I wanted to think a bit today about what it means to call Jesus king. For those of us who observe the liturgical year, tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year. The gospel reading for Christ the King Sunday this year is John 18: 33-37.
“King” is a difficult word for Christians in the US. We have a historical and cultural bias against kings. We don’t talk much about kings, at least not in a “nice” way. But once a year the liturgical calendar causes us to consider the “king” word. It is fortunate that Christ the King Sunday comes right before Advent when many of us begin singing carols to the “newborn king”. It is good for us to spend some time thinking about this king and this king’s kingdom.
We often get ourselves in trouble one of a couple of ways when we think about kings and kingdoms. We either overly spiritualizing Jesus’ kingdom or we assume that Jesus will rule as typical human kings rule with crushing power and might.
The passage in the Gospel According to John can be read in more than one way. Sometimes, depending on the translation, Jesus’ reply to Pilates question is “My kingdom is not of this world”. People can interpret, “not of this world” to mean a sort of dualism. Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual and not part of the material world. Jesus doesn’t, and by extension Christians ought not to, concern himself overly with the things of this world. This earth is not where the kingdom is found or located.
The NRSV translates Jesus reply as “My kingdom is not from this world”. The “from” points us toward thinking about origins. We ask people, “Where are you from?” It’s not an idle question. The answer can tell us some important things. “I am from here” can suggest that you and I have some things in common- a shared local culture, perhaps a shared worldview, perhaps a shared history. To answer ” I am not from here”, might serve to highlight distinctions. I might be defining myself as different in some way. Where I am from can tell you some important things about me.
In Greek, the word in question here is “ek” ( I have to apologize, I don’t know how to get Greek letters into WordPress.) It means “out of” or “by” and is used with the genitive case which describes or defines. Ek can have to do with place, with origin, source, or cause, or with time. ( My Greek Lexicon has 3 pages of fairly small print concerning how the word “ek” is used, so my discussion here is not exhaustive. ) According to my lexicon, in John 18:36 the meaning has to do with origins. My kingdom is not of earthly origin.
I would like to suggest that Jesus is not talking about the present and/or future location of his kingdom but rather where his kingdom originates and therefor where his kingdom gets its values. Jesus goes on to clarify this by telling Pilate that if his kingdom were like other kingdoms of the world, Jesus’ followers would be fighting for Jesus freedom. But behavior in Jesus’ kingdom is not typical kingdom behavior.
Jesus’ followers are not fighting because this world doesn’t matter. They are not fighting because they are living in this world by completely different rules. Where Jesus is from shapes the actions of Jesus and his followers. Certainly the actions of Jesus’ life tell us that Jesus and his followers are living by another set of values.
Pilate has never encountered a king and a kingdom like this. The disciples have lived with this king and by these new values and they still find if difficult. Modern followers of Jesus have seen glimpses of this kingdom but it is so easy for us to get confused. We start thinking Jesus will be a king like any other great king, crushing opponents, ruling from a position of power, rewarding the faithful. On the other hand, if we try hard to visualize what Jesus’ kingdom looks like,we have such difficulty that we can’t imagine how it can work in this world and we shift the kingdom into a spiritual realm.
But the reality is somewhere else. The kingdom is here, in this world operating with a completely different set of values. It’s tough to hold on to. It’s tough to see. It’s tough to live. It’s good to have “Christ the King” Sunday to remind us.
I’d like to know,what do you think?