Yr B ~ Reign of Christ ~ John 18:33-38a
The church liturgical year does not follow the same calendar as the solar year, so while there’s still a month and a bit to go in that one, a brand new church year starts next Sunday with the season of Advent, and that makes today the last Sunday in the liturgical year. This Sunday has a variety of names.
I recently learned of an English tradition that called it “Stir Up Sunday” from a reading from Hebrews that speaks of provoking us to faith – where the word provoke in Greek means to be stirred to action – and from a collect (a prayer) in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer that said “stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.”
For us though, the most common thing is to call it “Christ the King” Sunday, or “Reign of Christ” Sunday.
I really like the language and imagery of ‘kingdom’ and ‘reign’, although I know some folks have issues with it. I’ll dive into that in a few minutes.
It’s fallen out of practice now, but up until a few decades ago, in the Methodist and Presbyterian traditions (both of which are a significant part of our United Church DNA), they called this season at the end of the Christian year Kingdomtide.
I love that!
The season of Easter is known as Eastertide – the season after Advent is technically called Christmastide – and although almost no one uses that beautiful language I really like it. The suffix –tide means a season of something.
A season in which one ponders the bigger meanings of the thing.
It reminds us that Easter and Christmas aren’t just one-off, one-day celebrations.
So too with this idea of Kingdomtide.
A liturgical season in which we’d focus on and delve into this deep imagery and meaning of the Kingdom of God.
How great would that be!
So in honour of the tradition of Kingdomtide, I will speak deeply of the kingdom today.
Why? Because Jesus did! In fact, he did it a lot!
Our scripture reading today explores a dramatic encounter between Pilate, who was the Roman governor, and Jesus. It’s a reading we usually associate with Holy Week because that’s the context in which it takes place, but because it speaks so much of the Kingdom of God it’s perfectly appropriate for this last Sunday of Kingdomtide!
Let’s have a look and see if I can stir you up!
Right off the bat it’s a curious reading because it’s difficult to imagine the Roman governor of the region bothering to take even one minute out of his day to talk to a Jewish peasant.
But Jesus seems to have caused enough of a stir – it’s stir up Sunday, after all – to warrant an audience.
Pilate opens with a weird question. “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Pilate knew full well that Herod was the Jewish king, so on one level this is as weird as me asking you, “So, are you the Prime Minister of Canada?” But it’s not a question about facts – it’s about perceptions!
Jesus wonders if Pilate is actually asking on his own or because the Jewish leaders prompted him.
I think Jesus is trying to gauge whether Pilate is ready for the deep philosophical journey Jesus is about to take him on.
He’s not. But Jesus had to try.
Pilate is confused as to why Jesus is in trouble, so he asks Jesus “what have you done to make your own people so angry with you that they’d turn you over to us?”
At first it seems like Jesus is avoiding the question with his answer, but he’s actually sharing a great truth with Pilate.
It’s not so much a ‘this or that’ which Jesus did that ran him afoul of the authorities.
It’s that he’s playing on an entirely different level, and those in power don’t like it – because it fundamentally threatens them – and now it’s going to fundamentally threaten Pilate.
Jesus says, John 18:36 “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
World in Greek is cosmos, but when we hear that we think of the stars and galaxies out there.
That’s not what it means in Greek. It means the ordered system of worldly affairs.
It means the world as we know it; the ways in which this world typically works.
Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from, does not come out of, is not done by the means of the usual ordered system of how things work.”
If it was, then the way things usually work when a leader is taken prisoner is that their followers fight to get them back.
But the kingdom Jesus is about is a different kind of kingdom – it’s not “from here” – it doesn’t abide by our ways of thinking things work.
What did Jesus do to get handed over?
He dared to reveal that the way the world works is all wrong, and that God’s dream for the world, God’s loving, harmonious way, turns the world’s usual order inside out and upside down.
But that’s too much for Pilate to understand at this point.
All he hears is Jesus identify himself with a kingdom.
Verse 37, Pilate says, “So you are a king.”
Remember, there were no punctuation marks in the ancient scriptures.
Some bibles put it as a question. “So, you are a king?”
Others render it as a statement, “So, you are a king!”
It works both ways. I like it as a statement.
Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, [for what?] to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
To testify or bear witness to the truth. Now, that word truth is complex too.
Our modern ears tend to hear it as true or false. Truth is true, factual, correct, and if it isn’t true it’s false, not factual, incorrect.
But the way Jesus means it is much richer than that. It’s not merely the truthfulness of an idea – it’s about reality, sincerity, truth in the moral sphere, divine truth revealed to humanity. I came to bear witness to the truth – I came to bear witness to “reality” as in the opposite of illusion.
Religion and spirituality are not about right or wrong ideas – it’s about reality and illusion.
And the thing that bakes most people’s brains is that the way we generally experience the world working is actually the illusion, and the thing we can’t see is actually the reality.
God’s presence, God’s power, God’s love, God’s compassion, God’s Spirit, this is the really real.
This is the stuff that our typical ways of interacting blind us to as we rush from thing to thing and chase after the ways of the world.
Jesus is not primarily teaching a set of ethical principles that if we all followed the world would be a more pleasant place.
I mean, that’s true, but what Jesus is really teaching is for us to learn to notice – to see the really real – to have the kingdom of God, which is all around us everywhere and always, become our actual lived reality.
To pull back the curtain and reveal the really real.
That is what Jesus tells Pilate he is here to testify to – reality.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
Pilate doesn’t get it. John 18:38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
Literally, what is reality?
A pretty existential question!
And existential questions can deeply unsettle us – especially if they reveal something deeply flawed about us and our perception of the world.
What is truth? What is reality?
What is this kingdom that Jesus represents?
And here is where we sometimes stub our toes.
That word kingdom in today’s language is a real barrier for some folks.
It sounds like the very kind of power that Jesus seems to argue against!
It is easily associated with patriarchy, or triumphalism, or empire.
So instead, some church folks have taken to using the word “kin-dom” as an alternate to kingdom.
Kin gives the image of family.
We, the members and friends of Faith United are kin.
We, the body of Christ, the people of God, Christians all over regardless of denomination or creed, are kin.
My new favourite way to speak of the body of Christ is to call us kindred in Christ.
It’s less binary and more inclusive than brothers and sisters. Kindred.
Our indigenous friends teach us that one of their core ways to speak of people is to say “all my relations”.
That’s what’s on our United Church crest now down in the lower right area – ah-gway-nyah-day-day-wah-nay-ren…
All my relations. Kindred in Christ.
We are definitely kin. Bound by a relationship.
And in that relationship all are meant to be equally valued, and respected, and loved.
Paul says in Galatians 3:28 “(In Christ) there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
This is the beautiful image of the kin-dom of God. There is much to love about that image.
Kin is egalitarian. Horizontal. Non-hierarchical.
And now I’d like to press us to consider another level.
If the kin-dom is flat, where is Jesus in that?
It’s confusing because in John 15:15 Jesus himself says that we’re not his servants but we should view him as our friend, and yet we know deep down that we are not really his equal.
His worldview, his ethics, his spirituality – he’s just simply on another level.
Does Jesus have authority for us?
Is there a vertical aspect to our relationship even though we’re friends?
The earliest confession of faith in Christianity was just 3 words long – Jesus is Lord.
That means Jesus is master, Jesus has authority, Jesus is my way, Jesus is the one I defer to, Jesus is the one who reigns in me.
I don’t think you can have a faith in Jesus and God and Spirit if you don’t acknowledge that there’s Something higher than you and that Something has power.
It’s benevolent, loving, power-with, but it’s still power.
Kin-doms are great as long as we’re just talking about how we interact with one another.
But for me, if you bring God into it – and that’s why we’re here, to help us realize that God’s already the really real heart of it all – then there has to be a “vertical”, and I’m 100% fine with that.
The Kingdom of God has a king – and it ain’t me!
But, sadly, we’re more like Pilate and the Jewish leaders than we care to admit.
We’re confused by the truth, the reality that Jesus is teaching about.
And the way we live and move in the world tends to be, whether we intend it or not, and whether we like it or not, largely comprised of and more in tune with the ways of the world than the ways of God. That’s just human nature.
So Jesus paints us a picture of a remarkably different worldview.
A worldview that isn’t like the Jewish leaders hold – they’ve found themselves in an impossible situation with imperial Rome holding all the power so they’ve capitulated and end up being utterly under Rome’s power. Herod is King of the Jews, but he’s nothing but a puppet king.
And Jesus’ kingdom worldview isn’t like the Romans hold either.
Might is right. Pilate is the one with all the power.
He carries the power of the authority of the Roman Empire.
He is nothing less than Caesar’s representative in the region.
He is the embodiment of political power, the power of empire, power-over others. And he wields it!
People with power tend to use it – and most often they use it for selfish ends, using power to conquer or divide because it benefits them. That kind of power-over is the opposite of the Kingdom of God which is all about power-with.
Pilate asks, “What have you done, Jesus?”
“Oh, nothing much. Just completely pulled the rug out from under you, and subverted your entire worldview! That’s all!”
Such things must be supressed – if you’re among those with all the power.
What kind of king is Jesus?
He’s the kind of king that upsets and undermines both the Jewish and Roman leaders.
And what kind of kingdom is this Kingdom of God?
It’s the kind of kingdom that we as people of faith are utterly drawn to, long for, and strive to make known as we’ve begun to know it.
It’s a kingdom of love, and justice, and compassion.
Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth (to reality, to the Kingdom of God) listens to my voice.”
And it’s far more than just a kin-dom, because at the heart of it is Something indescribably, incomprehensibly, lovingly powerful and great.
Something that is truth.
Something that is really real.
Something that enfolds us, inspires us, empowers us, and propels us into loving action in its name.
Pondering such things is what Kingdomtide is all about.
I sincerely hope this stirs you up!