My Kingdom is not of This World
I’m afraid we’ve gotten it all wrong this whole time. From my own childhood, and I can imagine from yours as well, every time I’ve come across a depiction of Jesus Christ as King of the Universe, he is always attired in royal robes – luxurious velvet, fine linen, and rich cloth; crowned in magnificent gold; adorned in brilliant precious stones; enthroned amid the familiar trappings of earthly power and authority – scepter in hand, enemies at his feet, hosts of angels awaiting his every beck and call. It’s easily a comforting image of the One we honor on this glorious feast as we bring the liturgical year to a close – Jesus Christ, Son of the Eternal and Most High God, Universal King and Supreme Ruler over all Creation. And then we hear in that gospel passage how he says right to Pontius Pilate’s face, “My kingdom is not of this world.” You would think he would be starving for some sympathy after being betrayed by one of his inner circle, abandoned by the rest of his friends, disowned by the religious leaders of his people, and dragged in by soldiers belonging to the world’s most powerful and most paranoid emperor. I suppose it’s not our fault we have such a skewed understanding of what it truly means to be Universal King and Supreme Ruler over all Creation. This is all we’ve ever really known about kings and earthly rulers. So we think we can just clean up the image, take away all human imperfections and dysfunctions, and voila!, we transform the itinerant preacher and carpenter’s son from Nazareth by bestowing on him the highest honors the world can ever imagine! Today’s feast was instituted for the universal church in 1925 by Pius XI to be celebrated on the Sunday before the feast of All Saints, later moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year by Paul VI in 1969. The pope’s original intent was to divert attention from the divisive nationalist and secularist movements in Europe after World War I to the one real focus he figured all of Christian Europe would welcome. He intended well, but the true meaning of the feast continues to escape us. Had Christians strayed so far from the truth, that we would be deaf to the pope’s call to reexamine our priorities and return to God? Did the image of Jesus Christ in the guise of an earthly king fail to fire up the Christian imagination? It did little to impress non-Christians and non-believers. Perhaps we should have been paying closer attention to what Jesus was saying all along. “My kingdom is not of this world.” Are we ready today to really hear what he was trying to tell us?
We have to remember that this kingdom he speaks of, alternately referring to it as the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven, is not a kingdom of some future time and place. Instead, he tells us it is already here, already in our midst. But somehow we have believed and taught others that we may not attain heaven until we depart from this life, that we can get to heaven only after death. How did we get that wrong?
When Jesus spoke of the kingdom, he never described it using images of earthly power and wealth. When we think of an earthly kingdom, we might picture a noble family of historical importance, endowed with the trappings of affluence, power and privilege, with self-important noble titles and vast holdings of land and property, a veritable army of household servants and soldiers, power both imagined and real, the appearance of military might, the unquestioning allegiance of its citizens, topped with enviable adulation, influence and prestige within and beyond its borders. Instead, he announced that those belong to the kingdom who strive to put into practice the will of his heavenly Father, that tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom ahead of those who considered themselves righteous yet refused to believe in him.
When Peter picked up a sword to defend Jesus in the garden before he was arrested by Roman soldiers and temple guards, he strongly cautioned against violence, that Peter should put his sword back in its place, that “they who take the sword will perish by the sword.” That seems more consistent with his teachings against paying back evil for evil in the Sermon on the Mount. “Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your heavenly Father.”
Then at the last supper, he washed his disciples’ feet, he who is Lord and Master. Why have we believed and taught others very differently from what Jesus was saying? How did we get that wrong?
When Jesus spoke of the kingdom, he pointed often to the cost it would demand of those who wanted to possess it. He spoke of how the kingdom is a most precious treasure; that one would be willing to sell everything to possess it; that one was not worthy of the kingdom who looked back on what they were leaving behind; that one was not worthy of him who loved father and mother, son or daughter more than him; that one was not worthy of him who did not take up his cross and follow after him. The promise of instant wealth and notoriety, as in a Mega-million lottery prize, has made many a poor soul renounce family, loyalty, even their most noble principles, literally placing the value of an earthly kingdom ahead of everything else. We who stand on the sidelines might call it madness. We adamantly declare we would never do that. But secretly, we might see things differently when it’s happening to us. Still we believe, and we teach our children, that people are more important than things. Yet Jesus says to place the kingdom above everything, even the people most dear to us. If the kingdom of God is our highest priority, Jesus tells us, we should be willing to throw everything else overboard. But that’s not what we teach others. So how did we get that wrong?
“I was born to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” What is this truth he speaks of? Pilate asked him that question, but didn’t hang around for an answer. The truth is what the Father sent Jesus to proclaim, calling us to a new way of thinking, and a new way of living. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom already in our midst, a kingdom of mercy and justice, of forgiveness and rebirth, of God’s benevolent rule over our lives. It is not some future time or place. It is here and now. It is not for the privileged nor the self-righteous. It is for the repentant sinner. It is for the imperfect and the weak who persevere in their striving. It is for the blind, the deaf, the mute, and the lame who proclaim with their lives the triumph of God’s mercy over evil and sin. It is for the broken healed and made whole once again. It is for the dead risen to new and everlasting life. “My kingdom is not of this world.” So how do we continue to get that wrong?