Sermon for Sunday, November 21, 2021 || Reign of Christ B || John 18:33-37
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we begin again with the season of Advent. But first, we pause for a Sunday and celebrate the reign of Christ. This reign is the reality that God’s loving blueprint for all creation is sovereign, is the foundation and framework upon which everything is built. Comprehending such an expansive understanding of the reign of Christ is precisely why we celebrate it today. The trouble is, ever since this feast day was created in the early 20th century, we’ve celebrated a cramped, constricted vision of Christ’s reign. For most of the history of this holy day, people have called it “Christ the King” Sunday. I did too for the first several years of my priesthood. But at some point, I switched my language from Christ’s “kingship” to Christ’s “reign,” and that’s when the more expansive understanding of Christ’s role exploded in my heart and mind. I’d like to take you through that switch this morning.
The problem is the word ‘king.’ And not just because ‘king’ is a gendered word, but because our understanding of ‘king’ is far too small to comprehend the Christ. When we think of kings, we think of absolute rulers of countries, people who are in control of everything that goes on in a limited geographical territory. Or else we think of figureheads, whose countries have a history of absolutism, but now the monarchy is nothing more than a symbol of national pride and unity. The figurehead monarch can use the bully pulpit to influence public opinion, but they have no tangible authority.
Neither of these understandings of kingship will do when we use the image of king to describe Christ. And we can see this problem clearly in Pontius Pilate’s first question to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel lesson. They’re alone in Pilate’s headquarters. Pilate is trying to get the measure of this apparent troublemaker, whom his own people have handed over. So Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
This question is loaded with implication. On the surface, Pilate is trying to figure out if a secret local rebellion is getting ready to explode in his face, kick out the occupying forces of which he – Pilate – is in charge, and install a new king. The Romans allowed petty local rulers to claim kingship, but they were nothing more than political pawns of the Roman machine. That’s what King Herod was. But what about this Jesus? Not even a week ago, Jesus had ridden into the city while people proclaimed him the king and the son of David. Surely, Pilate knew David was a local historical hero, the gold standard of Israel’s ancient kings. Was this Jesus, standing calmly in front of Pilate, really a king ready to supplant the entire Roman apparatus? Pilate is appropriately skeptical; after all, I doubt his informants had come to him with any information about a budding rebellion.
But the question – “Are you the king of the Jews?” – like so much in John’s Gospel, has a deeper meaning when we dig into it. In the early days of the monarchy in Israel, God wondered why Israel wanted or needed a king? They were special among all the surrounding countries precisely because they did not have a king. They had the God of their ancestors! God was the ruler! God was their sovereign! Why need a king when you have God? God warned the Israelites: All a king will do is tax you and conscript you and eventually end up owning the whole country. But the people were stubborn. We want to be like everyone else. Give us a king!
And so God relents with a proverbial, “Be careful what you wish for.” The first king was Saul, but he didn’t work out, so the Prophet Samuel anointed David, a shepherd from Bethlehem who distinguished himself in battle. David was seen as the pinnacle of kingship in Israel despite a whole lot of problematic behavior. Suffice to say, kingship in ancient Israel is a topic with a lot of baggage.
And so we hear Pilate’s question a little differently. “Are you the king of the Jews?” The answer is “no” in both senses. Jesus is not fomenting a violent rebellion. And he is certainly not a problematic stand-in for God.
So Jesus does not fit the expectations of Pilate or of the people who handed him over to Pilate. Jesus does not fit the cramped model of king we think of from, say, feudal Europe in the case of the absolute ruler or modern Europe in the case of the figurehead. And what about us, who don’t have a king but still live in a sovereign nation? Our democracy, our laws, are cramped and constricted too; as we’ve seen throughout our history and in the modern day, our laws do not always reflect the needs of justice.
With the concept of ‘king’ too small, we grope for another image, another metaphor that can help us see the reality of God holding up creation. That’s why I’ve shifted to the word ‘reign.’ The Reign of Christ is not an identity like ‘king’ but a particular vision of reality. In this vision of reality where Christ reigns, we see Christ not as an individual person who rules but as the framework for creation itself. John’s Gospel grasps for words to describe this reality in its poetic first chapter. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3).
All things came into being through the Word. The Word is the organizing principle, the logic that makes creation work. A few weeks ago, we talked about creation being a near infinite series of relationships – elementary particles vibrating together, ecosystems existing in a delicate balance of resources, celestial bodies dancing the cyclical dance of gravity. We believe these relationships work together to make the universe because the God of Love patterned creation on God’s own perfectly loving self. This pattern is the Word. This pattern is the Christ. And we know how to live in resonance with this pattern because, as John later writes, the “Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14).
We expand our view of Christ’s presence in creation when we pull ourselves out of a cramped notion of Christ ruling like earthly kings, with all of their failings and limitations. And we enter the reality of the Reign of Christ when we dedicate ourselves to loving relationships, relationships that promote truth and justice, peace and joy. The Reign of Christ is so much bigger than we can possibly imagine, since it comprehends – literally – all of time and space and beyond time and space. At the same time, the Reign of Christ happens right here, within each of us, as God aligns our hearts and minds, our souls and strength, to love God and love one another, for such love is the reflection of God’s blueprint for Creation.
Banner image by Herbert Goetsch via Unsplash.
Season 4, Episode 7
“WandaVision: Love Persevering”
The Podcast for Nerdy Christians, where faith meets fandom. This episode, we’re talking WandaVision, keying in on Wanda’s grief and how it manifests. We’ll also tackle some chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.