Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” …Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
John 18:33, 36
Most of us in the Street Psalms network don’t live in autocratic political regimes. We catch glimpses in the news every day – Syria, North Korea, ISIS. Given the options we’re glad to live in our democracies, however corrupt and dysfunctional, instead of dictatorships.
I’ve lived in Thailand under the longest reigning monarch in the world, Bhumibol Adulyadej, referred to by subjects as Phra Bat Somdet Phra Chao Yu Hua (“His Majesty the Lord Upon our Heads”). Everyone I knew adored him as a wise ruler, and I did too, which was a good thing because Thailand has among the strictest lèse majesté (violating majesty) laws in the world. Never a hint of critique in the local or foreign press. A biography on my own bookshelf is banned, tourists overheard in bars have been prosecuted, and hundreds of citizens are incarcerated for indiscretions of speech. I met the king once, on his birthday, on my knees. He caught my eye. People around me fainted.
This coming Sunday is Christ the King Sunday as observed in many churches around the world. It is the last Sunday before Advent. The timing is interesting and worth reflection: How did our Lord and King enter this world, and move through his life in it? How on earth does he actually rule?
Closely woven with his way of being among us, Jesus taught us. His central metaphor was the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” – used 99 times in the New Testament. For those of us who don’t live under military occupation, the imagery can fall a bit flat and abstract – a theological term to be unpacked. For Jesus’s hearers the term “kingdom” must have elicited a visceral response, and not necessarily a pleasant one. Jesus’s hearers went about their lives under the rule of an emperor, governed by a vassal king, policed by soldiers not shy about brutality, and shaken down by slimy local tax agents. The image of “kingdom” stirred vivid thoughts and emotions.
In this week’s scripture passage Jesus is on trial, exposed. But the tables are being turned. Jesus has come bearing witness to the truth (John 18:37). In so doing he exposes the dominant – and domineering – world system for what it is. The Roman Emperor’s way of power is violence and control, and Pilate is his local stand-in. If that were this prisoner-king’s way of power – the sovereign who arrived in a manger and upon a donkey – his followers would be fighting. If his authority derived from dominance, his crown would not be woven from thorns.
“But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (vs. 36). The key word is “from,” a translation of the tiny Greek word “ek.” Other translations have it “of” – which makes it sound otherworldly, removed. But Jesus has made it clear that his kingdom is very much for this world: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Interestingly, “ek” is most commonly translated elsewhere as “out of.” So: “My kingdom is not derived out of the ways this world rules itself.”
“God so loved the world” (John 3:16) in such a way that the world, and humanity, could be shown a different way of constituting itself. Not just shown, but loved to life! Such life will have an enduring and eternal quality, not derived from the world systems of power, control, and violence against rivals. Such systems permeate every level of human co-existence. A biblical word for this is sin. As such, the Roman Empire is exposed as humanity-destroying… but that’s hardly the extent of it. Social systems, religious systems, economic systems, the workings of our inner psychology that rely on dominance and exclusion – all are revealed to be death-dealing and false, in light of the embodied Truth being revealed in this courtroom drama.
A kingdom not from this world, but given in love for this world. Christ the King, Immanuel, enfleshed with us in breathtaking majesty and power.