Of all the readings on Christ the King Sunday, the reading above from John 18 gets to the heart of what it means for Jesus to be the King who brings the Kingdom. It is also the most difficult.
Pilate clearly does not understand Jesus at all. He is supposed to be a king, a revolutionary ready to liberate God’s people from their Roman oppressors, but his “army” is hardly formidable– a handful of cowardly disciples quick to run when the first battle is at hand. Jesus’ quick capture hardly suggests a powerful movement. Pilate has seen plenty of real revolutionaries and Jesus does not fit the job description. If Jesus is a king, he does not appear to have much of a kingdom.
Of course, from Jesus’ vantage point, Pilate cannot understand what it means for Jesus to be a king because Pilate cannot understand the character of Jesus’ kingdom. “My kingdom is not from this world.” Too often interpretations of this passage have gone terribly wrong in employing the false spiritual/physical dichotomy in attempting to understand Jesus’ words. But there is no Platonic dualism here in which the spiritual is removed from this earthly physical existence to reside on a perfect spiritual plain above the world. Jesus is not saying that his kingdom is a purely spiritual kingdom having nothing to do with the messy realities of this physical existence. Rather, Jesus is informing Pilate that since is kingdom is not from or of this world (take your pick on the translation of the Greek word ek), it is not ordered nor does it operate as Caesar’s kingdom with brute power and force. That is why Jesus informs Pilate that his loyal subjects do not take up arms in order to protect him. Indeed, earlier in his ministry Jesus criticized his fellow Jews who would use force in an attempt to bring God’s kingdom to earth.
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12).
But Jesus insisted that God’s kingdom did not operate as the earthly kingdoms. His kingdom was a reordered kingdom.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:35-45).
Pilate cannot understand Jesus’ kingdom because he cannot possibly know how this Jesus will inaugurate his kingdom apart from swords and shields and overwhelming power. The classic words of John Howard Yoder remain relevant:
But the answer given to the question by the series of visions and their hymns [in the Book of Revelation] is not the standard answer. “The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power!” John is here saying, not as an inscrutable paradox but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history. The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness, but their patience (13:10). The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and other kinds of power in every human conflict; the triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys. The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection (The Politics of Jesus).
I dare say this vision of God’s kingdom not only makes little sense to those who are not its citizens, it remains scandalous for many citizens of that kingdom today. Perhaps that is why Christians so often default to the spiritual/physical dichotomy in their attempt to understand the kingdom that has come in Jesus. The politics of God’s kingdom is too subversive for those who continue to want to play the games of earthly politics, who see force and power and majority rule as more effective than cross and resurrection; who refuse to say it verbally, but acknowledge in practice that the sword is more effective than the cross, and power determines the outcome of history over against the suffering of King Jesus.
But King Jesus comes as king and he comes in his own way, not bearing on his head a jeweled diadem, but wearing a crown of thorns. He comes not wearing a silken robe of royalty, but a piece of cheap purple cloth put on him by his tormentors. And his wardrobe is meant to be worn by his citizens as they bear witness to that divine kingdom in this world, as they are a suffering presence in mission to this world.
I suggest that preaching this kingdom reordered on Christ the King Sunday will produce many puzzled looks in the pews– perhaps the same kind of look Pontius Pilate had when Jesus proclaimed the nature of his kingdom to the Roman governor two millennia ago.
The scandal of the gospel remains.