“So you are a king” said Pilate to Jesus. What a simple phrase: what a lot going on. How did he say it? The translation we used tonight renders it as a question, but even that is an interpretation – Ancient Greek didn’t even have spaces between the words, let alone punctuation marks. Did Pilate say “so you are a king?” which would have emphasised the implausibility of this humble man standing in front of him making any such claim. Or “so you are a king?” which is to say “aha! So you admit it!” Or “so you are a king?” What sort of kingship do you represent?
It is a deeply ironic statement, and we’ll dig into it in a moment. But, even more strikingly, it feels like a deeply alien claim. In Australia of course we do have a Queen, so there is some sort of cultural resonance. But in a culture where, broadly speaking, we like to think that “jack is as good as his master”, that hierarchies of birth and wealth no longer matter, the idea of Jesus being a king at all seems somewhere between remote and ridiculous. More like a fairy story than a serious theological claim.
More generally we recoil from the thought that someone might be “over” us. I’m my own boss, we say. Who are you to tell me what to do?
However, here we are at the Festival of the Reign of Christ, and so we have to wrestle with this profound, and profoundly Christian, idea:
…at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The original name of the festival “Christ the King” makes it sound like something out of the remote past. It’s something you could imagine medieval kings and queens marking it with special garments and protestations of loyalty.
In fact, it is quite a recent invention. The feast was introduced in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as part of a response to Fascism’s rise to power in Italy, Mussolini having become Prime Minister in 1922.
When I say it so baldly, it makes it sound even more uninteresting. There are a lot of things we could say about the current political situation, and indeed the history of the last hundred years, but, fortunately, Fascism was pretty comprehensively defeated in the Second World War.
However, the fundamental issue about modernity revealed by the rise of Fascism, and similar totalitarian movements like Communism and Nazism, remain live even in our contemporary culture. The rise of those movements were themselves the response to something deeper, which could be expressed something like this:
Who, or what, is the ultimate source of authority?
We make gesture vaguely to concepts like Democracy, or Science, or Justice, or something else. But exactly because we can name so many different competing things, each with their own claim to authority, but with no rational way to choose between them, is itself the problem.
We could think of our world as a sort of polytheism, with various competing gods striving for dominance. But who can judge between them?
Even that is to understate the problem. We like to believe that we are free. That no-one has the right to tell us what to do. We have seen that acted out in the recent anti-lockdown protests, which, whatever we think of them, are making claim about freedom.
Who are you to tell me what to do?
The problem with that is that none of us are free, self-creating individuals. We are all fundamentally bound up with each other, and with this natural world. So, whatever it means to be free, it doesn’t mean to be completely isolated, with no other considerations than my own convenience.
The result of the way in which we are all bound together is that all of us put something at the centre of our lives. We all make choices based on something. That something might be emotional, or it might be a more intellectual theory about what to do, or it might be a moral code. We think we’re acting in freedom, but we’re often being manipulated, or acting out of systems of power and domination which we aren’t even aware of.
We all serve something. Or some-one. All we get to do is to choose.
The Christian claim – the extremely surprising, deeply unpopular Christian claim – is that rather than this or that ideology, or my own ego, it is Christ himself who is the source of ultimate authority, the ultimate justification.
You can see this echoed in the Uniting Church Basis of Union when it says we “confess Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father” and that “he is head over all things.”
It’s important to notice here that we say Jesus is Lord – not that some theory or other about Jesus is Lord. Not that some person or institution fully represents Jesus, but that Jesus himself is Lord – loving and active in our present situation. All systems, all attempts to create a set of universal rules to cater for every possible situation, are doomed. There has to be an element of freedom, a way for systems to adapt and reconstitute themselves for fresh contexts.
But what then can we do? What can we stand on?
Pilate, the representative of law and order was in a quandary. Here was this man, who had been presented to him as a rebel who called himself king of the Jews – a direct challenge to good order in general, and Roman rule in particular. Yet he was obviously not at all what Pilate expected. He asks, incredulously So you are a King?
In the other reading for today – Revelation – we have a very different image of who Jesus is. “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” Jesus is a high, exalted paradoxical figure – who has always been, who is now, and who is still to come. A cosmic figure, towering far over insignificant kings and emperors and religious authorities
They seem pretty different to one-another yes? On the one hand a bound prisoner being bailed up in front of the magistrate to account for his crimes. On the other hand, a divine figure. Which is the truth?
What if they are both true simultaneously?
The Book of Revelation has a bit of a bad rep in mainline church land, for many reasons. Primarily because it is such an alien way to talk about the world, which means that we tend to interpret it as very literal prophecies about the end of the world. And it is true, the book does have a prophetic element – for instance the final chapter when John sees the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven, and God wiping away all tears from every eye.
But primarily the book is not about the future: it is about the present. Its aim is to reveal what is really going on. To explain what it all means.
The revelation the book is named for – the unveiling, the stripping bare – is about what is true right here and right now.
Jesus’ kingship is exactly revealed by the man bearing the sins of an unjust, suffering, sinful world on his shoulders. And it is also exactly revealed as the one seated on the throne, the one worthy of our praise, the one we can rightly call Lord.
It’s easy enough to call Jesus Lord – as he said, many people will call him “Lord, Lord” but he won’t be able to recognise them. What does it mean to live within the Reign of Christ? What does it mean for us, here and now.
Pilate was correct – Jesus is a king. Which is to say that Jesus shows us a way to live together. Jesus does have a political message if you want to put it that way. Not necessarily in a party-political sort of way because there is a lot of scope for disagreement about how to answer the question “what would Jesus do in this situation” when we are talking about situations which Jesus never encountered.
For instance, an earnest young man emailed me to ask whether the Bible said he should, or should not, get vaccinated.
I appreciate that, as a general rule, people tend to cite the Bible to support decisions they had already made, like the person who told me that Jesus had forbidden vaccinations in Matthew’s Gospel when he quoted the proverb that “the well don’t need a doctor, only the sick do.” But this guy was in earnest, and so we talked about the limits of state power, the importance of bodily autonomy, and what it means for Christians to love our neighbours as ourselves.
I’m pleased to say that he agreed to get vaccinated, and I have bought him a Bible and we are planning to meet up and talk about what he has read.
But it is a genuine conversation. Lots of things which we have to deal with and worry about just weren’t problems when Jesus was on earth. What would Jesus think about quantum computing for instance?
A big part of our tasks as Christians is a formative one. We need to be communities which allow the Holy Spirit to form people to be Jesus-y. Not to have exactly correct theology, though of course good theology is important. But because we can’t come up with theories which cover all possibilities, there will always be something beyond even the best theory.
To make it worse, even the best theory is inevitably ruined by actual human beings. Because of our sinfulness – which is to say our alienation from one another, from God, and even from ourselves – because even when we know perfectly well what the right thing to do is we often don’t do it, because we are trapped in systems which destroy life rather than promote it, and they are often completely beyond our ability to even comprehend, let alone to change.
Because, in the final analysis it is our need to be in the driving seat – in our continued refusal to let Jesus be Lord of our lives, not just in theory but in actual lived-out reality – that is the problem. That’s why the claim that Jesus is Lord is so hard: Because I don’t want anyone, or anything, telling me what to do. In theological language, we call that “sin.” Our attempts to place ourselves at the centre of our lives is what leads to all the unjust and generally disastrous outcomes of the world.
Part of what it means to worship a crucified saviour – what it means for one and the same Jesus to be both Pilate’s prisoner and also the one seated at the right hand of God the creator of all – is that we acknowledge in our deepest selves that our best efforts will always fall short, that our systems just can’t cut it, and that our lust for power, for domination, for control, for someone else to blame needs an end point.
Jesus comes to bring a new way of life. Or to put it another way, because it is scarcely new after two thousand years, a different, culture-challenging way to live. If we place our trust in God – instead of in ourselves, or in our systems, or our technology, or our ideas, but in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, we will be increasingly able to form the sorts of communities of love, justice, and freedom.
 Philippians 2:10-11
 UCA Basis of Union: https://www.assembly.uca.org.au/images/stories/HistDocs/basisofunion1971.pdf
Image: Mosaic of Alpha and Omega and Christ monogram, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54974 [retrieved November 18, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roma_San_Clemente_Abside_Mosaico_Dettaglio7.JPG.