Christ the King Sunday – John 18:33-37
Some of you may know that I was in the initial wave of troops that entered Iraq with the 3d Infantry Division in March 2003. I remember listening to the BBC in early April as the statue of the tyrant Saddam was toppled and listening to the people cheer. This has been another bad week in Iraq. I, for one, had higher hopes for our effort than the civil strife that is now destroying so many lives. There is a lot of work yet to be done.
I bring this up, not to bring up the question of partisan politics or national strategy, but as the most vivid example for me personally of a bitter fact: our struggles in this world don’t always turn out as we hoped in our heart of hearts.
The Civil War ended slavery but created Jim Crow and regional hatred. The Second World War freed Europe from Hitler but enslaved Eastern Europe to the Soviet empire.
Life is a lot like that tangled ball of string that you pull from the kitchen drawer. Loosen the sting here, and it tightens there.
And it’s not just in armed conflicts in which this is so. We’ve just gone through a national election. Every two years we are reminded of the fact that whatever we want to accomplish in the political realm, there’s a truckload of trash we have to wade through to get there. Does anyone ever get involved in politics without getting something of a sick feeling in the stomach?
And it’s not even just the political realm that suffers from this phenomenon. Business, the academic world, the home, and even the church experience the same thing. Wherever men and women struggle to make things better, they are going to get their hearts broken, at least a little bit. Things aren’t going to work out exactly as they hope. Some things may even get worse.
We are not going to bring in the kingdom of God by force, or cleverness, or hard work, or even with acts of extraordinary kindness. All of our efforts seem to get tangled underfoot in this world. We solve problem A but create problem B.
All the king’s horses and all the kings men, will not put “humpty dumpty” together again – no matter how smart they are, and no matter what means they use. And that’s not just because the world is too complex to understand fully. If you fix every problem in the world but me, you haven’t fixed the world. And my problem can’t be solved by any human strategy. My problem is that I’m a sinner.
The Kingdom in John
This is the context in which I hear today’s Gospel reading from John 18.
Today is “Christ the King Sunday.” Of course, in a sense, every Sunday is a celebration of Jesus’ kingship.
When you say the phrase “Jesus Christ,” you have named Jesus as king. John is the only document in the New Testament to use the word “messiah,” the Hebrew word for “Christ” or “anointed one.” In their original contexts, the phrases “messiah,” and “son of God” had political connotations. They referred to the king in Jerusalem, the descendant of David, who sat on the throne.
By the time of Jesus, however, the title “king of the Jews” was a joke. It belonged to the sycophant Herod, the Roman puppet. Many longed for a new messiah, a new son of God, and a new descendant of David to take the throne and set the political world right.
Jesus had no interest in becoming that sort of king. In John chapter 6, Jesus rejected the people’s bid to force the crown on his head after the he performed the miracle of the loaves.
When Jesus talked to Nicodemus about the kingdom of God, he told Nicodemus that only the miracle of spiritual birth could make one a citizen of the God’s kingdom. One lives as a member of God’s eternal kingdom because “the spirit blows where it wills,” not because of anything that humans do. Jesus said that God sent him so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.
That doesn’t sound much like earthly political life at all to me. Jesus seems to be talking about something completely different.
Not of this World
Standing before Pilate, Jesus declared “my kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)
Now when Jesus tells us that his kingdom is not of this world, he is not telling us that this flesh-and-blood world is bad. The first thing that that John reminds us about the world is that God created it. John’s very first words echo the opening line of Genesis: “in the beginning.” To be sure, there is something wrong with this world. It is corrupted by sin, and the powers that rule it now are fallen. But that doesn’t mean that God hates the world he created. In chapter 3, John tells us that God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. And in chapter 1, John declares that Jesus is the “lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”
No, the only thing that John wants to tell us about the world in 18:36 is that the source of Jesus’ power and authority cannot be found in this world. It has a spiritual origin and power.
The King, the Ruler and the Rulers
In John’s view, the power and authority of Jesus’ authority belong to another realm, but they are clearly connected to this one.
For one thing, Jesus makes those who are earthly rulers look really bad. Pilate is a cowardly cynic; the chief priests are in love with their own power. In one of the most ironic lines in scripture, the chief priests and their minions declare “We have no king but Caesar.”
Two Kingly Actions
But more than this, Jesus’ kingly authority can be seen in the world. On the first Passover visit to Jerusalem recorded by John, Jesus drove out the merchants and money changers (2:12ff) from the Temple.
In his last Passover trip to Jerusalem, the king rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in a prophetic demonstration of his authority – an authority that he had demonstrated by raising Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover feast, the crowd that had followed him from Lazarus’ empty tomb pronounces him king. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
Driving the moneychangers from the Temple and raising the dead are two very different kinds of actions, but they both demonstrate Jesus’ kingly authority in this world. And, it should be noted, they are both temporary in their effect.The temple will not stay cleansed; by the time John writes this, the temple will be in ruins. And Lazarus, one presumes, eventually will grow old and die. Both actions hint at something to come, but neither is final in its effect. Both actions will find their final fulfillment only in the age to come.
The King on a Cross
What Jesus is going to do on the cross, however, does not have a temporary, limited effect.
The incarnate word who came into the world is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus’ crucifixion will bring judgment upon the world and its ruler. His death overcomes the world.
That’s the central meaning of Jesus’ kingship. Jesus is fighting a different kind of battle. He wins a different kind of victory. He defeats not sinners but sin itself. It is his death and resurrection that will ultimately untangle everything.
My Officers Would Be Striving
That helps us make sense of what Jesus told Pilate.
Jesus told Pilate: my kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my officers would be striving to deliver me from my enemies.
The word I’ve translated “officers” is “servant” in most translations. The word, almost literally, means “underling” or “subordinate.” It’s not one of the normal Christian words for servant, which mean “slave” or “table servant.” It seems to be a technical term for officers of the Jewish ruling authorities, or at least that’s how John uses it. It is the “officers” of the chief priests who help arrest Jesus.
When John quotes Jesus as saying “my officers would be striving or fighting” there is nothing here to indicate that John understands Jesus to be referring to an armed angelic army.
Rather, Jesus is making a little joke. His kingdom has officers, too. Their job, in this instance, is not to use earthly methods to set Jesus free.
The word I’ve translated “striving” refers to those earthly methods. It means “struggle” or “contend” or “labor strenuously.”
It is not a military term; rather, it comes from the world of athletic contests. It does not imply armed conflict, but can describe any sort of struggle. Jesus does not see his conflict with the powers of his day as just another power struggle in human history.
If my kingdom were of this world, my officers would be striving to deliver me from my enemies.
What happens on the cross transcends every human struggle, no matter how it is waged.
But what about love? Isn’t John just telling us that love can change the world for the better, where the use of force has failed? No, I don’t think that’s what John is trying to say. Any reading of John’s gospel that transforms Jesus’ life and teaching into just another strategy for changing this world misreads it, I think. In this fallen world, there is a time for arms to hug and a time for fists to fight. The trick is to figure which time is which. But we should never be under the illusion that either approach will bring God’s kingdom into being.
Jesus would not let his death become just another political struggle in the world’s long history. The means for him to perform his unique mission did not exist in any earthly political strategy. In his death, he exercises his kingly authority as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. No earthly political effort could ever accomplish that feat.
This, in turn, helps us understand the previous scene in which Jesus is arrested. Peter drew his sword to defend Jesus, but Jesus told Peter to put his sword back in its sheath. “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Jesus asked Peter.
As Jesus faced his own unjust death, he believed that this was not the occasion for armed resistance or other this-worldly endeavors. There was something more important on the agenda than overthrowing Roman rule or kicking out chief priests out of the temple.
If my kingdom were of this world, my officers would be striving to deliver me.
The most important thing that needed to be done, Jesus did. We could never have achieved it by human effort. The mistaken belief that we can solve every problem creates new problems: arrogance and spiritual blindness, among them.
That doesn’t mean that there is no striving to be done. Love doesn’t say, “Well, we can’t do it perfectly, so let’s not do it at all.”
We are officers in Christ’s kingdom. Our job is not to deliver Jesus; he has already delivered us.
But there is work to be done. Even if that means getting our hearts broken from time to time. Even if that means holding our noses and wading into a world that can be hard on tender consciences. There is work to be done. We will not bring in the kingdom of God by our efforts, but love never closes its eyes to the needs of the world.
On this “Christ the King” Sunday, we remember that Jesus is our king.
What do you do with a king? You kneel before him. And you serve him.
We kneel before our king Jesus, for he has done what we could never do for ourselves.
And we serve him, as we try to bring the love of God in some little way into the world which God created.