Christ the King, 25 November 2012
John 18.33-37

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 rather brutally.

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 him.

'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 voice):

'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 and all-powerful.

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 2012