If you follow the liturgical calendar, you’ll be aware that today is the last Sunday of the year. Next week we roll over into the season of Advent, which is a time of introspection and reflection on our deepest longings. But today, the last Sunday of the year, we go out by celebrating the Reign of Christ. Of course, this presupposes that we have some sort of understanding of what it means to say that Jesus is King.
Was Jesus a king? Is he a king? According to many classic hymns that we sometimes sing, the answer is a resounding Yes. Think of the words of Robert Grant’s hymn O Worship the King: “O tell of his might, O sing of his grace, whose robe is the light, whose canopy space; his chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form, and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.” Or consider Charles Wesley’s hymn: “Rejoice, the Lord is King! Your Lord and King adore! Rejoice, give thanks and sing and triumph evermore.” Or this famous line: “Kings shall fall down before him, and gold and incense bring; all nations shall adore him, his praise all people sing.”
These hymns paint an unmistakable portrait of Jesus as triumphant, victorious and vindicated, reigning over every nation—indeed, over all creation. But that doesn’t exactly square with what we read about Jesus in the four Gospels. Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is a case in point. Jesus and his followers have journeyed down from Galillee in the north to Jerusalem for Passover observance. And as we know, Jesus ends up at the center of significant confrontation in the Temple. He’s done more than simply get under the skin of the religious leaders and elites. He’s denounced the social and religious status quo, which his oppoents understand to be treasonous. So they arrest him, and now he’s on trial before that infamous Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, his life hanging in the balance.
Pilate’s first question to Jesus is point-blank: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Given that today we celebrate the Reign of Christ and that so much of our hymnody extols Jesus as King, wouldn’t we expect Jesus to respond with a clear Yes? He doesn’t do that. If anything, Jesus is reluctant to affirm his kingship, and it might even be possible to read him as implicitly denying that he’s a king. But he does talk about his kingdom. What stands out are these words: “My kingdom is not from this world.”
I think this statement has underscored in our time a mistaken understanding of Christian faith as internal and private. Jesus’ kingdom is heavenly and spiritual; it has to do with matters of the soul, interiority, moral conscience, things that are individual and personal—so the argument goes. And in that sense, in the non-material world—what lies beyond our physical senses—Jesus is King. The problem with this line of reasoning is that our daily lives are bound up with what we see and touch and hear and smell and taste. We are constituted by what is physical and material. Where does King Jesus fit into any of this? If he is King only in an other-worldly spiritual sense, that can easily become a mere footnote to our reality, even irrelevant and meaningless.
I’d like to challenge us to think more carefully about Jesus’ words, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Richard Rohr, the well-known Franciscan, has argued in his book The Divine Dance that the term “world” in the Gospel of John might be interpreted as “the system.” The system, according to Rohr, is the world gone awry; it is the structures of power that alienate and oppress, the political apparatuses that keep the world tilted on an axis that favors few over the many. So when Jesus says that his kingdom is not from this world, he’s making a claim that his kingdom is not of the system. But his kingdom is nonetheless a very concrete earthly reality. It’s a radically alternative existence, a way of living and being together that cuts against the grain of so much of our assumptions of what it means to live as citizens in a good society.
If Rohr is right that “world” means “the system”—and I think he is—how does this impact how we should make sense of the Reign of Christ? Let me offer two points to consider. First, when Pilate presses Jesus and asks him a second time whether he’s a king, Jesus responds: “You say that I am a king.” We might hear this as: “Yes, of course, you are correct: I’m a king.” But there’s a more compelling way to hear Jesus: “You say that I’m a king, but I’m not concerned about that title. My life is a testament to the truth of a kingdom rooted in a totally different kind of politics than what you represent.” If we hear Jesus in this way, then Jesus is redefining, even turning upside down, how kingship is typically understood. If Jesus is King, then he is not a king of power and might. His throne is a crucifix and his crown is thorns. He reigns not on high but by walking among the lowly, sharing his life and ultimately sacrificing it for the sake of the world. Today’s celebration of the Reign of Christ challenges us to avoid triumphalism and to remember that Jesus’ coronation was paradoxically his execution by crucifixion.
I think this explains something of what Jesus meant when he said that his kingdom is not from this world. And it leads me to a second point that impacts us in the present time. The system that Jesus challenged head-on, the system that ultimately murdered him, is alive and well in our day, everywhere. We might call it liberal democracy, if we’re trying to name it. For many of us, if we’re brutally honest, that very system affords us a degree of relative comfort, whether because of our skin color, employment, economic status, or anything else that reinforces privilege. Being a Christian today means living into Jesus’ upsidedown kingdom. I think the litmus test for this kind of living is whether we are made to be uncomfortable on a daily basis. The challenge for us today is to reflect on how comfortable our lives have become, how our excess has been normalized. Next Sunday we begin a new liturgical year with Advent, that season of longing. Do we long to follow Jesus to the margins? What if we entered this new year with the intention of finding ways as a parish to be uncomfortable? On a basic level that is how we can celebrate the Reign of Christ and find our life in the kingdom not from this world.