"My kingdom is not from this world." These are the words of Jesus, on the Sunday in the liturgical year that we mark as Christ the King, or the reign of God.
Jesus says, "My kingdom is not from this world."
I did not grow up in a church or a culture that marked time liturgically. We lived from Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year's, or from the College Bowl games to March Madness to the opening day of baseball. In church we focused mostly on Jesus as our redeemer, with a bit of a break at Christmas.
Only later would I appreciate the profound way of marking time by trying to closely follow the life of Jesus. Next Sunday the year begins for us, as we anticipate the promised coming of the Messiah, as we await his birth. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. On Christ the King Sunday the year comes to a conclusion, but more so, to a culmination. All things move toward the reign of God, the realized kingdom, where we will crown him with many crowns, the lamb upon his throne, where he will judge, in the language of the creed, the quick and the dead, the living and the dead, in other words, all things.
On this day, on this last Sunday of the year, we reflect on the kingdom of God, which is Jesus. Christians claim him as Lord, which means in political language, that we are his subjects, citizens of a territory that he oversees which has no east or west. He is Lord, having risen from the dead, and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.
There are two ways to approach Christ the King, and I can sketch them briefly.
The first is to make the bold claim of faith that the Kingdom of God has priority over every earthly kingdom. In the coming weeks many communities will listen to choruses or church choirs sing Handel's Messiah, with the refrain, "The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ and he shall reign for ever and ever."
There is comfort to many Christians in this way of seeing it. The church in the United States, over the last generation, has lost much of its influence in the spheres of politics and culture. We learned this year in the Pew Report of the rise in the numbers of nones and dones. Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas wrote about this 25 years ago in their classic Resident Aliens. Bishop Willimon talked about how his world shifted on its axis in 1963, when the Blue Laws changed in Greenville, South Carolina, as some of the youth slipped out of church on a Sunday evening to watch a movie. Humorous, but there is a point there. The church at first and main was no longer the tower of strength in the community--today this is more likely to be a football stadium or a corporate skyscraper or a massive hospital with floors ascending to the sky.
We look around and see little sign that we are at the seat of power, although we may cling to the memory of privilege. And so Christ the King is a way of reassuring ourselves that all indicators to the contrary God is in control.
The other approach is to come to grips with the reality that we are not in control, that Jesus is Lord of our lives and so we submit ourselves to him to him. This goes against the grain of our human nature--deep down we do want to be in control; and we resist the change that Jesus calls us to in his fundamental invasion of our lives, when he says, "Repent, for the kingdom of a God is at hand." There is that word again: kingdom.
I do need to comment here that the language of kingdom is one that understandably calls forth suspicion and critique. It can be interwoven, consciously or unconsciously, with our notions of patriarchy, privilege and power. And when the church or leaders of the church, when we become too enmeshed in or identified with the "kingdom, the power and the glory," there has been and is abuse and corruption and heresy. This is our story, told in massive volumes of church history and in yesterday's newspaper or Facebook post.
But let's remember what Jesus himself told us about that word: My kingdom is not from this world!
What was he saying?
His kingdom does not align neatly with our political parties. If we think Jesus would vote the way we vote, someone has remarked, we have created him in our image! I serve as a bishop in the United Methodist Church. We are a large, diverse and scattered assembly of people across the world, and I have been called by this church to seek its unity.
Every now and then I am listening to someone or reading some correspondence, and I have the feeling that someone is asking me, "Are you a part of my tribe? And will you punish someone in the other tribe?"
So they asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" and he responds, "My kingdom is not from this world." He is in fact from a tribe, born to a Jewish household. But he resists the identification of his kingdom with any tribe, human, ethnic or national.
Last summer we witnessed the horror of the murders of nine persons in a Bible Study in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The aftermath included grief, anger, lament, astonishing words of forgiveness, and compelling leadership by two women, the governor of the state and the representative of that community. This leadership led to the removal of the Confederate flag, which symbolized the scarred past and a people who shared a tragic and simple history. It claimed the allegiance of some, especially in the region I have lived in for most of my life, the southern United States.
In the aftermath of those murders and through a series of events that can only be interpreted as divine providence, the flag came down. In the forgiveness offered by the family, there was a great reversal. What if our allegiance was not to a flag, but to a cross?
"My kingdom is not from this world," Jesus says.
So, if his kingdom is not from this world, what is it about? Well, we have some clues in the gospels.
In Matthew 11 we encounter John the Baptist, who is imprisoned by Herod, another and very different king.
We read there:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
In Matthew 25, at the great judgment, we read an account about a final day of reckoning:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "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 answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
Throughout the pages of the gospels, Jesus paints a picture of what it is to live in his kingdom: it is not alignment with whichever political party is in power, nor is it about gaining control of whichever tribal church we happen to belong to.
It is a self-emptying, in the Greek language, a kenosis, from the hymn in Philippians 2. The lamb upon the throne is the suffering servant of the prophet Isaiah, who was wounded for our transgressions, by whose stripes we are healed. His kingdom is the fullness of his life, death and resurrection for us.
We do often think of a King bound up in hierarchical protocols and the consolidation of power. And if you travel the world you will see examples of fortresses that separate us into caste systems, and you will see palaces that signify the accumulation of wealth and privilege.
But our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in his words but also by the way he lived, gave us a different path. In the vivid words from "Amahl and the Night Visitors":
"The child we seek doesn't need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter; his haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us;
he will bring us new life, and receive our death.
And the keys to his city belong to the poor."
We think of Kingdom as the consolidation of power, but his is a different way:
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not count equality with God as something to be grasped,
but he emptied himself...
And took the form of a servant.
"My kingdom," Jesus says, "is not from this world."
On Christ the King Sunday, we come face to face with the One who comes to us as a Servant. The radical reconstruction in our becoming more like him--the path through Christian history of Francis and Clare, Romero and Bonhoeffer, Rosa Parks and Pope Francis, and also more recently, the nine Emanuel martyrs of Charleston, but also the way of countless ordinary women and men--this is the journey of discipleship, reflecting our Servant King, using our power for the common good, expending our resources to alleviate human suffering, employing our strengths to bear the burdens of the weak.
Here our more conventional way of understanding Christ the King in a world of Christendom breaks down. It is not that Jesus is our King, the King of the church over and against the world. It is more complicated but also more beautiful and more hopeful than that. "If I am lifted up," he says, "I will draw all people to myself." As the great theologian Karl Barth commented:
If we see Him alone, we do not see Him at all. If we see Him, we see with and around Him in ever-widening circles, His disciples, the people, His enemies, and the countless millions who have not yet heard His name. We see Him as theirs, determined by them and for them, belonging to each and every one of them.
So we mark time in this profound way by marveling at the Reign of God in this world, whose kingdom is not from this world. Thanks be to God!