You Say That I Am King
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
November 21, 2021
Christ the King Sunday
Daniel 7: 9-14
John 18: 33-37
Over the last few decades, and for various reasons, people have come up with language to reframe a term we commonly use in the church, “The Kingdom of God.” The reasons for this range from resistance to sexist language to promoting more democratic ideas of government as opposed to the hierarchy implied in “kingdom.” A common replacement for “Kingdom” is “kin-dom,” the idea being that we are the family of God, “kin” to one another and to God and Jesus. English-major me has a bit of a hard time with made-up words like this, though part of me knows that if you read Shakespeare, for instance, he makes up words like this all the time. There is definitely something nice, comforting and most importantly TRUE about “the kin-dom of God:” the familial tie that binds all God’s people to one another and to God our heavenly Father and Mother.
But I still like “Kingdom.” It’s the word Jesus uses; indeed, it’s a word common as well in Jewish understanding of God. I get the suspicion of hierarchical governmental models like monarchy in these days of democracy and completely agree the relationship between God’s people is a fully democratic one. We Presbyterians consciously rebelled against hierarchical models of church government in Roman Catholicism and the Anglican Church, developing our representative form of church government as an expression of a more democratic urge; and the Reformation concept of The Priesthood of All Believers was embraced by many as a theological idea that was consonant with the democratic movements that arose in resistance to the Holy Roman Empire and European monarchies.
Like I said, I understand the democratic urge and that hierarchical or monarchical forms of government like Kingdoms and empires are largely the antithesis of the democratic urge.
But I still like “Kingdom of God” or as Matthew says (to avoid misusing the holy name) “the Kingdom of Heaven.” The reason is simple. Our relationship with God is not in any way democratic. God is God. We are not. End of story. Hierarchy and dictatorship and monarchy and empire are bad on earth for exactly that reason. Hierarchical government implies there are individuals in the world who possess some sort of godlike status. There aren’t. God is God. We are not. End of story.
We Americans of course like to elect our leaders. Democracy is important to us and even though people on all sides feel, for different reasons, that democracy has been under assault recently in the United States. That only reinforces the truth that democracy matters to us. And often the way we talk about our relationship to Jesus takes on a democratic tone. We talk about making the “decision” to follow Jesus. We talk about our “freedom” to choose Jesus Christ as if we are “electing” Jesus King. This is a serious misunderstanding of reality. Jesus is sovereign Lord of the universe whether I choose him to be or not. That’s the difference between a kingdom and a democracy. A King, a queen, a sovereign is the ruler whether I like it or not, whether anyone in the whole kingdom likes it or not. There’s no election. We may not like it. We may refuse to believe it. We may rebel against it and assert an alternative government is better. All those things happen in earthly kingdoms, too.
But to assert that Jesus is Sovereign Lord of the universe is quite different from asserting that some human being is Lord of some earthly realm. For one thing, no matter how much we dislike it, there’s nothing to be done about it. We can try to wish it away but it won’t change. We can rebel but we can’t overthrow him. We can form an alternative, “shadow” government but that shadow government doesn’t stand a chance to replace Jesus’ rule.
That, by the way, is what is going on in our Gospel lesson for today. Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, the representative of Caesar, whose empire supposedly rules the world. That disregards the fact that a large part of the world was ruled by China back then, another large portion of Europe and the Slavic world were populated by what Rome called “Barbarians,” and huge swaths of Africa were a mystery to Romans—never mind that the Americas had not even been “discovered” by Europeans–but anyway. Pilate represented the Roman Emperor, supposed ruler of the world, held to be a god by his people. And he holds the fate of Jesus in his hands. Or so he thinks. This situation, the idea that somehow God must submit to a human-defined destiny, was hardly original to Pilate or to Rome and really hasn’t changed much in thousands of years.
So Pilate thinks he holds the Lord of the Universe’s destiny in his hands. He is, perhaps, trying to be fair and even-handed. I have some questions about that but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you a king?” To Pilate, this is the crux of the matter. The Temple leadership has brought Jesus before him on the charge of claiming to be “the King of the Jews,” which would mean that Jesus was actively inciting rebellion against Rome. If that is the case, Pilate would have no choice but to have Jesus executed as a rebel. So “are you a king?” is the most important question that Pilate needs answered.
Jesus’ response seems cryptic. I’m not a king in this world, he says. If I was, my followers would be fighting right now to free me, but as it is, my kingdom is not of this world.
It’s an interesting answer. Pilate may be taking it as the confession of a lunatic, someone with hallucinations and visions of grandeur. The important point to him, though, is that Jesus is right: if he was claiming to be king the way that the chief priests and Temple elite said he was, then his disciples would be an armed band of terrorists trying to rescue their wanna-be king. They aren’t. Ergo, Jesus is not claiming to be any kind of king in a way that is a threat to Pilate or to Rome. He’s some sort of dreamer, but not a threat.
This by the way is the way we often view Jesus’ role in the world. It is metaphysical, yes; Jesus is Lord in some invisible ultimate sense—but not Lord in the sense of assaulting our deeply set worldly values or the concrete problems and issues of the world around us.
That’s Pilate’s point of view. But let’s consider the answer from Jesus’ point of view.
From Jesus’ perspective, his answer is not dreamy or other-worldly. It is a statement of fact: my kingdom is not of this world. When he says that, he doesn’t mean that his kingdom is not an earthly kingdom, but rather that it is not a “Worldly” kingdom—that is, that it doesn’t function by worldly values like wealth, or prestige, or dominating power, or as Jesus specifically says, violence—the power of the sword. In that sense, Jesus isn’t after Caesar’s throne. There’s nothing Caesar has that Jesus wants. As Jesus says more than once in the Gospel of John, this world belongs to Satan—by which he doesn’t mean, again, that Satan rules the earth, but that Satan has defined the worldly values that this world operates by. Consistently when Jesus talks about “the world,” what he means is a culture, a system of values and beliefs, that are at odds with the values of the Kingdom of God, and in fact represent a rebellion against the Kingdom of God, an attempt to usurp God’s sovereign rule. To Jesus, Pilate represents all of those worldly values that are at odds with the Kingdom of God. So, Pilate, Jesus says, no offense, maybe you’re a nice enough guy, but I am not even vaguely interested in ruling the world you represent and its standards, cultures and ideals. I have no interest in a kingdom that uses violence and the sword and dominating power to enforce its rule. I have no interest in Caesar’s empire. My kingdom is not of this world.
Nonetheless, Jesus is Lord of this world. Jesus is Lord of the planet earth, and of the whirling cosmos of which the planet earth is part. Jesus is Lord of the Roman Empire of 2000 years ago. Jesus is Lord of the United States of America of today. Jesus is Lord of you and me, individually and corporately, whether we believe in him or not, whether we follow him or not, whether we completely disregard his Kingdom and its values or not. Jesus is sovereign Lord because that is what a sovereign Lord is—someone not elected to office, but who is absolute ruler regardless; someone who cannot be overthrown; and someone whose values and interests will ultimately be victorious. Jesus is the sovereign Lord because whether any of us believe it or not, or do it or not, his values are the defining values of the cosmos. His laws are the true laws. His practices are the true practices.
And that’s the best news there could possibly be. If we, with our democratic inclinations, resent the idea that someone rules everything that is without my having to vote that person into office or having input on their policies, that’s rough—because that’s who Jesus is. But if what’s at issue is, is that ruler just? Is that ruler merciful? Is that ruler pursuing the ultimate good for the people? Does that ruler actually put my needs and interests and concerns on a par with their own?—If that’s what matters to you, then the good news is that it’s not just any divinity that rules all of creation—nor is it just any normal human being that runs all that is—it is none other than Jesus Christ. The Lord of the universe is the God who took human form to help us to know who he is. The Lord of the Universe is the one who taught us to love our enemies and then proves it by loving his enemies. The Lord of the Universe is the One who refuses to use the power of the sword to overcome those in rebellion against him. The Lord of the Universe instead made himself vulnerable, suffered and died for our sakes, and then rose again from the dead to defeat the ultimate enemy of all that is—death itself. The Lord of the universe died, as the Gospel of John tells us in John 3;17, not that the world would be condemned but that through him the world would be saved.
We know the values of the ruler of all that is. He put them into action in his teachings, his life, his death, and his resurrection. They are values that represent the best that humanity can attain, and reject the terrible things that earthly rulers and wanna-be rulers do because they claim they are “necessary.”
The ruler of the universe, the King of all there is, is the Lord of Love. And so we know that contrary to the values “the world” teaches us, it is love that rules the universe. And love will win. Love is winning now. Because Jesus is Lord.
I invite you, as you reflect on the idea of Jesus’ Lordship, to reflect on how you and all of us unconsciously behave as if “this world”—meaning values, culture, and behaviors in conflict with Jesus’ values—defines for us the values, culture and behaviors we engage in and take for granted. And to ask ourselves, if I were really to live as if Jesus was Lord, and his values are the true values, how would I act? What would I do that I don’t do? What would I reject that I presently accept? What kind of person would I be that would be in contradiction to the person the world wants me to be?
If I were to live as if I really believed that this world is Jesus’ world, and Jesus is its Lord and mine, and it belongs to him, along with nature, and nations, and the people in it, and me too, how would that really transform the way I live now?
Since Jesus is Lord, whether we believe it or not, whether we choose it or not, all that we must choose is whether we wish to live as if he’s Lord. And the good news is that if we try to live by his values, his culture, and vision for the world, we will certainly be right. Because those are the values of the King of the Kingdom of God.