Reign of Christ Sunday
This Sunday is Reign of Christ Sunday, also called Christ the King Sunday. I didn’t know what that even was until recently, having never hard it explicitly talked about before. It turns out, Reign of Christ Sunday became a thing in the aftermath of World War I… Pope Pius the 11th noted that despite armistice, they hadn’t achieved true peace.
Class divisions and nationalism were on the rise, and he believed that true peace could only be found under the Kingship of Christ as "Prince of Peace". He wrote,"for Jesus Christ reigns over the minds of individuals by His teachings, in their hearts by His love, in each one's life by the living according to His law and the imitating of His example."
Mindful of the ways that human kingship has left a mark on the world, Reign of Christ Sunday is about “reclaiming this Sunday as a celebration that combines the great themes of God’s sovereignty in our lives and in the life of the world that God loves” (Kathryn Matthews).
The lectionary for this this final Sunday of the liturgical year, before we start a new year with Advent, fittingly but jarringly brings us to the crucifixion. Endings and beginnings, all jumbled up, a life cut short just as it was getting started, an ending resurrected into a new beginning for the world.
This gospel passage is a snippet of conversation between Jesus and Pilate, in the middle of Jesus’ trial for insurrection. So what’s going on here? We’ve got a conversation between Jesus, the cosmological “king of the Jews” and Pilate, the local governor who works for the Empire and in tandem with Herod, the literal, political, “King of the Jews”.
According to John’s Gospel, by the time this conversation happens, Pilate has gone back and forth several times, trying to navigate the political landscape in a way that will protect his conscience and his position. We already know which one he chooses to prioritize and which one he sacrifices in exchange.
Pilate may have wondering, if he doesn’t keep the local leaders and power players happy, will he lose his job? And, who is this Jesus man to them, anyway? Who is this man to him, Pilate? Who does this man think he is? Is he an insurrectionist looking to mount a primary challenge to Herod from the left? Will he attempt to wrest control of Judea from the Emperor? Is he just some random peasant with delusions of grandeur who got on the wrong side of the Religious Authorities?
I can hear the tone of a weary, jaded mid-level career politician (you know, the kind who would never admit they had considered running for presidency because they knew their campaign would’ve never gotten off the ground in the first place, the kind who dismisses new ideas, new hopes, and enthusiasm as ‘naïve’)…I can hear that tone as Pilate asks Jesus sarcastically, “What is truth?”
You see, Pilate knows or has learnt that in this world, in politics, truth doesn’t reign. In Pilate’s world, truth can be twisted, manipulated, fabricated; it can be ignored or dismissed…Truth ceased to have any power save that of a rhetorical tool used to uphold the status quo… “What is Truth,” Pilate asks… “truth is fake news”.
Jesus, ever the good shepherd, sees Pilate and offers him an answer. Like sheep that know the voice of their shepherd, Jesus explains that those who belong to the truth hear his voice. Now, the reading ends here, but we know that in the story, Pilate does not hear the voice of this shepherd, instead lured away by the seductive promises of Empire. Convinced that acquitting Jesus could be construed as abandoning his allegiance to the Emperor, Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified.
Now, I want to be really clear when talking about this scene. I want to be clear about the fact that this text was written at a time when both Christian and Jewish communities alike lived in fear of the wrath of the Empire. Many have used this text to prop up anti-Semitism, framing Pilate as an almost-convert, who had his hands tied, who wanted nothing to do with condemning Jesus and wouldn’t have, had the Jewish Religious Authorities not called so insistently for Jesus’ execution.
And if you lived in the constant fear that the occupying power could easily and without hesitation destroy your community, you’d be hesitant to openly blame them for the death of your leader. “Oh no, we don’t blame Pontius, he tried to free Jesus, he washed his hands of the whole ordeal, remember? No, it was our fault! Nothing to see here…I promise….”
Now that that contextual disclaimer is in place, I do want to take a look at how this text paints a couple pictures of how we get caught between Empire, and Kingdom.
In the words of Andrew Prior, “empire is an attempt to live in this world, to create order of chaos, and it fails. We are called to something deeper and wiser.”
The world we live in, this world of Empire and Pilate and weary, jaded politicians, is too focused on whether or not Jesus is a King, in the wealth and power and arbitrary deference sense of the word…it’s trying to shoehorn this wandering wonderful weirdo into our own construct of leadership and power and worldview and kingdom.
But Jesus’ kingdom isn’t one of wealth or might or thugs or filibusters…Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It’s an entirely different construct. As United Methodist Pastor Beth Quick says, “It’s not about the fact that Jesus is King, but abut the fact that Jesus is King…do you hear the difference?”
We live in a world of Empire, both in our geopolitics and in our hearts. Power, wealth, image, status, politics, righteous indignation, getting the last word, all these things compete for our loyalty. And that’s why, in the words of theologian Robert Bryant, “Jesus rule and kingdom are profoundly subversive to any worldly authority that demands allegiance over loyalty to God.” If we belong to the truth, we recognize and hear Jesus’ call.
But, ya know, that doesn’t mean that we’re always able to follow that call, and resist the Empire’s demand for tribute, and its promise of imperial reward. We’re human, and we live in a murky world, a world where politicians lament “what is truth”, a world where many of us benefit from the systems of Empire, at least in an earthly way.
Theologian Andrew Prior confesses in his blog Blooming Cactus, “I have every sympathy with Pilate. While the stakes of my choices do not appear to be quite so high, I go back and forth between the church and the outside world about seven times every day, trying to negotiate the strange and incomprehensible challenges of modern life. I live in the world, but not always of it, yet never completely out of it either.
I call Jesus my Savior, and vote my conscience. I value much that is modern, being trained in psychology, valuing scientific advances, and I may even get a new IPhone. But why does someone in China working for Foxcon have to be ground into dust for me to get my phone? The values of my faith in Jesus do not synchronize with the surrounding culture.”
It’s a murky world, but confessing that Christ is king, declaring in Pope Pius the elevenths’ words, that “Jesus Christ reigns over the minds of individuals by His teachings, in their hearts by His love, in each one's life by the living according to His law and the imitating of His example."…confessing that, makes it just that much easier to hear Jesus’ voice and follow his lead.
It’s kinda like this piece of advice I read once, I think it was in Psychology Today, or some similar publication…it said that when you’re trying to change a behavior, for example, say you want to cut back on your junk food intake, instead of framing it as ‘I can’t eat that’, you say “I don’t eat that” … It reframes it as part of who you are, part of your values, rather than a restriction that is placed on you. Instead of “I can’t invest in gun manufacturers or fossil fuel”, it’s “I don’t invest in gun manufacturers or fossil fuel”
And it’s uncomfortable sometimes, when we’re suddenly able to see so clearly how a choice we typically have no trouble making may actually conflict with our values and get in the way of our relationship with God. But the rewards of choosing to prioritize our relationship with God, of choosing to step more boldly into the Kingdom that is “not of this world,” reaps rewards beyond that which the likes of Empire could ever offer or even comprehend.
Kent lent me a book called “Jesus for President,” – and it’s a really interesting notion. What if our government enshrined the beatitudes the way it so often enshrines the ten commandments? What if the doorways to the Pentagon were hung with signs announcing, “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God”.
What if each day, right before the ringing of the opening bell at the stock exchange, the words of Jesus were called out, “you cannot serve both God and money”? What if our courtrooms were emblazoned with the words “blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy”? Jesus for President. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, remember?
If we all voted for Jesus as a write-in candidate on the ballot, do we think he’d show up at the inauguration ceremony? Would Jesus really accept earthly power, conform to our human notions of what’s important? As the authors of Jesus for President write, “Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world because it refuses power, pledges a different allegiance, and lives love” …it lives love.
They go on to say, that it’s ultimately “not about how we should vote but about how we should live. The decision we make in each future election is no more important than how we vote every day. We vote every day for companies, for people, and we put money toward “campaigns”. We need to think of the faces behind the scenes. Who are the masters and Caesars that we pledge allegiance to by the way we live and through the things we put our trust in? We vote every day with our feet, our hands, our lips, and our wallets.”
Next Sunday we begin a sacred time of preparation, of watching and of waiting. We will be preparing to welcome Christ, the new-born King into our lives once again. We will retell ancient stories of how the whole world changed in a matter of days, of how suddenly, a little peasant baby struck fear into the heart of Empire. At the end of his trial, Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion. Just three days later, the whole world changed with the discovery of an empty tomb. While we cried out “Alleluia, he is risen,” the Empire cried out “oh no, he’s back!”
The Roman Empire has fallen, we live in a democracy that proclaims that “all are created equal”, we have habeas corpus and a bill of rights and a welfare system..and yet as Woody Guthrie said, “if Jesus preached in New York what he preached in Galilee, we’d lay him in his grave again” You see, what Jesus for President reminded me is that “It may take only a few days to get out of the empire, but it takes an entire lifetime to get the empire out of us” (Claiborne & Haw).
Exorcising the Empire is a lifelong project, and it’s often a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of deal. But our path is made clearer when we look to the light. We hear the voice of our shepherd when we attune our hearts to God’s truth. With Christ as our king, we begin to enact the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.