The trial scene is so familiar—Jesus there before Pilate. Right off, Pilate raises the big question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” That’s what this scene is all about, the entire Gospel of John, mostly. The question from this prosecutor and judge is clear and unambiguous; it demands a simply “Yes” or “No.” And Jesus really provides no such simply response, puzzling Pilate, baffling him really. Puzzling us, too. Christians have always begged to differ about these words, this dialogue. Of course, the heart of the puzzle is our Lord’s response—that his kingdom “does not belong to this world.” Jesus adds mostly directly, “my kingdom is not here.” “Not here,” in the midst of Pilate’s imperial courtroom, certainly. But “not here” in what other respects, too? Still, Jesus tells Pilate that he has come to testify to the truth, and to bear witness to his kingdom. He speaks to Pilate about those who listen to his voice and thereby hear the truth. You can see Pilate scratching his head over that one. Maybe we’re a bit puzzled. After all, why doesn’t our Lord just come out and claim the whole world for himself? Or does he? At least this far, we have assembled more questions than answers on the Feast Day of Christ the King!
One thing is sure, even more problems pop up to bite us when God’s people in Christ relax the tension between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of our Lord. I mean, just look what happens when pious, well-meaning Christians re-translate the words of Jesus to say that his kingdom is “of this world.” So they try to “build the kingdom,” mostly out of their own agendas and with their own efforts. Oddly, they wind up imitating the world they want to replace with that of the kingdom.
So some fight for the erection of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn, as if that monument will place a stake for the worldly kingdom of Christ.
Then, too, some TV preachers reshape the gospel into a recipe stolen directly from our society’s lust for prosperity.
And some “apologists” try a reverse strategy of diminishing the kingship of Christ so that the gospel will not conflict with the spirit of the age. (“Christ the King” becomes a “Palestinian peasant.”)
But notice how each of these moves mimic the world’s notions of who’s important and what’s success. Let’s at least agree on this—conforming the kingdom of Christ to any of this world’s kingdoms leaves the church in a mess and the world even messier. “Yes, Pilate, you can still have your imperial courtroom for a while. Jesus is not there with his ‘attendants’ to ransack the place.” That will, of course, happen later, but according to the providence of God.
So what do we do now, church folk have often asked themselves? If we should not conform Jesus’ kingdom into one looking very much like those we already bump into day by day, what then? Even more of a puzzle. And it is right here that someone in the church always gets a bright idea: “I know what we do. We revise Jesus’ words to mean that his kingdom has nothing much to do with this world,…except maybe to reside in our hearts at times.” Of course, there is the solution, right? Get Jesus’ kingdom out of this world and Pilate is happy and we can separate ourselves as much as we can from this world of darkness with all its sin and disease and death. That’s it! “Thank you Jesus, your kingdom isn’t anywhere near this old world! It must be in a different place, much more spiritual.” Have you ever seen Salavador Dali’s painting of the Crucifixion? It seems familiar at first. There is the cross and Jesus hanging there. But then you look closer and see that the cross is way up in the middle of the air with Jesus suspended on it. You look hard and realize that Jesus’ body is diaphanous—you can see right through him to the hills in the background. The image is totally spiritualized; out of this world. Dali is unmistakable in his theology: Jesus’ kingdom, and even Jesus himself are not of this world, and do not belong to it. If you want to become close to Jesus, you better get out of the world. Of course, the church labeled this position a heresy from its earliest days. Still, it abides,…in “Precious Moments” art, in some funeral homilies, and even in some of our heart language old hymns. But it raises far more serious problems than it solves, this heresy. Besides, Jesus didn’t tell it to Pilate this way.
Well, for Pilate and for us, the tension will have to remain. This kingdom of our Lord does not “belong to the world.” And it is never solely “out of the world” either. But what Pilate doesn’t understand, may never grasp, is that “the Word became flesh,” right in the midst of our world with its sin and disease and death. Came to bring life and truth. To this, Jesus announces to Pilate, he has come to testify, to bear witness, to become a “martyr.” As the eternal Word who has “pitched his tent” in the midst of our habitation, Jesus the King has planted his kingdom right in the midst of this world. And his testimony, his truth, is never more grounded than at the cross. Here, in this our world, he suffers and dies. He is lifted up, in a mystery both upon the cross and in glory. But the cross settles how much Jesus “belongs to this world.” The Eastern Church’s icons testify to this “grounding” of Christ, the Word become flesh. In the icons of the Nativity, the babe in the manger is wrapped tightly in what appear to be the grave shrouds of Golgotha. In the icon of the Baptism, Jesus often appears standing on a cross floating in the Jordan, hands extending down, blessing the waters of our baptism. And in the icon of the Resurrection, the triumphant Christ, now fully revealed as God and King, comes forth from the tomb, standing on the cross lying flat in front of that portal. God and king. “Faithful witness,” the Revelation text proclaims. (Pilate, you should have been there.)
Now, do you want to hear something really amazing, friends? The tension still abides. There is so much darkness in the world, the same world that God continues to love. And we have been called to be children of God, to testify to the truth, and bear witness to the kingdom of our Lord. But we are never left to do this on our own. We have been blessed with the Living Water of our baptism and anointed with the Spirit’s healing and forgiveness. Soon, we will be fed with the Living Bread that comes down from heaven. And the Lord proclaims, “whoever eats this bread will live forever.”. Now we can also bear witness to all the Pilates of this world and all their devotees this about Christ the King—“And of his kingdom, there will be no end.”