Today in the church year is the festival of the reign of Christ – the Sunday on which we reflect on the biblical teaching that God has made Jesus Christ the Lord of all, and one day his reign will be acknowledged by every living creature on earth.
But today’s gospel reading could hardly present a stronger contrast to this idea. It comes from the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and in this reading Jesus doesn’t look very king-like at all. He stands before the representative of the Roman emperor, accused of being a criminal, a rebel against the Roman state. And yet, right in the middle of this passage, there’s a strange discussion about the nature of Jesus’ kingship. In John 18:36 Jesus says to Pontus Pilate, ‘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’.
Some older translations of the Bible phrased this verse slightly differently: they translated it as ‘my kingdom is not of this world’. It was a fairly small step from there to the understanding that what Jesus actually meant was ‘my kingdom is not in this world’. This misunderstanding has had a very bad influence on our beliefs about how we Christians should live our lives in this world.
Let me explain. Should our Christian belief only be about our own private conduct, or should it lead us to try to influence society as well? Does it only have to do with us avoiding bad habits, or does it also have to do with how we vote, and the sorts of political causes we get involved in? Is being a Christian only about having a good marriage and a strong family life, or is it also about trying to make a difference in the lives of the poor and needy, both close at hand and far away? Should Christians restrict themselves to the alleviation of human suffering, or should we also be working to change political and economic structures that cause human suffering?
Or, to put the question another way, is the Christian movement meant to be in any way a danger to the way of life of society around it? After all, Jesus was obviously perceived to be a danger to the society of his day; the Jewish authorities were so disturbed about him that they wanted to get rid of him by execution, and they didn’t normally get that disturbed about travelling preachers who roamed the countryside telling people to be nice to each other! So if Jesus’ message was only to do with us becoming better people individually – if ‘love your neighbour’ only applied to our private relationships, and not to our public and political and economic life as well – why was Jesus seen to be such a threat by the authorities of his day? And why is it that totalitarian governments throughout history have almost always tried to either get rid of religion altogether, or to turn it into a state church under the strict control of the governing authorities?
You see, people who think Jesus meant that his kingdom is not in this world at all will then often go on to say that his kingship is not here and now, but in some other place, or some other time. And this means that right here, in this world we live in right now, we don’t actually have to take much notice of what he says as our king. This world is the kingdom of darkness and evil, and we have to play by the rules of darkness and evil in order to survive here. But one day we’ll die and go to heaven, and that’s when we’ll live in Jesus’ kingdom, where his rules operate. Or, perhaps, one day Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will then be in force and will last forever. But it’s not here yet; we still wait for it and are looking forward to it, but we can’t have it right now, and we can’t live right now as if it had already arrived.
This has had a drastic effect on the way people understand what we’re supposed to do with the commands of Jesus. We all know that Jesus gives us some pretty demanding instructions. He tells us that not only are we not to murder people, but we aren’t even to hate them or get angry with them. Not only are we not to commit adultery, we’re not even to lust after someone else. We’re to be absolutely truthful at all times, to love not just our friends and neighbours but even our enemies, to turn the other cheek rather than retaliate when we’re attacked, and to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. He told his disciples not to accumulate large bank accounts but to give their possessions to the poor and needy. He said that if we have two of something and we see that our brother or sister has none, we’re to take our extra and give to the one who needs it.
That’s demanding enough, but there’s more. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel Jesus gives us a kingdom manifesto. He stands up in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth and reads these words from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).
Jesus was quoting from Isaiah 61, which was commonly understood in his day to be an allusion to the Old Testament law of Jubilee. This law stated that every fifty years all debts were to be forgiven, all slaves were to be set free, and all property was to revert to its original owners so that no one would accumulate vast amounts of wealth at the expense of others. Human nature being what it is, there is no evidence that the people of Israel ever actually obeyed this commandment; it was too much of a threat to the power of those who profited from keeping people in debt, or in slavery, or in poverty. But after Jesus read those words from Isaiah, Luke tells us that he said to the people in the synagogue, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v.21). In other words, ‘Now is the time to put the year of Jubilee into practice. Now is the time to set the captives free, to forgive debts, to live in equality and justice as God commanded us in the Law of Moses’.
So it seems pretty clear to me that Jesus could not possibly have been saying, “My kingdom is not in this world”. What he said was ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, or, as our NRSV has it, ‘My kingdom is not from this world’. And he goes on to explain what he means: ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews’. In other words, Jesus’ kingdom comes from another place and it has a different character than the kingdoms we know in this world. In the kingdoms of the world, citizens of one country fight to protect their king, but Jesus’ followers were forbidden from fighting to protect him, because violence is a characteristic of earthly kingdoms and not of Jesus’ kingdom.
So we might ask ourselves, how is Jesus’ kingdom different from the kingdoms of this world? And fortunately for us, there is plenty of New Testament teaching to help us answer that question.
In Mark chapter 10 we read that two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, came with a request for him; they said, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’ (Mark 10:37). In other words, they thought Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to be crowned as an earthly ruler and they wanted him to give them the top jobs in his cabinet! But Jesus rebuked them for their misunderstanding: he wasn’t about to be seated on a throne but nailed to a cross, and the ones who would be on his right and his left weren’t his cabinet ministers, but the two thieves who were crucified with him. And then Jesus called all the disciples together and said this to them:
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
Earthly kingdoms are based on hierarchy and power structures; it’s the same whether we’re talking about monarchies and tyrannies or democratically elected governments. The higher your position of authority, the more power you have and the more people are working for you and serving you. But this is not the way Jesus worked when he came as our king. He was the servant of all, healing the sick and caring for the needy, washing the feet of his disciples and willingly giving his life to save us. And this is what his kingdom is like: it’s been called an ‘upside down kingdom’, in which there are no distinctions based on race or gender or power or wealth, but all freely serve one another in love. And as followers of Jesus whose kingdom is not from this world, you and I are called to live on this basis now, even though the world around us does not.
That’s the first thing: Jesus’ kingdom is not based on hierarchy and power structures, but on love and service to others. Secondly, we go to the words of Jesus in our gospel for today, where he explains the difference between his kingdom and the kingdoms of the world. He says, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36). Worldly kingdoms are protected by military power, and their soldiers fight and give their lives to protect their monarchs. We know that, in fact, one of Jesus’ followers did attempt to do this; in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested, Peter drew a sword and slashed at one of the high priest’s servants, cutting off his ear. But Jesus rebuked him: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). The early Church Father Tertullian, writing in about 200 A.D., commented on this story and said, ‘The Lord, in disarming Peter, also disarmed every soldier’.
So earthly kingdoms are kept in place by power and violence, but Jesus’ kingdom is not; it’s not based on the love of power but on the power of love. His followers are not called to fight their enemies but to love them, to do good to them and to bless them, just as God pours out his love and blessings on good and bad alike.
So Jesus’ kingdom is not based on hierarchy and power structures, but on love and service to others. Secondly, it doesn’t advance by violence and power, but by reaching out even to enemies and caring for them.
Thirdly, we think of one of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Here he tells us that when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will gather the nations before him and separate them into two groups as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He’ll turn to the one group, the sheep, and say to them, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”. Then the righteous will ask him, “Lord, we don’t remember that! When did we do all these things for you?” And the King will reply, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me” (see Matthew 25:31-46).
When the Olympic Games came to Atlanta, Georgia in 1996, the homeless were forcibly removed from the city before the games began. This tells you how the poor and needy are so often seen in the world today: they are an embarrassment, or a nuisance. But in the Kingdom of Jesus, the poor and needy are not an embarrassment but an opportunity to serve the king. When you care for someone who is in need, you are really caring for the King himself. When you clothe a needy person you are putting royal robes on the King; when you feed a hungry person you are contributing to the King’s banquet. You don’t serve this King by lavishing wealth and pageantry on him; you serve him by loving the people he loves.
My brothers and sisters, today we proclaim our faith that Jesus is Lord – that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed King, and one day his Kingdom will be acknowledged by every living creature. But we don’t have to wait until that day to live as his subjects, because he came into Galilee at the beginning of his ministry saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). To ‘repent’ means to turn away from our sins and from our previous allegiances and to give ourselves in joyful obedience to God’s anointed king. It means that instead of living according to the pattern we’ve received from earthly kingdoms in the past, we look forward to the future when God’s Kingdom will be seen in all its fullness, and we live like that now, as a sign to the people around us of the coming of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus’ Kingdom is not from this world, but it is definitely in this world, right now, today. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). So let us live as faithful followers of Jesus our King, by putting his teaching into practice and working for the spread of his Kingdom in the midst of the world he came to save. Amen.