Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

My kingdom is not of this world

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Christus Rex

Christus Rex

This coming Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. I’m going to give a 3-minute wonder at the BCP communion (on Jeremiah 23.5–8 & John 6.5–14). In an emergency, I may have to preach at the parish eucharist also (on Daniel 7.9–10, 13–14; Revelation 1.4b–8 & John 18.33b–37), which is most definitely Christ the King.

I expect many sermons will fail to get across what ‘Christ is king’ means. In Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary, which draws to a close this coming week, we have John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate (or is Jesus putting Pilate on trial?). The key phrase in understanding Jesus as king here is his words, “My kingdom is not of this world” (ἡ βασίλεια ἡ ἐμὴ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου, hē basileia hē emē ouk estin ek tou kosmou toutou). Again there is the danger of misunderstanding the line to think he is talking about heaven. That interpretation completely disarms and voids the words of any meaning. It is basically putting on Jesus’ lips the idea that he doesn’t care about earthly life and all that matters is ‘pie in the sky when you die’.

The dialogue between Jesus and Pilate is apocalyptic: hidden, subversive prophecy. The Bible readings over the last three Sundays have been trying to attune us to this apocalyptic frequency, but it’s still far too easy to miss what is being said to us. Jesus is saying that he is a king, but his kingly nature is diametrically opposed to that of world leaders. Worldly kings and queens can be characterized as

  • holding absolute and/or ultimate power over their subjects,
  • enriching themselves off their subjects,
  • demand the servitude of their subjects.

Jesus’ kingship is the opposite to this. His incarnation is the laying aside of power. He lived a simple life to enrich others. He served others. If we understand Jesus’ kingship through his words and actions, we see that it is a completely upside-down kingdom from the earthly perspective. If we call Jesus king and fail to recognise the radical and revolutionary, subversive and prophetic nature of his authority, then we are not only missing the point, but we are collaborating in the great lie of Christendom, that Jesus upholds authoritarianism — we turn Jesus into Pilate/Caesar.

To avoid this, many take the escape route of describing Jesus’ kingdom as heavenly in its location rather than just in its nature. This relegates our earthly life to a mere waiting room for heaven in which to try to remain good enough to get in. It is presented in far lofty terms from pulpits, but it is what this boils down to.

Perhaps, this word ‘king’ is problematic for us; it was for Pilate too. But maybe renaming this the Feast of Christ Political is a bit too edgy for the church. He was part of the high-tension politics of his day, surprising all by following a unique, untrodden path. He was not on this side or that side, he was his own man. Our world has different political polarisations, but the same political passions as then. This Feast of Christ the King is a moment for specific reflection on how we as Christians, followers of Christ, follow his path through our political world.

I end with two thoughts, which maybe found more spiritual, and thus more palatable.

Earthly kings and queens send out their subjects to die for their selfish ideals; Christ is the king who died for his own for the highest of ideals.

From Celtic Daily Prayer

Question: What are the only human-made things in heaven?
Answer: The wounds in the hands, feet and side of Christ.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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