A Lectionary Reflection on John 18:33-37 for the Reign of Christ B
Christ the King. I confess, the name for this Sunday’s celebration makes me more than a little uncomfortable. It’s not just the patriarchy of the title, or the problematic associations with an institution that, apart from a few ceremonial remnants, is extinct in our world. It’s that I’m not sure that “King” and “Christ” are two words that should ever really appear in the same sentence.
I realise that the Bible often places these two words together, and so my confession includes acknowledging a discomfort with the Bible. But, perhaps it’s not the Bible so much as how we have used it that I’m struggling with. I hope you’ll keep reading long enough (and it shouldn’t be too long) to hear me out.
This year being Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel reading is from John 18:33-37. The setting is the trial of Jesus, and, in particular, his conversation with Pilate as the governor tried to understand who Jesus was and how he got into this situation. It’s one of the most dramatic and poignant moments int he whole Bible, in my opinion. There are two aspects of this conversation that stand out for me.
The first is that Jesus claims that his kingdom is not of this world. I find it frustrating that for many Christians this has come to mean that God’s Reign is not in this world. We have taken this and other passages out of context to create a destructive theology that proclaims that the natural world is doomed for destruction and believers are destined to be evacuated to God’s Reign in some otherworldly realm for eternity. This is not what Jesus is saying. From the start of his ministry he proclaimed that God’s Reign was near, at hand, in the world and accessible to all. But, now he states that this reality is not of this world. I take this to mean, based on the parables and teaching of Jesus which sought to explain what God’s Reign was like, that God’s Reign is a reality of a completely different order from human systems of power, wealth and meaning-making.
To enter God’s Reign is not about dying and going off to some other place. It is about discovering a whole new way to live, a whole new set of values, principles, purposes and attitudes that change the way we use and acquire power, the way we use and acquire wealth, and the way we understand and live out our purpose and meaning in the few years allocated to us. God’s Kingdom may not be of the world, but it is most certainly in it – and, if we are willing to embrace its radical way of being, it is in us, too.
My second struggle with Christ the King Sunday is that I can think of no reference in the Bible where Jesus accepts the title of king for himself. Other biblical writers assign the title to Jesus, and probably do so with some legitimacy. But, Jesus, seems to be rather uncomfortable with this title. When, after the feeding of the five thousand, the people want to make Jesus King, he slips away into the desert alone (see John 6:15). When Pilate tries to nail him down, and find out if Jesus really claims to be a king, Jesus constantly sidesteps the question. Although, in this short section, Pilate tries twice to push Jesus on the issue, in both cases, Jesus refuses to take the bait.
I wonder why Jesus was so reluctant to be called king? Perhaps it’s because the Reign of God is not about replacing Caesar or Herod with Jesus in a human power system of dominance – even a religious one. Perhaps it’s because the Reign of God is about following Jesus into a realm where there are no Caesars or Herods or Empires – not even one established by Jesus. The Reign of God is about community, connection, collaboration, power-sharing, generosity, mutual care, peace, justice and love. As Paul wrote of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23, there is no law against these things! And, by extention, no need of a king to impose such law.
Perhaps that’s why I prefer the alternative name for this Sunday: The Reign of Christ. It may sound synonymous, but I believe the difference is huge. Christ makes no claim to be king, as far as I can see. But, the way of Christ, the Reign of God, does seek to claim our lives for its message and mission. And, if we allow it to claim us, we, in turn, will reject all quests for dominance and for personal empire-building, as we seek, in our own small corner, to embrace the serving, saving Reign of Christ.