John 18: 33-37
"My Kingdom is not from this world"
I think we all have an image of the historical Jesus – a picture of what we think Jesus must have been like. For example, as a small child, I imagined a nice, quiet, gentle guy with like fourteen kids piled in his lap. But then in middle school Jesus started wearing a long white robe and got a little too attached to his pet sheep, which he always carried under his right arm. In high school I actually lost the ability to picture the historical Jesus at all because everyone kept telling me he wanted to live in my heart. But in college I joined a fraternity and Jesus came back as the great teacher whose greatest interest was condemning everything I thought was fun.
But my image of Jesus has changed. When I picture Jesus now I see a revolutionary – a revolutionary that was crucified as a threat to an empire and above whose cross was an inscription: THE KING OF THE JEWS.
Now, as many of you know today is Christ the King Sunday – a day the church sets aside to focus on Jesus as our King. And we’re going to do that but first we have to understand how kings functioned in Jesus’ world. Because kings and queens in today’s world are limited in power. They can express their wishes. They can pressure politicians. They have great symbolic value. But a king today isn’t really an absolute monarch. But in Jesus’ world, kings had absolute power and there was only one way to the throne – revolution.
And that’s what Pilate was scared of – that Jesus was leading a revolution that threatened his empire – which ironic if we consider the circumstances of John’s Gospel. You see, standing before Pilate is a peasant from a podunk town with a few followers that have all run away. And so in Pilate’s mind Jesus can’t be a king. It just doesn’t add up, but to be safe, Pilate asks him anyway – are you the King of the Jews – and this is what Jesus says. “My kingdom is not from this world.” And if I had to bet, these are the words that made Pilate wonder, and that make me wonder, what kind of king is Jesus? And what kind of revolution is he leading?
Our reading today comes from the Gospel of John, but it’s not like “Christ the King” is a big theme for most of John’s Gospel. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Christ is present from the beginning as a king. We recall Jesus’ first words in each of these Gospels. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” And as we read Matthew, Mark and Luke, we see that Jesus’ every miracle and parable and exorcism bear witness to a new Kingdom that Jesus is bringing, and because of that, to Jesus – our new king.
But the Gospel of John is different. Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry talking about the Kingdom of God. Instead, he begins by saying things like, “my hour has not yet come.” “I lay down my life for the sheep.” “When I’m lifted up, I’m going to draw the entire world to myself.” There’s not really a whole lot of talk about kings and kingdoms in the first seventeen chapter of John. But then we get to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion – and the words king and kingdom explode! And so if we’re going to understand John’s kingly image of Jesus we have to look at what follows today’s Gospel. And if we keep reading here’s what we find.
First, like all kings, Jesus receives royal garments: a robe and a crown. A purple robe is put on Jesus to mock him and a crown of thorns is then placed on his head. This is where John’s kingly image of Jesus begins – mockery and pain.
Second, Jesus receives royal homage and is presented to his subjects. Through a mixture of shouting and laughter, of spitting and striking, we hear the sarcastic refrain of the crowd – “Hail, King of the Jews.” John’s kingly image of Jesus continues: ridicule and injustice.
Third, Jesus embarks on a royal procession before taking his throne. And as he walks the road to Golgotha, the onlookers shout and clamor and mock him as they notice that this king is carrying his own throne upon his back. John’s kingly image heightens: loneliness and struggle.
Finally, Jesus is enthroned – not on a chair but on a cross. His glorious hour has finally come. The sheep will be spared and the King will be lifted up for the entire world to see. And displayed above this king’s throne in three different languages is a title. “King of the Jews.” John’s kingly image of Jesus is now complete: surrender and death.
Like I said, we all have an image of Jesus, which includes an image of what we think it means for Jesus to be our King. And like all kings, Christ is all-powerful. But how do we understand that power? You see, John may link Jesus’ kingship to his crucifixion, but John doesn’t portray Jesus as a victim. No, John gives us the image of a sovereign King – of a king that’s crucified because he chooses to be crucified.
Which means that Pilate was right. Jesus was a threat to the empire – just like he’s a threat to all the mini-kingdoms that you and I build and base our lives on. But as Christians, we believe that Christ’s kingship is good news as we proclaim that God’s kingdom will one day come on earth as it is in heaven – which means that violence and hate and death and arrogance and anything else that opposes God’s kingdom will one day come to an end because our crucified King will finally be running the show.
But in the meantime the cross-shaped revolution continues and today we’re reminded of the king that invites us to take up our cross. And here’s the image we’re given, the image I pray is shaping our lives – the image of a king that endures the shame of his own subjects and saves his sheep by dying for them; a King whose crown is of thorns and whose throne is a cross; a King that enters Jerusalem not on a chariot but on a donkey; not with an army but with a handful of fishermen; a King whose power is revealed not in the breaking of bones but in the breaking of bread. This we believe is the sovereign, all-powerful King of the universe.
And so blessed be God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and blessed be God's Kingdom now and forever. AMEN.