Sermon for November 21, 2021 – Feast of the Reign of Christ (Last Sunday After Pentecost)
Then Pilate entered the praetorium again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “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 … But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “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.”
Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” [John 18:32-38 NRSV]
This was the tense exchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, found in the 18th chapter of the Gospel of John, and it ends with Pilate’s question hanging in the air: “What is truth?” We have been pondering the answer for millennia.
The verbal sparring is interesting, especially considering the wide gulf of power between the Roman official and the country rabbi, but the key words are easy to pass over quickly: “My kingdom is not from this world.”
Jesus never called himself a king, he never aspired to that title or to the royal perks that go with it.
In fact, it wasn’t until the Book of Revelation, some 70 years later, that another John had a mysterious vision in which he saw a pale horse whose rider was named Faithful and True, and that rider –which readers have always assumed was Jesus himself – proceeded to kill all the kings of the earth and feed their flesh to the birds.
And this rider has “King of kings and Lord of lords” embroidered on his robe and tattooed on his thigh!
The only other use of these words is in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy [6:15]:
“…our Lord Jesus Christ, … who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”
In all that Paul wrote, this was the only time he used those words or referred to Jesus as a king.
Now, Paul had a habit of taunting the Roman emperor, Nero. Paul often referred to Jesus as “Lord” using the Greek word Kyrios. It’s the same word we use in our penitential prayer, “Lord, have mercy,” or Kyrie eleison.
What Paul was doing was throwing Caesar’s own words back at him. One of the titles that Nero gave himself was Kyrios, and Paul was daring to say, “the real Lord Kyrios is Jesus.” This defiance finally got him killed.
It wasn’t until the 5th century that Jesus – as Christ – was honored with three titles: priest, prophet, and king. This was a new way of thinking about him.
None of these three titles was ever used by Jesus to describe himself. He most often referred to himself as “the Son of Man,” a phrase used in the prophetic Book of Daniel [7:13], written two centuries before Christ.
The title, “Son of Man” in Hebrew is “ben-Adam” [בן-אדם] or “son of Adam.” By using this title, Jesus was saying, “I am a human being, just like all of you.” He never said, “I am a king, just like Caesar or Herod.”
Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. And that’s a good thing, given the track record of worldly kings. Jesus’ kingdom is a place of eternal light, peace, and intimate relationship with God.
Some theologians have suggested that we should drop the G in the word “kingdom” – which would leave “kin-dom.” Jesus came to testify to God’s love for everyone. He insisted that we are all sisters and brothers – even and especially the people we don’t particularly like. So, “kin-dom” rings true – we are all kin, all children of God – totally and equally.
And that’s what we celebrate today – not an absolute ruler, but one who made himself the servant of all, who suffered humiliation and torture, just as many of his brothers and sisters were suffering then and still suffer today.
There were kings and emperors all over the world – at the time of Jesus and all the way into the 20th century. Some of them were good (a few are even revered as saints). Many of them were mediocre (and some were quickly overthrown). And a lot of them were cruel, autocratic tyrants, whose people suffered and were killed for even the slightest hint of disagreement or rebellion.
In this country, we rid ourselves of King George III, although he was actually a weak man who suffered from several serious illnesses – the real enemy was Parliament and the power of the British Army.
So, why do we set aside a day in our church calendar to talk about “Christ the King?”
The back-story comes from the years immediately after World War One. By the end of “the war to end all wars” in 1918, several empires had fallen, either in battle or by being overthrown from within.
Kings were suddenly on shaky thrones, and the new governments that replaced them were not always better (think of Russia, Yugoslavia, and the terrible partition of the Middle East that we still suffer from today).
In 1918 Pope Pius XI wrote that, while there had been a cessation of hostilities, there was no true peace. He deplored the rise of class divisions and unbridled nationalism, and reminded people that true peace can only be found under Christ, the “Prince of Peace.”
And today kings and queens are mostly a curiosity – often the targets of harsh criticism and unkind focus in tabloids and chased by paparazzi.
So, again, why celebrate Christ as King? I think the key is right in front of us. “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus did not come to overthrow the subjugation of Israel by Rome. He did not come to take the places of earthly kings and potentates. He did not offer himself as anything more than one of us – the Son of Man.
And when he had the opportunity to proclaim himself king, he declared his humility, his humanity, and his love for God and all people.
So, let us crown him today with many crowns – not on a throne like Nero’s, but in our hearts, where – if we let him – he shall reign forever, and ever. Hallelujah!
Let us pray.
Jesus, you are the Holy One whose kingdom is not of this world, but of God’s eternal heaven. You came to us as the Son of Man to testify to the truth. You are a shepherd to the lost and the least. You are the Savior to all who are lost in sin and sorrow.
Teach us, we pray, to see your face among the vulnerable—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting those who are sick or in prison—so that we may share with you in God’s eternal Kingdom, prepared from the foundation of the world.
We pray in your Name, Jesus – our true and only King, who is coming indeed, to reign with justice, compassion, and love. Amen.