Today, in the liturgical calendar, is the Feast of the Reign of Christ. This is actually the last Sunday of the liturgical year, before a new year begins with the season of Advent. And on this last Sunday we remember that our faith has a trajectory of hope—that somehow, at some point, creation will be restored to what God intended it to be in the first place, and that Jesus has made this possible in his life, death and resurrection. So it’s fitting, as we conclude the current year and prepare to embark on another, that we celebrate—and ponder—the Reign of Christ. We can do this in one of two ways: we can give attention to Jesus as the one who reigns, or we can contemplate the kind of reign that he has inaugurated. I think our churches often don’t do enough of the latter, so I’d like to challenge us to do that this morning. What does life look like within the Reign of Christ?
As we consider that question, we’re confronted by the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “My kingdom is not from this world.” Is Jesus calling us to another world, to boldly go where no one (except Jesus) has gone before? If we can’t actually transport ourselves elsewhere, do we give up on our world and wait for an apocalyptic intervention? Is that what it means to live as a Christian with hope? I don’t think so. No, when Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world,” he’s getting at something else.
Richard Rohr, a well-known Franciscan author, has argued in one of his more recent books that the term “world” in the Gospel of John should be understood to mean “the system.” John 3:16, that famous verse, reads: “God so loved the system.” When Jesus is put on trial before Pontius Pilate, he says, “My kingdom is not from this system.” The “system” is the world gone awry; it is the structures of power that alienate and oppress, the political apparatuses that keep the world titled on an axis that favors few over the many. So when Jesus is saying that his kingdom is not from this world, he’s saying that his kingdom—the Reign of Christ that we celebrate today—does not have its origins in this system. It’s a radically alternative reality, a way of living and being together that cuts against the grain of so much of our assumptions about what it means to live as good, upstanding citizens.
How radical is the Reign of Christ? I think we get some indicators in today’s Gospel. The first thing is that the Reign of Christ, just like Jesus himself, is on trial. It’s not exactly a triumphant reign because it’s disputed, even rejected, by the powers of “the system.” What finally convinced Pilate to have Jesus executed was that Jesus was guilty of treason. His first loyalty wasn’t to Rome. Instead, he claimed his kingdom stood outside “the system” of Roman rule. That was deemed a threat, and consequently he was executed.
Anglicans historically have been very cozy with the power of the political status quo. To this day, the Church of England remains an “establishment” church; it is the religion of the Monarch and the official religion of land. That comfortable relationship, I think, has lulled our church into complacency. Here in Canada, is the Reign of Christ simply a means of facilitating good Canadian citizenship? Or is it a way of life in community that stands as a radical alternative to the ideals of what the Canadian Constitution describes as peace, order and good government? Does the Reign of Christ support and uphold the best intentions of our parliamentary democracy? Or does it stand in opposition to it, calling those of us following Jesus to something else, something different? These are heavy questions—I won’t attempt to respond to them here—but I don’t think we can avoid them if we ponder the Reign of Christ with any seriousness.
A second thing we can say about the Reign of Christ is that it is radically peaceful. Jesus tells Pilate that his followers are not engaged in violent confrontation to defend him. That’s because life in the Reign of Christ is defined by the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Christians, even the earliest Christians, have found these words notoriously hard to live into. In fact, right before Jesus was arrested and put on trial, Peter the Apostle, took matters into his own hands and attacked the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear with his sword. And Jesus, in the midst of his arrest, rebukes Peter. Violence of any kind has no place within the Reign of Christ. But the history of Christianity has been deeply implicated in violence, especially since the 4th Century. Christians have killed each other, launched crusades of bloodshed, and fought in wars of all sorts. We need to ask ourselves: Is this coherent with the Reign of Christ? Can a Christian be an ambassador of the kingdom of God and simultaneously take up arms, whether in military service or in day-to-day work as a police officer? When I think of that question, I consider my cousins in the U.S. One did two stints of service on the ground in Iraq. Another is a cop in Newark. He and his family are active in their local church, yet he tells me that he draws his gun on average at least once a week. The question of Christian faith and bearing arms is hard, and it may make us uncomfortable because so many of us have family members that fought in war. But we can’t dismiss the question if we’re going to take the Reign of Christ seriously.
A third thing we can say about the Reign of Christ is that it testifies to the truth. Pilate’s famous question, “What is truth?” is left hanging, unanswered. But earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus does explain to his followers what truth is. If you recall, it was Thomas the doubter who asked him, “How can we know the way you’re going?” And Jesus’ responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” For Jesus, truth is not about objective concepts or facts. Truth is not a thing; truth is a person. And because truth is a person, it is dynamic and impossible to pin down and contain. The only way to understand truth is to follow it, to follow Jesus—which is precisely why Jesus tells Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Truth, therefore, is bound up with following the Way of Jesus, with patterning our lives together after his. And when we do that, we’ll begin to have a sense of what the answer to Pilate’s question looks like. For his question is really an inquiry into what the Reign of Christ is—which is why today is such an important event in the liturgical calendar, as it compels us to ponder the reign into which we struggle to live.
It’s very fitting that we celebrate the Reign of Christ here at St. Aidan’s with a baptism. What we’ll be doing in a few minutes is welcoming Ariyana among us on our life journey together, learning what it means to follow the Way of Jesus and live into the Reign of Christ. It’s not easy. The Reign of Christ challenges us to live alternatively at every turn. We’re compromised every day by “the system”—which is why we need each other. We’re all in this together, to help each other navigate the day-to-day challenges of being a Christian. Let’s celebrate that we’re not alone. Let’s celebrate the hope that the Reign of Christ gives us and all of creation. And let’s celebrate and welcome another young traveler who is joining us on the Way.