After writing about the two kingdoms our church celebrated the feast of Christ the King – the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. The problem with the concept of the two kingdoms is that we are so far removed from kings and realms that it often seems unreal, almost mythical. But the bigger problem is that the kingdom of which Jesus is king makes no sense to our concepts of sovereignty and power – and it didn’t make sense to Jesus’ contemporaries either.
The images of Christ as King don’t really work for a group of 21st century American disciples. There are two primary reasons for this and the first is that kingship, at least as the ancient world understood it, is something we rejected 240 years ago and is now relegated to quaint European customs or fairy tales. We may know something of the absolute monarchs of history but very few of our modern dictators come close to the atmosphere and authority of kingship as it was known long ago. To proclaim Christ as king therefore, seems a bit unreal, divorced from the substance of our daily life. We might call today the feast of Christ the benevolent dictator but aside from its awkwardness we only move from unreal to unpleasant. But even if we could grasp the ancient view of kingship and present Christ as king in a way that might appeal to our desire for order and for justice, we run into a second and more difficult problem.
The way that Jesus is presented as king in the Gospels made as little sense to the people of the first century as it does to the people of the 21st. For instance, let’s look at the three presentations of Jesus as king that is used in the three year cycles of the Revised Common Lectionary. On November 26 of this year we completed the first cycle, Year A, so I’ll push that one off until the end. If we jump ahead to the third year, Year C, we have a story of Jesus suffering a public and humiliating execution. Crucifixion was known for its cruelty, a slow tortuous death.
The Roman’s didn’t mess about. They had nailed a piece of wood to the cross that read, contemptuously, “This is the King of the Jews.” In doing this they mocked not only the one they were executing but the whole Jewish people. “Here is your king,” the Roman’s proclaimed, “and see what we can do to him.” Since it was more efficient to do multiple executions the Romans also crucified two criminals. In their agony one criminal calls out “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And that’s it for Year C. Jesus is nailed to a cross with a sign proclaiming “This is the king of the Jews.” The Roman soldiers mock him saying “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” A criminal pleads for Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.” None of this makes the slightest bit of sense to any person of that time with any idea of what being king means, particularly for any Jew hoping that God will send them a king to deliver them from Roman occupation.
Year B, the second cycle that began on December 3, doesn’t improve the situation. Here in John’s Gospel we come in on Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, interrogating Jesus. Without going into detail, Pilate despises the Jews and particularly the Jewish leadership. He suspects he is being used by these leaders to get rid of someone who is threatening their authority. However, the charge is that Jesus is claiming to be the king of the Jews and that, from a Roman point of view, is treason. His conversation with Jesus is a study in failure to communicate.
When asked point blank whether he is King, Jesus answers that “My kingship does not derive its authority from this world’s order of things. If it did, my men would have fought to keep me from being arrested by the Judeans. But my kingship does not come from here.”
In this response there are echoes of a rebuke that Jesus gave to his disciples when they were debating about what important positions they would hold when Jesus became king and restored nationhood to Israel: Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This brings us back to the reading from Year A of the cycle where we have something at last that sounds like kingship as we and the people of the first century might imagine it. Though all is not as it appears.
Take that opening phrase: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.” To us this theme is familiar only because we’ve heard the story before. But those who heard it for the first time also found it familiar. For any Jew who had hopes for liberation and vindication of Israel, this was a favorite scene from the Book of Daniel when the God of Israel overthrows the Gentile kingdoms. But the vision continues: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
So when Jesus begins his story his audience immediately connects with an image of final triumph. But his story takes a turn. There is indeed judgment and vindication. But the vindication is of the hungry and thirsty, the foreigner and the destitute, the sick and the prisoner. And the judgment is on those who failed to see that in serving those they would have been serving their king. It seems at last, that even the king-like story that Jesus tells is inextricably tied to his rebuke to his ambitious disciples.
We are faced then with a hard challenge. Our culture – our economic culture, our political culture, our entertainment culture, our social culture – the ocean of human values in which we all swim is a culture that has everything to do with Caesar’s approach to power and almost nothing to do with the kingdom that Jesus inaugurates. For 20 centuries Christians have tried to control it or use it only to find ourselves subverted by it and becoming what we were meant to heal. The only way to heal our culture is not to go to war with it but to subvert it by refusing dominance and instead offering service, to return blessing wherever we encounter cursing, care for those whom Jesus identifies in his story.
It is true that Jesus will indeed return and establish finally what he has begun in his apprentices. But it is also true that Jesus is already king and is even now subverting Caesar’s dominance by agents like us who heal, feed, protect and bless. Our goal is not to overthrow those in power but by our words and deeds, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to show them a more excellent way.