Christ is King! (John 18:33-37)

A sermon for the last Sunday of the Church year – the feast of Christ the King

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

Welcome to the last Sunday of the Christian year – traditionally recognised as the feast of ‘Christ the King’.

Next week is Advent – the start of a new Christian year, but this week we conclude the old ecclesiastical year with a proclamation of the kingship of Christ, and a call upon all of us to decide where our allegiances in this world lie.

I said that this is a ’traditional’ feast, but it’s actually only a tradition that goes back 80-odd years – to 1925, when the feast day was proclaimed by Pope Pius XI.

1925 was a dark time for our world. The world had only just emerged from the war to end all wars, and the signs were everywhere that it was hurtling towards another.

We were in the grip of a worldwide economic depression, and desperately looking for answers. And of course there were some outspoken leaders who believed that they had answers to those questions. One was the Italian leader, Mussolini, who had just celebrated his third year in office. Another was a young rabble-rouser by the name of Adolf Hitler, who had been out of gaol for a year by that stage, and whose Nazi party was rapidly growing in popularity across Germany.

The world was watching, waiting for answers, and listening to these powerful men competing for the limelight, and the Pope felt that it was time to call on Christian people everywhere to declare their allegiance to the rule of Christ.

Unfortunately, the years that followed showed that not enough people took Pius’ call to Christ seriously. Either that, or somehow they failed to understand that you couldn’t follow both Christ and the Fuhrer.

Of course it’s easy to be wise in retrospect, but I still find it very difficult to understand how so many pious, church-going, Christian people supported, fought for, and prayed for the Fuhrer week by week over the passage of World War II.

I don’t doubt that in many cases it was because they really had no idea what the Fuhrer was up to, but that was not always the case. Indeed, some of the most depressing literature I‘ve ever read comes from the diary entries of pious German Christians who, during the war, were faithfully working the gas-chambers at Auschwitz by day but, according to their personal journals, were struggling with their consciences over whether as Christians they should attend the camp dance at night

How did they get it so wrong? How did they fail to see that you can’t follow Christ while you’re murdering your brothers and sisters as your day-job?

Sociologists will tell you that part of the reason has to be that German Christian thinking at the time was very much shaped by the two-worlds approach – that religion was a personal spiritual thing, and not directly relevant to political, material realities. After all, did not Jesus say, “my Kingdom is not of this world!”

And of course He did say exactly that, and we heard Him say that in our Gospel reading today, but I’m pretty sure that was not what He meant!

So let’s open our Bibles, and as we do we journey back from 1925 to another dark time – some 1900 years earlier, in the Roman province of Judea – a region that was also heading towards war. And once again there were various voices competing for attention – military leaders, politicians and charismatic figures who would arise from the rank and file of the subjugated local population, promising to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression.

Pontius Pilate was the character with the unenviable job of keeping the province of Judea in line, and he was, according to the Jewish historian Philo, a ruthless overlord: “by nature rigid and stubbornly harsh. . . of spiteful disposition and an exceeding wrathful man. .His career was marked by … bribes, acts of violence, outrages, cases of spiteful treatment, constant murders without trial, and ceaseless and most grievous brutality.”

Today’s Gospel reading portrays him as a weak and vacillating man – torn between his external fears and his inner doubts. He is also a cynic – “So you are a king?” he asks Jesus sarcastically, as he threatens him from his position of power.

It is a dialogue that is masterfully told by John the evangelist, as it is portrayed as an encounter between the leading local power-merchant of the government, on the one hand, and the apparently powerless figure of Jesus, on the other. And yet, as the story progresses, we realise that it is Jesus who is in control, whereas Pilate seems to be quite powerless. He wants to release Jesus but can’t. His job is to administer justice, but he is too scared to do what he knows is right. And so he moves back and forth between Jesus and his accusers, eventually symbolically washing his hands of the situation, in a desperate attempt to excuse himself from responsibility.

What we see here is two kings (of sorts) – two competing kingdoms, two contrasting types of power. On the one hand we have Pilate – the institutional authority, whose power resides in the army that stands behind him. On the other hand we have Jesus, whose power comes from the fact that He tells the truth.

This is indeed Jesus’ response when Pilate asks him whether He is a king: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (v.37)

Let’s get technical here for a moment. There are two sorts of power on view here: institutional power and charismatic power.

Institutional power is the sort of power Pilate has. It is power that comes from the top-down. It’s power, as Mao Tse-tung said, “that grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

Charismatic power is power that comes from the bottom up. It‘s power that is not imposed on anyone, but a power that people give you. When the people said of Jesus, “He spoke as one who had authority, not like their scribes and Pharisees”, this is charismatic power – authority that you recognise because of its intrinsic value

Jesus says, “everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice”, because they recognise that He speaks the truth and so they hold him as an authority and listen to him, regardless of whether he has any official position given by the institution.

This is the difference between the power of Jesus and the power of his clerical contemporaries, who had the uniforms and the salaries and the titles, but not the support of the people.

And this is the difference between the kingship of Jesus and the Kingship of Pilate, if we can put it that way – one an institutionalised rule, imposed by the occupying army, and the other a charismatic authority, where people come and put themselves under the rule of Christ because they recognise that He speaks the truth.

As has been pointed out, charismatic authority is, in the end, the only real sort of authority, since the ‘power that grows out of the barrel of a gun’ only lasts as long as you’re holding the gun. You put down the gun and the power is gone, because it was never really there in the first place.

Now, this is what Jesus means, I think, when He says, “My Kingdom is not of this world”. He’s not saying that His Kingdom is located on another planet. He’s saying that His Kingdom is qualitatively different from the Kingdoms of this world. It is not of the world because it is not based on institutionalised power.

Indeed, the Kingdom of God that Jesus speaks about is different in almost every respect from the kingdoms of this world. In Mark 10 (42-45) Jesus tries to get this through to His disciples when they are arguing about who will have the most power in Jesus’ government:

“You know that those who are recognized as rulers among the gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors act like tyrants over them. That’s not the way it should be among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to everyone.”

Jesus’ Kingdom is not like the societies we know, as the power structures we are familiar with are turned on their head. Instead of the biggest and toughest people lording it over the weak, greatness in this Kingdom is established through service!

Jesus’ Kingdom is one where little children are valued as highly (and maybe even more highly) than clever and accomplished adult people.

His is the Kingdom where might and money mean nothing in terms of a person’s value, but where humility and sacrifice mean everything.

His is the Kingdom where the weak are not despised but loved, and where 99 healthy sheep are left on the hillside while attention is given to one who strays.

Jesus is king of the upside-down Kingdom, where the first is last and the last, first, and so He says to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world”, for He has no interest in competing with Pilate at his level. His power is not that sort of power.

Let’s be clear on this though: the fact that Jesus is not competing with Pilate for political power does not mean that Jesus was not a revolutionary. Jesus was a revolutionary, and in a sense, his countrymen who presented him to Pilate as an insurgent were quite correct. For Jesus was starting a revolution, and it was a revolution that would change the face of the planet. It just wasn’t a revolution that used force of arms to achieve its end.

His Kingdom is not of this world, but that doesn’t mean you can follow Jesus and still serve the Fuhrer. For we likewise are not of this world. We too have to reject the power struggles, the darkness, and the barbarisms of this world if we are to be subjects and servants of Christ the King.

Our Gospel reading portrays a dark time in human history. 1925, when Pius proclaimed the feast of Christ the King was another dark time. And as we conclude the year of our Lord 2006, I think we recognise that we are in another dark period of human history.

Our world seems to be sinking into increasing global violence. At a local level, prejudices and divisions continue to grow, as we anxiously anticipate the next 9/11, knowing that when this happens our community may well descend into a new level of barbarism.

We too find ourselves in conflict with this world and its rulers. We too are questioned, mocked, belittled, defamed, injured, and wearied by constant attacks. But we continue to take our stand with Christ – holding fast to the truth, and declaring our allegiance to our King!

Christ is King! That is our proclamation this morning. He is the one who we acknowledge as our ultimate authority. His is the Kingdom that we are subjects of. His rule is the one we recognise above all others.

And so we will not serve the Fuhrer or any of the power-mongers of this world who would turn us against our brothers and sisters in hatred and violence. We will not play their games and we will not compete with them on their level. Our Kingdom is not of this world. Their ways are not our ways. Their goals are not our goals. We do not want their power. Their kingdom is not our Kingdom.

No! We have chosen Christ as our King, and so we refuse to recognise the ultimate authority of anyone whose power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Rather, we stand by Christ, holding fast to our belief in the better world that is to come, and together with our King, we move forward through sacrifice and service.

It’s not easy to follow Christ the King. We know that, as indeed we know that our gospel drama today concludes not with Jesus striding from the palace victorious, but with Him being taken away and executed. Even so, we proclaim it:

Christ is King – His, the Kingdom, His, the Power and His, the Glory, for ever and ever. Amen!

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, November 2006. 

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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