33 Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate 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?’ 36Jesus 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 to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate 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.’
Today we celebrate the climax and culmination of our faith, the victory of Christ over sin and death, the end of the rebellion against God’s rule, which began in the Garden of Eden and which ended on the Cross and now sees Christ reign as king over all things. But it is not an obvious kingship.
For many people, the fact that there is still suffering, violence and wrongdoing in the world is the clearest possible sign that Christ is not the king, perhaps even that God is not real. It’s almost taken for granted these days that if God exists at all, he clearly can’t be the sort of God who interacts with the world – he must be the sort of God who sits back, having lit the blue touch paper at the beginning of creation and now watches it all unfold, helpless to do anything about what happens.
And the truth is that it has never been easy to spot Jesus’s kingship. And that’s because it looks nothing like the kind of thing we usually associate with kingship.
Think, for example, of the episode presented before our eyes in today’s Gospel reading. As you may know, our Sunday Bible readings are chosen for us by the worldwide Church and what is the Church’s choice of reading to set Christ’s kingship before the world? Jesus on trial, about to be sentenced to execution for being a false king; for pretending to be what he is not. His kingship is fake news and the story is about to be extinguished. At least that’s how it looks if we look at it with worldly eyes.
And yet the fact that we’re here today reading this account tells us that the story was not extinguished, so there is clearly more going on here than meets the eye. But how?
A good king is powerful, but this Jesus is a pitiful wretch on trial, submitting meekly to royal forces far more powerful than him. Yet he utterly rejects their kind of kingship as fake. “My kingdom is not of this world” says Jesus. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to [protect] me… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
You see, this is a king who requires no army to preserve his kingship. His kingship is not enforced by violence, coercion, bulling or manipulation. And when you think of it, he couldn’t triumph over violence any other way. You can’t stop fighting by fighting. You can’t stop bullying or abuse by forcing people to do your will. It might look like weakness, but in the end those who live by the sword will die by the sword. The violence of this world has only a limited life-span because in the end it must destroy itself. But the love of Jesus, which looks like weakness, is in fact far more powerful than any of that. It will outlast it all – and it when it has done so, it will rule over all violence and hate, all abuse and exploitation, all destruction and death. Love will rule over it all! “My kingdom is not from here.” A good king is powerful and Jesus’s power makes every other kind of kingship look fake.
And a good king establishes law and order, but Jesus is the one on trial here. And yet we all know that there is no rule on earth that can make a perfect society, because there is no law on earth that can make people good. We need rules, of course, but if we only rely on rules, people can always find ways around it. And the irony is that the people who pay the most attention to the rules are the ones who most want to break them. I came across it many times in my legal career – people who knew exactly how to manipulate the legal system to get away with wrongdoing. In the end, goodness can only come when we obey the spirit of the law, not merely the letter of the law, when the law is written on our hearts. Goodness only comes when our hearts are set right, when we so long for goodness that we hunger and thirst for righteousness and train our hearts towards it. So no true king can rule with tyranny, with the imposition of his will. A king can only truly establish rule effectively by changing our hearts, by establishing within us a hunger for righteousness that changes the way we live. In the end, Rome, for all its power to enforce its laws by execution, is impotent. But Jesus, whose subjects follow him of their own freewill with heart and mind, is still honoured and obeyed 2,000 years later – and will be forever. Jesus’ rule makes every other attempt to establish rule look fake.
A good king upholds truth. And at face value, that is what Pilate is trying to do – carry out a fair trial to establish the truth. His line of questioning is quite insightful. He gives Jesus a fair chance to explain himself. But at the critical point, Jesus’ truth snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Jesus lets slip that he does, indeed, have a kingdom and Pilate thinks he’s got him: “So you are a king?” “You say that I am…” replies Jesus. With complete genius, Jesus turns his own line of questioning back on him and exposes the truth of what’s going on here. “You, Pilate” Jesus is saying, “can only put me to death if you somehow recognise me as a king. If you recognise that I, a Galilean carpenter with (as we’ve already established) no army is somehow a threat to your Caesar, the most powerful man alive with the biggest army ever assembled! And you’re right! I am. My kingship is a threat to him and to every worldly model of kingship! Because my kingdom is not from this world” Who’s the fake king? Who’s the real imposter? Who’s really on trial here? The closer you look, the more you see who is the true king and who is the real prisoner.
Yes, Jesus’s kingship is the real thing, but his kingdom is not from this world. So, our first duty as its citizens is to recognise Christ’s kingdom in every scene of life, however hard it is to spot it. Can we recognise how his true power is expressed in humility and love? The fact that Christ, even now, is suffering alongside his people rather than fighting is the surest sign of his power. And we, as his church, have been at our worst when we have lost confidence in that power and tried to fight for him – either literally, such as in the Crusades, or figuratively, when the Church abused the trust it once had in this country by exploiting its power in rather a bullying way. Christians have always found it hard to refrain from taking Jesus’s fights into our own hands. Yet the surest sign that we trust his kingship is not to fight, but to let his power and authority speak for itself. Jesus does not need our protection: “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to [protect] me…But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
And can we recognise how his rule is expressed in giving us freewill and self-control? The church has been at its least faithful when we’ve small minded and nit-picky, retreating to safe moralising in place of radical love. Jesus’ law and order is established not when we get moralistic, but when we acknowledge our own sin and weakness and open our hearts to him for healing. And his kingship is seen most clearly in contrast to the rulers of this world when sinners’ hearts are turned around, when their lives turn around with it and when they are accepted into fellowship, when the rest of the world would simply condemn.
And the fact that Christ’s words even now, stand as a beacon of truth is established every time there is slander and accusation, every time there is fake news. The very fact that we struggle to recognise Christ’s kingship in his meekness and humility, in his love and service, is the surest sign that our vision of kingship is flawed, mistaken, and fake.
But, the kingship of Christ is real. It is more powerful than any of the fake kings of this world. It is shown, not when we fight and become the dominant culture, but when we, in our weakness and humility, recognise in the face of slander and untruth, in the face of violence and persecution, in the face of injustice and suffering, a higher power that overcomes them all. Through our patient adherence to his will, through our prayers and worship, through our refusal to let our love and hope die, that there is a power greater than anything in this world, a king whose kingdom is not from this world.
Preached: – Morland 25 November 2018, feast of Christ the King