33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus 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.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The Jesus of this passage has been misunderstood in at least 2 ways. The first is by Pilate, the Roman governor overseeing the trial underway in today’s passage that will eventually lead to Jesus’ state execution. Twice Pilate asks Jesus a version of the question, “Are you a king?” Sometimes we repeat the same question in conversations when we are especially anxious about the answer. In this case, Pilate is anxious about the potential threat to his own political position. I learned in my sermon commentary from Enfleshed liturgies this week that the Roman empire classified “all kings they didn’t appoint to be an immediate threat,” (Liturgy that Matters: November 25, 2018.) and so what Pilate is really asking Jesus here is: Are you a threat to my position or not?
Jesus answers: “My kingdom is not from this world… my kingdom is not from here.” Jesus is not interested in Pilate’s position as a deputy of the empire. Pilate has misunderstood, because as my commentary suggested this week, Jesus is not in the business of “simply exchanging who has the power without changing the kind of power. Putting an underrepresented population in the seat of power isn’t enough – the whole system that leads to underrepresentation of some must be torn down altogether.” Jesus’ kin-dom is not from this world.
There’s another way that Jesus gets misunderstood in this passage, and it’s by interpreters over the centuries who have heard Jesus say, “My kingdom is not from here” and used those words to suggest that Jesus was not political. It’s true that Jesus was not partisan, aligning with one political party over another, but he was political. We know this because Jesus died an extremely political death. There were lots of ways for the Roman empire to execute you. But the cross where Jesus died was reserved for those whose actions threatened the empire’s ability to oppress some for the gain of others. The cross was a public way to murder those resisters, to literally hold up the person who stepped out of line so that those watching would understand that if they didn’t get in step with the empire’s way of domination and subjugation, they too could expect to find themselves on a cross.
So, if Jesus was not after Pilate’s job as the empire’s croney but was murdered on a cross as an enemy of the Roman state, what does this tell us about the way of Jesus, especially for those of us who seek to follow him? Here’s what we know: Jesus used the power in his possession to feed, to welcome, to heal, to tell the truth, to literally flip over the tables of those taking advantage of the poor. Jesus used his power to give power back to the ones being pushed down and pushed away. Jesus used his power to give people what they needed to thrive in this life, in their own bodies. Jesus used his power to empower others.
And this use of power, a power with and for others, is fundamentally political. This use of power refuses to accept hierarchies and competition between people and instead embraces that God made us to depend on each other, with the understanding that our flourishing is bound up with everyone else’s. This use of power is inherently a threat to anyone hoarding wealth and resources. Because at its root, all hoarding is accepting a lie and Jesus came, in his own words, “to testify to the truth.” I think about the day in early March of 2020 when I started jogging down the aisles of Winco hoping I could get my hands on the last few staples remaining on the shelves before the first shut-down. I felt in my body an anxious impulse to hoard, and it was because I believed the lie that it was a stockpile of toilet paper and lentils and pasta that could keep me safe. But the truth is that it is the Spirit of God alive in the community of people who live this life with me that keep me safe and secure. This is the truth Jesus came to testify about and embody in his earthly ministry – to remind us that we were made to exercise power that builds community, that empowers everyone around us, that makes sure everyone has what they need, that forms us not into a top-down structure with a ladder to climb in an attempt to escape scarcity, but rather a beloved community defined by the reality of God’s abundant grace. And that kind of power embodied will always leave agents of the empire anxious and afraid that their days of hoarding are coming to an end.
Today is a special day on the church calendar, Reign of Christ Sunday, which is the end of the church calendar year. It’s a bit like the church’s own New Year’s Eve. Just like we might do surrounded by our loved ones with a glass of bubbly in hand, it is a day for us to both look back at the year that has passed and look forward towards the year to come. This year, let’s pause to reflect together: As we look back on this year, did we find ourselves walking in the power of Jesus, the power that both empowers those around us and threatens the empire’s ways of hoarding and oppression? Reign of Christ Sunday was first created in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, whose intent in establishing this feast day was to help the church seek the “justice of Christ’s kingship over and against the injustice of earthly ‘kings’ in the face of growing fascism in Italy and Germany.” (Liturgy that Matters – November 21, 2021.) From the very beginning, Reign of Christ Sunday has been intended for us to ask ourselves as Christ’s Church: Are we empowering others in ways that threaten the status quo of those clinging to hoarded wealth and influence? Has our life been spent helping others have life, and life abundant?
And as we look forward towards the year to come, we reflect on the choices ahead of us: How can we take steps in our own lives and as a church family to walk in this way of Jesus that both comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable? What lies about there not being enough for everyone might we need to let go of to live in the truth Jesus came to testify about, the truth that God made all of us for shared abundance? What risks might Jesus be inviting us to take with him?
I leave you now with the words of a man who walked this people-empowering, status-quo-upsetting way of Christ, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He embodied these words, and it led him along the way of Jesus, where he was assassinated on a cross of his own. Here’s how he described the path of Christ: “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.” (The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE: Chaos or Community?)
On this New Years Eve of the church, may we recommit to following in this way of Jesus. May the empire shake in its boots when it sees the Church coming on Reign of Christ Sunday, because the power of love is on the move. Amen.