Clash of Kingdoms
A sermon on John 18:33-37 by Nathan Nettleton, 26 November 2006
To name Christ as King is to identify ourselves as dissenters to the claims of any other authority.
Today is the last Sunday before the season of Advent, and it is designated in the Church's calendar as the Feast of Christ the King, or as the Feast of the Reign of Christ. Being an election weekend here in Victoria, the nature of true leaders has been on our minds, and naming Christ as our king or governor or premier is not without significance. And with the election comes all the arguing over political alliances, just as we see Jesus and Pilate arguing over the relationship between their respective authorities. I now live in the seat of Melbourne where the Labor Party have been crying foul and alleging that the Greens made a deal to give preferences to the Liberals, when in fact all that happened was that they ended a deal that previously gave their preferences to Labor. "What is truth?"asked Pilate. Come election time, that is a hard question to answer!
So what is this Feast of the Christ the King and does it shed any light on our understanding of our relationship to those who wield power in our world. The history of this feast reveals it to be a strange insertion into the calendar, but its very strangeness has an ironic power that does much bring its meaning to light and to justify its continuing observance.
It's history is a very short one. The Feast of Christ the King was created, with no prior tradition, in 1922 by Pope Pius XI. Pius was negotiating the Lateran Treaties with Mussolini to sure up the political status and independence of the Vatican. As part of the deal, the Vatican took action to suppress the only democratic party in Italy. Pius was no lover of democracy. He preferred monarchies and authoritarian regimes because he could negotiate treaties with them which favoured the Roman church. Both Mussolini and Hitler granted the church wide-ranging favours in exchange for political silence. The Feast of Christ the King was, therefore, created with a political agenda, to sure up the Vatican's power and the power of those regimes with whom the Vatican had negotiated expedient cooperative arrangements. It was to do this by reinforcing the message that the Church wanted obedient subjects and that the Kingship of Christ was to be envisaged in terms of an absolute European monarch. Thus we now have the anomaly of a feast in our calendar which arose out of a devil's pact between the Church and the Fascists! Why on earth would we continue to observe it?
Well, sometimes these sort of underhand attempts to forge a political compromise between the Church and the governing regimes of the day have an ironic absurdity that is actually very helpful to us in seeking to understand the irony with which Christians have traditionally used the term "king" when speaking of Christ. It is an irony that is at the centre of the reading we heard from John's gospel, the extract from the trial of Jesus before Pilate, and it is something we would do well to get our heads around if we want to know what we are doing when we pray prayers like "Your kingdom come," and "for the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever, Amen."
Let's begin by dispelling one popular myth about the nature of Christ's reign. The kingship of Christ is not some purely spiritual thing with no political implications. When we pray "Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven," we are clearly expressing a dissatisfaction with the way things are on earth and an opinion about the way they should be. Such opinions are always political. We are praying that the political systems and regimes which protect the status quo will have their reign terminated, and that God will rule in their place. You can't get much more political than that. The fact that the Roman governor was involved in the trial of Jesus was for precisely this reason. The Romans recognised that any movement in which members vowed an allegiance to a power higher than Rome and set about living out of a value system that was at odds with the system on which Roman power was based was a threat to their grip on the empire. Such movements had to be either stomped out or neutralised through treaties which ensured that the movement's aims would not conflict with those of the Empire. Governor Pilate's questions about whether Jesus claimed to be a king were to enable him to decide which strategy to invoke to deal with the fledgling Christian movement.
Their conversation unfolds as a tussle over the nature of true authority, of true kingship. When Pilate opens by asking Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews?", Jesus responds by turning the question back on him. "Do you ask this on your own, or has someone else worded you up?" This is quite a challenge to Pilate. Jesus is questioning his ability to operate on his own, and suggesting that perhaps he's being used as a pawn in someone else's power game. The reference is, of course, to the religious power brokers who have had Jesus arrested and handed over for trial, but Pilate will have none of this affront to his independence. "Give me a break," he replies, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation, your own chief priests have handed you over to me. What on earth have you done?"
John's record of this reply is dripping with irony. Throughout John's gospel, reference to "the Jews" has become a loaded phrase identifying those whose fierce allegiance to the religious and political institutions of the nation make them resistant to what God is doing. They have come to so thoroughly associate allegiance to the nation with allegiance to God, that they bitterly oppose the message of Jesus because of his claims that the love and grace of God might cut against the nationalistic agenda of the nation. And so Pilate's angry question, "I am not a Jew, am I?" is left hanging. To John's readers, the question now means, "I am not one whose allegiance to the nation makes me resistant to God, am I?"Different nation, perhaps, but same old story, hints the writer.
"My kingship is not from this world," replies Jesus. "If it were, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingship is not from here."
Pilate knows exactly what this means, and it is not some harmless heavenly-minded fairy floss. "So you are a king then?" he snaps. Pilate knows that it doesn't matter where the authority derives from; it is either compliant to Rome or it isn't. It is not that Rome couldn't tolerate other kings. Herod was allowed to retain his throne, but only by being absorbed into the Roman hierarchy and taking his place in submission to Rome. Pilate needs to establish the nature of the authority that Jesus claims so that he can work out whether those claims can be similarly absorbed.
But Jesus is operating out of such a different understanding of authority, that his answers continue to sound evasive, "It is you that is trying to put the 'king' label on me. My job is to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." And with that statement, the gauntlet is thrown down to Rome, fair and square. "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice, not yours, not Rome's, not Spring Street's, not Canberra's, not the Pentagon's."
And just as Jesus both rejects the word 'king' and yet with the same breath speaks of his own 'kingship', so we in the Church are using an ironic metaphor whenever we speak of Jesus as king. A metaphor is when we deliberately use the wrong word in order to reveal some deeper but less obvious truth. 'King' is not the right word for Jesus. He deliberately fled whenever the crowds wanted to proclaim him king. He does not employ the infrastructure of a monarchy; he does not maintain palaces and royal staff, he does not proclaim the boundaries of a kingdom and establish military forces to defend them, he does not rule with an iron fist. The word 'king', as it is understood in our political world, is clearly the wrong word for Jesus, and yet we continue to use it. Why?
Because in deliberately using this wrong word we create a powerful metaphor which reveals a more profound truth. When we say that for us, Jesus is King, we are saying that for us, no one else is king. In saying that we belong to the Kingdom of Jesus, we are saying that we are not submissive citizens of any other kingdom. We are saying that Jesus and his agenda sets our agenda, and that we will not give unquestioning allegiance to any other authority. We do not set out to be hostile or seditious towards the countries we live in, but neither are we willing to cooperate with them when they ask us to compromise the values of love and justice and hospitality to advance their own national interests and agendas. Our allegiance is to the King of Love whose kingdom is not defined by national boundaries.
Contrary to a popular myth, the rise of western style democracies in place of older style monarchies and dictatorships has not made the tensions between the Christian movement and the state any less problematic. Modern democracies have proven themselves just as prone to defending their boundaries with murderous intensity. They may broaden the base of those whose interests they seek to protect, but they are just as guilty as any fascist regime of serving the interests of one group by trampling on the interests of others. For proof of that, you only have to watch the lengths to which the Australian government will go to protect the 'interests' of its comfortable citizens from the costs of offering hospitality to 'unlawful non-citizens', most of whom are actually some of the most needy and desperate and deserving people on the face of the earth. And for an illustration of the contrast Jesus draws between worldly power-mongering and testifying to the truth, you only have to look at the government's readiness to throw the truth overboard to justify its actions.
Our allegiance is to the One who will go to the cross before he will sell out the truth or sell out the desperate ones. It is in the apparent foolishness of looking to one who is mocked in a kangaroo court and strung up to die humiliated, and naming that one as our only king that the irony is writ large and our identity as a dissident people is established beyond all doubt. For indeed, when Jesus accepted humiliation and execution rather than negotiate a compromise that would have granted a legitimacy to an empire established and maintained by force, he exposed the lies on which such empires are built. And as we continue to follow his path of suffering servanthood, we continue to expose the lies that prop up the abusive regimes of our world.
We gather at this table as subjects of no king but Jesus, whose reign is established in laying down his own life for the world. We gather as citizens of a kingdom that recognises no boundaries of race or nationality or gender or wealth or social class. We gather, not as a people who think that because we were born in closer proximity to the world's riches we have a greater 'right' to consume them than those born on the other side of a line drawn on a map, but as a people who know that all resources, even our basic daily bread, are the gifts of a generous God, given for the benefit of all humanity. We gather as those who will laugh in the face of the petty claims of the world's power mongers, even those who blasphemously try to invoke the name of Christ to legitimate their power-mongering. And even when they set a new feast in our calendar to try to substantiate their blasphemous claims, we will laugh all the louder as we celebrate the delicious irony of a feast which only further exposes their lies and confirms our faith in the One whose kingdom and power and glory are revealed in the unquenchable force of suffering love, now and forever. Amen.