Christ the King, 25 November 2012
When I speak to the children in school about Jesus as king, I call him
the upside-down king, because Jesus's kind of kingship turns everything
on its head. And here, on the great feast day when we celebrate Jesus'
kingship over all creation, we are presented with an image of a young
man on trial, standing powerless before a man who (within his local area
at least) wields the entire power of the mighty Roman Empire. The man
we call "King" today is like a small gnat, about to be stamped
on by the sturdy boot of an enormous giant.
Pontius Pilate knew all about kings. In the ancient world they weren't
like our benevolent constitutional monarchy. Our Queen is subject to the
rule of law, governs through Parliament and, by protocol, exercises very
few of her powers. The kings of the ancient world answered to no-one.
They were dictators. They became kings either by being born the heir of
a king or through violent and bloody revolution. And they held on to their
crowns by wiping out all possible rival claims to their throne - usually
And as Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, the memories of plenty would-be
Jewish kings would have been haunting their encounter. Firstly, there
were the successful attempts. Around 160 years earlier, the great Jewish
hero, Judas Maccabaeus had lead a successful revolution against the Greek
Seleucid dictator, Antioches Epiphanes IV (a name that might not mean
a great deal to us, but still sends shivers down the spine in Jerusalem).
Judas had given Israel a brief period of autonomous rule and had been
crowned king, though it wasn't long before his resistance was brought
to a bloody end by the Romans.
Then there was King Herod the Great. He had come to power by helping
the Romans in a campaign against the Parthians and had been rewarded by
the Romans with the title "King of the Jews", even though he
was not a descendant of David and had little real authority.
But there were also a great many unsuccessful kings of the Jews - desperate
men labouring under the delusion that, with a rabble of an army, they
could overthrow mighty Roman Empire. Pontius Pilate would have encountered
quite a few of these, and their end was Crucifixion.
But Jesus must have been the most pitiful example of the species. Unarmed
and without even an army (most of his followers were women for goodness
sake - General Synod take note!) Even when Peter had tried some token
resistance (recorded a few verses earlier), Jesus had stopped him. Jesus
never had any chance as a would-be king. It is unlikely that Pilate had
ever seen a more hopeless, deluded case. Jesus must have cut a contemptible
figure and we can see something of that in the way that Pilate treats
'Are you the King of the Jews?'
It's such a silly question in the circumstances that it suggests that
Pilate considered Jesus insanely deluded and he was just trying to prompt
Jesus to make the ludicrous claim out loud, for their general amusement.
But suddenly Pilate gets a taste of Jesus' unique way of answering questions:
by asking some rather probing questions of his own.
'Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?'
That is downright insulting. It shows up that Pilate's appearance of
power is a facade. He is just being used as a puppet by his own subjects
and will have to act in the way that they determine. No wonder Pilate
was riled. He retorted (and you can almost hear the irritation in his
'I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed
you over to me. What have you done?'
And this is where we get to the nub of the matter. Jesus replies:
'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.'
Aha! Pilate pounces:
'So you are a king?'
But there's no way through there either:
'You say that I am a king.'
This interview is not going the way Pilate had planned. And Pilate, in
his haste to get it back on track, misses the key phrase that Jesus speaks:
'My kingdom is not from this world.'
Now, Jesus is not saying that his kingdom is not 'of' this world - some
other-worldly purely spiritual kingdom. What he means is that his kingdom
is not the sort of thing that has its origins in this world. Nothing in
this world can create the sort of kingdom that he's bringing. Yes, this
world is the place where his kingdom will be established (and there's
nothing that Pilate can do to stop that, for all his armies and crosses),
but it doesn't' come from here. It comes from heaven - the kingdom of
heaven being established 'on earth as it is in heaven'.
So in that small phrase, 'My kingdom is not from this world', we see
something of the 'truth' that Jesus said he had come to bring. His kingdom
will not be established by the ways and means of this world - no bloodshed,
no violent oppression, no coercion, no royal privilege. In fact, it is
not established by the wielding of any power at all, but through sacrifice,
through passionate love freely given and through love sought only upon
terms of complete freedom of choice. That love is not natural to this
world of power, of dog eat dog, of survival of the fittest.
And that is how Jesus reigns still. We may see signs of his majesty everywhere
in his creation, but he still refuses to wield power against our will.
Instead, he deals with us purely to the terms of freewill and love.
And yet how powerful, how compelling is that love? "Who would not
love thee, loving us so dearly?" as the Christmas Carol puts it.
It is a love that has transformed every human soul to have experienced
it (mine included) and given us a power over evil, over hatred, over death
and over everything of this world - a power that no army can stop (and
plenty of them have tried!)
Jesus' kingdom is established each time a human soul like you or me accepts
his love and begin to live according to his upside-down kingship, his
subversive values - loving our enemies, praying for those who hate us,
forgiving those who offend us, not fearing those who would kill us, believing
despite those who doubt, caring for those who are indifferent, giving
to those who only ever take. Each little act is another brick in the edifice
of the great kingdom that no power on this earth can stop, a kingdom that
looks so frail and vulnerable, so hopeless and contemptible, yet is eternal
But the key for us who would build such a kingdom with such a king rests
again in those words that Pilate overlooked in his hasted to condemn:
'My Kingdom is not from this world'.
So often in church, we try to build God's kingdom through purely worldly
means, as though it were a purely human enterprise. It's understandable
of course. We're children of this world and we find it easier to deal
with the things of this world - money, buildings, institutions, events.
And the things of heaven are strange to us: prayer, worship, listening
to God's word, living out those subversive values. But worldly things
won't lead us to the kingdom. That's why I always insist that we begin
PCC meetings with worship - turning our attention away from the things
of this world to the things of heaven, from where this kingdom is coming.
Now I know that people sometimes find that strange. And Jesus knows that
the things of his kingdom are strange to us - they're not from this world
and that's why he came, to bring us the truth, to introduce us to a kingdom
that this world couldn't conceive by itself.
So it's no surprise to Jesus that we find it difficult. But he does present
us with the same challenge he did to Pilate. Nothing in this world will
lead us to his kingdom, whether it be armies and privilege or whether
it be money, buildings and institutions. Those things just lead to condemnation,
to tyranny (of one type or another) and ultimately to nothingness, because
however powerful and solid they appear, they are a dead end. They won't
last and they won't prevent Jesus' advancing kingdom of love and grace.
If we want to build that kingdom, if we want to crown this man
our king and be free from the tyranny of this world, we have to look to
the things of heaven - the origin of the things of his kingdom: prayer,
love of his word and loving obedience of it, care for his world and his
children, forgiving and seeking forgiveness, keeping the faith even when
we doubt, even when it looks hopeless, vulnerable and contemptible.
And if we choose to do that, his kingdom, his wonderful subversive, upside
down kingdom of love and grace and freedom will become a reality, here
and now and forever and ever, Amen.
Preached: Cliburn, Great Strickland, Bolton 25 November