majestic ruler, powerful with the right to judge, but gracious and in rich in mercy. His look reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe:
He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion.
Anyway, onward to the text:
In the lectionary’s Year B, Christ the King has us in John 18:33-37. It is Holy Week. Jesus has been arrested. He stands before Pilate who peppers him with questions.
Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33 NRSV)
I am not a Jew, am I?” (John 18:35 NRSV)
What have you done?” (John 18:35 NRSV)
So you are a king?” (John 18:37 NRSV)
And finally, when Jesus says that what he really does is testify to the truth, one line after our reading ends Pilate asks him,
What is truth?” (John 18:38 NRSV)
What Is Truth?
Maybe it is good that the RCL left off verse 38, at least this year. I might spend my meditation time, and you might end up preaching, about “alternative facts,” and the assertion that “truth isn’t truth” and the constant accusations that well researched and fully documented investigative journalism is “fake news.”
But let’s not go there. It isn’t part of the reading.
Let’s instead focus on two aspects of Jesus’ answers to Pilate’s anxious stammering barrage of questions.
1. A Kingdom Not of this World
In the preliminaries, Pilate asked Jesus if he were king of the Jews. Jesus replied by strongly implying that Pilate was a tool of other people, without a thought of his own to his name (vs. 33-34).
(Pilate pretty well proves Jesus’ assessment when he releases Barabbas because the crowd demands it, and crucifies Jesus despite believing him innocent. But that’s after this passage.)
But when Pilate presses the question, asking just what Jesus did to get arrested, Jesus responds.
Of course Jesus responds in a very Jesus-like way. Instead of directly addressing Pilate’s questions, he brings up a seemingly unrelated point:
My kingdom is not from this world.” (John 18:36)
He doesn’t say he is a king. And he doesn’t say he’s done anything. But he does say he has a kingdom…
Christians have tried to make it seem as if Christ’s kingdom is actually here on earth.
- That includes medieval Catholic claims of papal power over heads of state, and his direct rule of territories.
- That includes Orthodox so intertwining of the Church with the state that when states make troubling decisions the Church appears to endorse them.
- That includes Protestant claims that America is in some sense a Christian state, and that this should somehow limit the rights of those committed to other religions.
- And ever since 19th century and the rise of classical liberalism, Christians have from time to time viewed their mission as bringing God’s kingdom on earth — even transmogrifying this into the views of 20th century evangelicalism.
But in the Bible Jesus doesn’t try to lay claim to an earthly kingdom, either when offered one by Satan or when pressed toward it by zealots among his followers.
Jesus told the earthly authority that his kingdom was absolutely not of this world. And for his followers, the point is that their primary allegiance, their citizenship beyond any earthly country, is in that unearthly kingdom.
2. Kingdom? Maybe There’s a Better Word
Jesus’ last speech in our text attempts to answer Pilate’s question about whether Jesus is, in fact, a king. He gives a fascinating answer — pure and distilled Gospel of John. Take a look:
You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37 NRSV)
What is this “not of this world” Kingdom? Well it isn’t about a political allegiance. The language of kingdoms and citizenship is only an approximation, the best attempt that human language can make to capture it.
But what is it?
Ultimately it is commitment to truth.
Q: Are you a king, Jesus?
A: I came to testify to the truth.
That’s his definition of the Kingdom. At least one of his definitions. He has a whole bunch of parables that also try to define it.
We Christians sometimes get kind of goofy about our commitment to the truth.
We proclaim that the Bible is God’s Word, and we treat it as a list of clear and definable propositions about all the things that we need to know. Then we end up proclaiming things adamantly as absolute truth while many people who actually study those things — like scientists, and historians, and archaeologists — come to very different conclusions.
Jesus wants us to be deeply committed to the Truth.
We can start with the simple and straightforward sense of accepting evidence. Like, rather than fooling ourselves based on ideological propaganda.
And in a rather different way, Jesus, also in John, says that he personally is the Truth.
Truth is a person, not a proposition.
Truth is a person, not a political party.
Truth is a person, not an ideology.
If you know him, seek to know him better, and to follow him wherever he leads.
And if you really belong to the truth, you’ll recognize his voice calling.
My Advent course on the ancient spiritual discipline of lectio divina (or “divine reading”) is open for registration! This Advent can be a time of real renewal
- approaching Scripture in a way that is prayerful
- practicing prayer in a way steeped in Scripture
There is even an option to use the materials as an adult education class for your church.
(The link to the book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an affiliate link.)