My Kingdom is not of this world!  (A sermon on John 18:33-37) 

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.’

If you’re on Facebook or Twitter (and I suspect that everyone here over the age of 5 is probably on at least one them) then you, like I, have probably noticed the number of people in the last week have overlaid their profile pictures with the colours of the French flag!

I find this both encouraging and depressing. I find it encouraging that people are showing solidarity with those who are suffering in Paris, and that suffering is indeed real and I don’t want to trivialise that in any way. At the same time though I confess to being disappointed that I haven’t seen anybody overlay their profile pic with the colours of the Lebanese flag even though there was a chillingly similar terrorist attack in Beirut the day before the Paris attack, in which 40-something people were killed and hundreds injured!

I have to be careful here as I do not want to sound like I’m picking on people here who may have overlaid their profile pics with bands of red, white and blue. On the contrary, I applaud you for your desire to show solidarity with those who are suffering. I’m just bewildered as to why we as a society don’t seem to be equally concerned about those who are suffering in Beirut, let alone in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other countries that experience terrorist attacks of this kind on a daily basis!

There are a couple of possible explanations as to why this is the case, the most innocuous of which is that the Anglo-Celtic people in Australia identify more with French people because of our common European heritage (even though there are a lot more Lebanese people in Australia than French people) and that’s why the media has been so focused on Paris and why the Australian government sent formal condolences to France and not to Beirut (or so I’m told) and bathed the Sydney Opera House in French rather than Lebanese colours.

This, as I say, is the most innocuous explanation. The more disturbing explanation sees the focus on Paris as an attempt by powerful elites and their media partners to encourage stronger military intervention from European and Western countries.

I read a very interesting analysis of the press conference that the American President held right after the Paris attack where Mr Obama was asked five questions by five different media outlets but they were in fact all exactly the same question – namely, Don’t you now think that you should send ground troops into Syria?”

Interestingly, after the fourth question, the American President showed his frustration and said “I just spent the last three questions answering that very question, so I don’t know what more you want me to add.” The problem, of course, was that he kept failing to answer the question the way the questioners wanted him to answer it because he kept repeating that the US would not be putting boots on the ground in Syria (for which I am personally very thankful).

As I say, there are multiple explanations as to why we have had such a focus on the tragedy in Paris, and however you analyse things the overall picture is not encouraging. People are suffering violence. Many others are living in fear. And most disheartening of all, from my point of view, is that the basic project of DAESH, as I understand it, which is to divide the world into warring tribes – Christian verses Muslim, Sunni verses Shia, the children of God verses the children of the devil – is progressing really successfully!

And so I turn to the New Testament for answers, and there we find Jesus saying “My Kingdom is not of this world”. In other words, “don’t ask me!” 

That certainly appears to be what Jesus is saying, and yet it’s one statement in a series of odd statements from Jesus made to Pontius Pilate where none of Jesus’ responses were what Pilate was expecting, and so it deserves more scrutiny!

“Are you the king of the Jews”, Pilate begins, and Jesus seems to avoid answering the question. “Who suggested that you ask me that question?” he retorts!

Sisters and brother, I’ve personally sat through a LOT of interviews where people are being charged. Back in the day when Marrickville Police Station still used to have a juvenile lockup I was down there two and sometimes three nights each week, sitting with young men as they were being charged. I can tell you that if you want to avoid going to jail you don’t answer questions the way Jesus answered them!

Police officer: “Did you break into the car, son?”
Kid: “Who wants to know?”

No, you just don’t play those sort of games if you want to sleep at home that night.

“I didn’t do it, officer. I was walking past the car and happened to notice that the door was open so I got into the car to take the weight off my feet and have a bit of a rest and that’s when the police came by and noticed me in the car, but I had no intention of driving it anywhere as I knew that it was not my car”.

Yes, I’ve heard that one used and, yes, the lad got off without being charged! Contrast Jesus, who doesn’t give any indication that he wants to get off His charges except in this one response to Pilate – “my kingdom is not of this world!”where Jesus cuts through all the niceties and speaks directly to the only issue that is of any interest to Pilate. Jesus lets Pilate know that He is not a threat!

This was always the issue that the political power-players had with Jesus. They wanted to know whether He in any way threatened their position. When Jesus was still an infant Herod, we are told, butchered the little children of Bethlehem in an attempt to kill him off. Why? Because he perceived Jesus as a threat to his authority!

When the leaders of the Jewish community bring Jesus to Pilate and Pilate shuffles Him across to Herod (not the same Herod, of course, but a descendant of the previous tyrant) they are both really only interested in the one issue – namely, ‘is this guy a threat? Jesus’ response – that His Kingdom ‘is not of this world’ –answers that question. Jesus is not a threat, at least not in the sense that He is interested in wresting political power from them or from anybody else.

So when Jesus says “my Kingdom is not of this world” does He mean that He is king of another world, as if He’d said “I am the king of Mars!” Certainly plenty of people over the centuries have understood Jesus this way.

No one thinks of Jesus as the King of Mars, literally, of course, but they interpret Him as referring to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is a world beyond our own and has as little connection to life on planet earth as does Mars.

If we understand Jesus in this way then Jesus is indeed stating that his kingship is irrelevant to anything that goes on in this world because it is beyond His jurisdiction!  It’s like the Prime Minister of Australia trying to tell the Americans who they are allowed to have as their President, or the President of the United States trying to tell the Syrian people who they can have as their President. Actually, that’s probably not a very good example but you get the idea. The Kingdom of Heaven is a separate area of jurisdiction to the kingdoms of earth and one never interferes with the others.

As I say, there have been no shortage of Christian thinkers over the years who have endorsed a view like this, and indeed the ‘two kingdoms’ mentality was a significant contributing factor to the absolute failure of the German church to stand up to the rise of National Socialism during the 1930’s!

Most of the church in Germany went the distance with Hitler! That’s beyond dispute. Part of the rationale for that with many German Christians was they were members of two kingdoms – the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world – and that they had to maintain loyalty to their respective leaders in each kingdom – to the Lord Jesus in all issues concerned with the life to come, and to the Fuhrer in all earthly and material matters.

This ‘two kingdoms’ approach is not just an issue for historical analysis, of course, but is still very much alive today, most obviously in the religious right in the USA and in its local counterparts here. This sort of approach encourages all Christians to be absolutely faithful to Jesus in spiritual matters and, conversely, not to question the wisdom of the state in matters political, except when politicians intrude into sacred religious territory, which generally means they were either trying to:

  1. Abort children
  2. Inhibit religious education
  3. Marry gay people
  4. Question the State of Israel

I won’t offer any analysis here as to how these came to be bundled together. Let it suffice to say here that including Israeli politics as a spiritual issue seems about as absurd to me as is treating the suffering of the poor as a purely secular issue.

Let’s cut to the chase here and recognise that Jesus’ statement that “my kingdom is not of this world” can’t possibly be intended to locate Jesus’ kingdom as being somewhere above and beyond and irrelevant to this world. If Jesus’ Kingdom were in another dimension of the space/time continuum, then He wouldn’t have referred to his subjects and their failure to fight, as his subjects would have also been on another planet and hence unable to fight!

No! The subjects he refers to are presumably His disciples, who were very much a part of this world, and so we have to interpret “My Kingdom is not of this world” as meaning that His Kingdom is not ‘of the world’ in the same way that we are meant to be ‘in the world but not of the world (John 17:16).

Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world because He doesn’t play the power games that the rulers of this world play! Jesus’ authority is not like the authority of this world’s political leaders because He doesn’t need to rely on the use of state-controlled violence to maintain his position. Jesus’ rule is not something He enforces on people like the rulers of this world do but is rather one that those who belong to the truth are irresistibly drawn to! Jesus, in other words, is playing an entirely different game!

I remember a favourite episode of the Goon Show (for those old enough to remember ‘The Goons’). The Romans are invading Britain and Neddy Seagoon is leading the British troops out to meet the Romans. The only problem is that Seagoon has mistakenly assumed that the Romans have come for a game of soccer!

Before opening hostilities, Caesar is overhead asking “what kind of army is this that fights with a ball at their feet?” And of course it’s not long after hostilities open that Seagoon blows his whistle and cries foul, claiming that there are only supposed to be eleven players on each side but that the Romans seem to be fielding at least 20,000 players!

The problem, of course, is that they are not playing the same game, and Jesus and Pilate are not playing the same game. Pilate’s game is all about power and control and the glory of the Empire! Jesus kingdom is about truth, and everybody who belongs to the truth listens to His voice! (John 18:37)

I was privileged to be a speaker last night at a memorial service for those who died in Beirut last week, and I was encouraged to hear prayers go up not only for those who died in Beirut but also for those who died in Paris, as well as those who suffer the effects of terrorist violence in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere.

In my address I paid tribute to the Shia community, who were targeted in the Beirut attack, for the way they kept their cool and did not engage in knee-jerk retaliation against suspected militants, despite the temptation to do so.

Additionally, I paid tribute to the Shia community worldwide for what I see as a most extraordinary phenomenon that very few of us would be aware of – namely, the pilgrimage to Karbala in Iraq, known as Arba’een, that attracted more than 20 million people this year – five times as many as the Haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).

Arba’een is a pilgrimage where people walk 100 km to pray at the burial place of some of the great Muslim saints were killed at Karbala, and it has become, in the Shia community, a time of grieving for all who suffer oppression in this world.

Arba’een has also become an occasion for showing compassion to whose who are suffering, even in the form of locals constantly bringing out supplies of food and drink and offering them at no charge to the millions who participate in the march. There is also much massaging of feet going on, and people who hire trolleys to help transport the frail and elderly along the path at no charge!

Last year more than 10 million people walked the pilgrimage to Karbala. This year it was more than 20 million. Next year it could double in numbers again! What this says to me is that this is a major response from the Shia community, who are the primary targets of DAESH and other Wahhabi militant groups, to the persecution they are experiencing. Instead of getting together to plan violent retaliation, they are gathering in their millions to grieve, to pray and to show compassion! In other words, they are refusing to play the same kingdoms-of-this-world-type of game as their persecutors. Could God’s be trying to teach the Christian community here (once again through a non-Christian community) what it means to follow in the way of cross?

And so I haven’t coloured my Facebook profile pic as yet. I didn’t feel right about adopting the French flag and I figured that if I put the Lebanese colours up there very few people would know what flag it was! I did consider overlaying Syrian flag except that I might then be dismissed as a government lackey, and I didn’t feel comfortable with the Australian flag either, as the people who are waving that most vigorously at the moment are the Reclaim Australia people who seem to have the same ‘divide and conquer’ strategy as the takfiri (DAESH)!

And so I’m retreating to the traditional Christian stance that sees any worship of any flag as being a form of idolatry. I might change my mindd if anyone ever devises a human flag, representing all of humanity, though after Don’s sermon last week (about caring for the animal kingdom) I wonder if even that is a little too exclusivist.

“My kingdom is not of this world”, Jesus says, and perhaps that’s why He never had a flag. His Kingdom is a kingdom of truth. His Kingdom is a kingdom of love, joy, hope and peace. And the great promise of the Scriptures is that His kingdom comes!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 8th of November, 2015.

Click here for the video.

Click here for the audio.

Rev. David B. Smith

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

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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