Not from this world

SJF • Proper 29b (Christ the King) • Tobias Haller BSG
Jesus answered Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
This week we come to the last Sunday after Pentecost, before we launch into Advent next Sunday. But today’s Gospel, instead of anticipating the season that is about to begin, provides us with a reminder from last spring. Rather than peering forward to the purple of Advent, the Gospel reading looks backwards across the whole long green season after Pentecost, back past the seven white weeks of Eastertide, to the purple of Lent. Here we are six weeks from Christmas and it might as well be Good Friday, as far as the Gospel is concerned.

For there is Jesus, standing before Pilate, answering his cross-examination with the full knowledge that his disciples are powerless to defend him, that his own people will cry out for his death, and that the colonial agent of the Roman emperor will soon hand him over to the executioner.

Pilate has heard strange accusations raised against this itinerant preacher. But what he sees before him hardly matches the things he’s heard. So Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And the answer Pilate gets, on Good Friday or on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, is always the same: “My kingdom is not from this world.”

Not from this world ? The old translation reads “not of this world.” And I’m glad the current translators made this change, because if you didn’t know any better, when you heard “not of this world” you might think Jesus was saying he was from another planet, that the Gospel was like the strange stories you see in the National Inquirer: “Space aliens from other worlds are here and working for the government in New Mexico.” File that one with the stories about Elvis still being alive!

For surely Jesus doesn’t mean anything like that when he says his kingdom is not from this world. He isn’t saying he is from another world, any more than that his rising from the dead is simply a matter of someone still being alive whom everyone thought was dead, like Elvis. The Gospel is not the stuff of tabloids; it is not something to be glanced over as you stand at the checkout in the supermarket; the eternal Gospel is the message of salvation.

So what does Jesus mean when he says that his kingdom is not from this world? What he means is that his authority, his right to rule, doesn’t come from the world, but from God. Jesus’ kingship is not from the world but toand over the world — and his kingship comes from God.

Look at the language in the reading from Daniel: the one “like a human being,” — and here I think the translators of the have done us a huge disservice by no longer using the evocative phrase, “Son of Man” — this “human being” comes to the Ancient One and he receives “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” Jesus, whom the church identified with the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision, derives his authority from God. He isn’t the King of kings because the kings or the people of the world elected him, or because the people of the world obey him, or because the people of the world follow him. His kingship isn’t from the people of this or any other world, from their obedience or their approval or their support.

Because that’s the kind of kingship that can be taken away: when the people don’t want to follow such earthly kings, history shows us they quickly get rid of them. One needs only look to the recent reversal of power in our own Congress to see how easily those in positions of worldly power, depending on worldly support, can slip from their thrones — or in this case, committee chairs — in a day.

And even real kings — who in their day thought that their power came as a matter of divine right — are also uneasy in their seats when the economic or political system they govern gets beyond their control. And that can do more than simply force an abdication! When the French got tired of Louis XVI, they chopped off his head. When the Soviets triumphed over the Czar, they wiped out his whole family, gunned down in a moment of horror in a crowded little room. What goes round comes round, though, for how long ago was it that the statues of Lenin were pulled from their pedestals, and smashed to bits? And dare I add to this list the similarly toppled image of Saddam Hussein, a man who likened himself to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, reduced to hiding in a spider hole and now condemned to death — more like the unhappy Belshazzar than Nebuchadnezzar. The world, you see, is fickle! It weighs kings in the balance and finds them wanting. Those who are kings or dictators from this world can lose their kingdoms in a single night, and the handwriting on the wall is spelled out against them in letters high and broad, and it doesn’t take a Daniel to understand their meaning.

But Jesus’ kingship is different. It doesn’t rest on the power of the people, on popularity or approval ratings. Jesus’ kingship is eternal. For Jesus’ kingship comes from God. It is not a kingdom from this world, but a kingdom from heaven. Jesus is the king of salvation, who is to rule the world, whether the people follow him or not.

On this last Sunday of the church year, we celebrate the fact that Christ is king whether we, or his disciples, or the Jewish authorities, or Pilate, or the Romans or anybody else anywhere wants him to be king or not. His kingship is not from the world, it is not from us, or from anyone else in this world — on the contrary, his kingship is over the world and over us and over everybody and everywhere else — not just on this world, but all the worlds and suns and stars of space. His kingship was over the Jewish authorities who saw him as a blasphemer, and over the Romans who saw him as an insurrectionist. And he is over us whether we obey his lordly rule or not.

That is the reason Good Friday rings in our ears: because nowhere is the kingship of Christ more clearly seen than on the cross. For here, though stripped of every quality that might adorn a human king, the kingship of Jesus is undiminished. It doesn’t matter that his followers have abandoned him; it doesn’t matter that his own people have betrayed him and stand there cursing him; it doesn’t matter that the Roman power-brokers have him nailed as a common criminal, and have added insult to injury by posting a mocking notice that this miserable specimen is the best king the Jews can come up with.

The irony is that Pilate’s mocking joke was on Pilate as much as on the temple authorities: Jesus was and is the King — not only of the Jews but of Pilate too — the King reigning from the cross, a throne more precious than the golden thrones of tyrants, and infinitely more lasting than a rule based upon the tastes and desires of an electorate.

Now, you might be thinking, Wait a minute. Isn’t what happened to Jesus like what happened to Louis XVI, or to the Czar. You might even go so far as to observe that Jesus was tried and sentenced to death, and so was Saddam Hussein. And it is certainly true that all of these worldly leaders were stripped of the worldly trappings of majesty, and were killed or are awaiting death.

But, my friends, there is a difference — a difference that matters in a deeper way than we could conceive, if we didn’t already know it. The kingship of those worldly rulers really was from this world— and their death is the end of their story. When their worldly power — power derived from worldly sources — and their life, is taken away, they have nothing left.

But Jesus’ story didn’t end with his trial, or with his death on the cross. Yes, he was stripped of any semblance of worldly power, stripped to his bare humanity. We say it every week in the Creed, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” But we don’t stop there, my friends — if we did we might as well close up shop and head home right now — we don’t stop there, and that is what makes all the difference. For after the memory of Good Friday comes the promised dawn of Easter. “On the third day he rose again.”

Such a simple phrase, but it makes all the difference, doesn’t it? Those seven words can’t be said of any other king, no matter how great. And the creed doesn’t stop even there — as the TV ad says, “But there’s more!” “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

His kingdom will have no end. Yes, there’s the crucial difference: the cross isn’t the end of the story. Unlike the guillotine or the gunfire that ended the kingdom of King Louis and the empire of the Romanoffs, unlike the noose that may one day end the life of Saddam Hussein, the cross is not the end, for the kingdom of Christ shall have no end, for Jesus Christ is the End, just as he is the Beginning — the Alpha and Omega, who is and who was and who is to come. Jesus Christ, begotten of his Father before all worlds, rose as firstborn from the dead, and he will come again; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and nailed him to the tree, “shall the true Messiah see.”

And what about us? What are we to do in the meantime, before his coming in great glory to judge and rule the world? Well, we have a kind of kingship too. It says so in the passage from Revelation we heard this morning: we have been made kings and priests to serve the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And we know now what it means to be made a king and servant after the image of Christ. It doesn’t mean a lovely golden crown upon your brow. It doesn’t mean a comfortable seat on a throne. It doesn’t mean standing on a pedestal. It means taking up the cross, the sign of Christ’s kingship, a kingship not from this world, but a kingship that lasts for ever in spite of all this world has done to reject it.

We, you and I, have been made kings and priests — and servants — in the likeness of Christ crucified. And we have been given our orders — serve the Lord! — take up your cross! It is the sign of the great Servant King, who will come to judge and rule the world.

Advent is about to begin. The King of kings is coming, and when he does, may he find us his servants busy bearing our crosses day by day, and spreading the good news of the kingdom of our God, and of his Christ, for he shall reign for ever and ever.+