On the church calendar, and I don’t mean our church calendar that appears in your Connections, I mean the ecumenical church calendar that follows the Christian year as reflected in the Revised Common Lectionary, today is called Reign of Christ Sunday. The question I want to address today is asked in the title: What does the reign of Christ look like? What is it about? What are the primary characteristics of the reign of Christ? These are very important considerations.
In our text today Pilate questions Jesus about his kingship. And in response Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world.” What does that mean? I’m sure we all realize that words have multiple meanings. A trunk could be a box-like container, or it could be the back part of your car that holds your luggage, or it could be attached to a tree. What the word means is determined by the context in which it is used. Biblical words are no different. Consider the word “world.” When Jesus says my kingdom is not of this world, what does he mean by world?
In this Gospel the writer uses that word in both a positive way and in a negative. This Gospel affirms that God loves the world. The world is God’s “good” creation. In the first account of creation in Genesis 1 after each creative act God declares that what was created is good – “and God saw that it was good.” And after God creates the human couple in God’s image, the story ends by saying, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Original goodness takes precedence over original sin. God loves the world. God dwells in the world. God dwells in each of us. Each of us possesses divine DNA. John’s Gospel emphasizes over and over the truth of the indwelling God – a God who incarnates God’s self in flesh and blood. Jesus is for us the definitive incarnation, but God dwells in each of us just like Jesus, and we are called to be like Jesus, incarnating the grace and truth of God. The world is good, and loved, and indwelt by God and therefore sacred, but it is not flawless. There is, of course, injustice and evil in the world and in our lives. So it’s vitally important to live within the healthy tension this creates. Some overemphasize our sin, and cannot see our goodness. While others see the goodness, but not the sin. It’s important to see both and acknowledge both.
When John proclaims that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, he is not saying that Jesus’ kingdom is heavenly rather than earthly. The kingdom of God is both heavenly and earthly. When we pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” we are praying that the way the kingdom of God operates in heaven, in that transcendent realm, will operate the same way on earth, in this temporal realm. God’s kingdom encompasses both heaven and earth – it’s not confined to heaven.
Also, when John says that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world he is not saying that Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual in contrast to the kingdoms of the world that are political. Because the kingdom of God is both spiritual and political. When the early followers of Jesus confessed Jesus as Lord they were making both a spiritual and a political statement. They were saying Jesus is the final authority in all matters – things spiritual and political. When they said Jesus is Lord, they were saying Caesar is not. Lord was a title attributed to Caesar. They were saying that their first allegiance was a commitment to do the will of Christ, rather than the will of Rome. They would be obedient to Rome when they could, but if being obedient to Rome meant being disobedient to the will of Christ, then they refused to be obedient to Rome, and were willing to live with the consequences. For followers of Jesus it’s always about what is moral, not what is legal.
What John means when he says that the kingdom of Christ is not of this world is that God’s kingdom does not partake of the values, morals, principles, and practices of the world that are contrary to the values, morals, principles, and practices of Christ. It doesn’t mean that there is no good in the world; there are people who do the will of God and don’t even realize it. But it does mean that Christ’s kingdom does not share in the injustice and evil that is also present in the world.
The late Walter Wink calls the world, when used in this negative sense, the domination system. The domination system is an unjust system. The writer of 1 John says in 2:15-16, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” He is not telling his readers to not love the creation or even the evil people in the world, after all Jesus commanded us to even love our enemies. Rather, he is telling us to not love the unjust, domination system, because the unjust, domination system is dominated by “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and pride in riches.” He is saying that covetousness and greed, as well as the selfish ambition and egocentric pride are the values at the cord of the domination system.
This all becomes clearer when Jesus clarifies what he means. He says, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (that is, the Jewish leaders, who want to kill him). What John is saying is that Christ’s kingdom does not partake of the violence and hate and prejudice of the world. The kingdom of Christ does take control of others by force, but rather serves and gives to others out of love.
Do you remember what Jesus says to his disciples in the Synoptic Gospels when he caught them arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus tells them that’s how the rulers and kings of the earth operate. They lord it over others. That is, they seek to control others by force and manipulation. But the kingdom of God operates on different values and principles and under a different kind of power. The power of Spirit is the power of the kingdom of God, and the power of Spirit is the power of compassion and love. This is why Jesus says, “You are not to control others, but to serve others. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life for the healing and liberation of many.”
Pilate asks Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus says (and this is actually what John’s church is saying), “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” Then Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” What John means in this Gospel when he talks about truth is the truth that Jesus embodied. It is incarnational truth. There are some Christians who would like to narrowly interpret truth to mean what they believe. We are not talking about doctrine here. We are talking about the truth of God that Jesus incarnated. It’s the truth of God’s grace and mercy and passion to heal the broken, uplift the downtrodden, welcome the stranger, and liberate the oppressed. That’s the truth of God that Jesus lived and taught. Pilate is confused about such truth. So he asks, “What is truth?” The domination systems of the world are blind to this truth.
The truth is that the kingdom of God is generally unlike the kingdoms of the world. Because the kingdom of God is really the kin-dom of God. It’s about loving others that flows out of our common life and connection to each other. I love to tell the story that News reporter and commentator Peter Arnett tells about the time he was in Israel, in a small town on the West Bank, when an explosion went off. The screams of the wounded seemed to be coming from all directions. A man emerged from this chaos, running up to him holding a severely wounded little girl in his arms. He pleaded with Arnett to help him get her to a hospital. He cried, “Please Mister, help me. The Israeli troops have sealed off the area. No one can get in or out. But you are press. You can get through. Please, help me,” he begged.
So Arnett put them in his car, managed to get through the sealed area, and rushed the girl to a hospital in
. The whole time
he was hurtling down the road to the city, the man with the little girl in his
arms was pleading for him to hurry, “Can you go faster. I’m losing her. I’m
losing her,” he screamed. When they finally got to the hospital, the girl was
rushed to the operating room. Then the two men retreated to the waiting area,
where they sat on a bench in silence, too exhausted to talk. After a short
while, the doctor emerged from the operating room with the news that the girl
had died. Jerusalem
The man collapsed in tears. Arnett went over and put his arm around him to comfort him. He said, “I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine what you must be going through. I’ve never lost a child.” The moment he said, “I’ve never lost a child,” the man looked at Arnett in a startled manner. He said, “Oh Mister, that Palestinian girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler. She was not my child. But, you know, there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or son. There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.” (Campolo, 121-22) That man just bore witness to the core truth of the kin-dom of God. We are all connected. We are one family. We all belong.
In our text Pilate represents the unjust, and often violent domination system of the world. Jesus represents the just and peace-seeking kin-dom of God. The two kingdoms are often at odds. Throughout history there has been a clash between them. This conflict is being played out right now on the Mexican border as a pilgrimage of migrants come seeking asylum.
Our president has told them to go back where they came from. We don’t want them, he said. He has tried to caricature them as a gang of hardened criminals in order to justify his hate-filled rhetoric and actions, when in reality they are mostly poor families fleeing violence, oppression, and poverty. He has deployed troops to the border costing millions of dollars, and would love to use brute force to turn them away. He has told our military to shoot anyone who throws rocks. Now, fortunately, most of our military leaders are good and decent people who have some compassion, and would never shoot poor migrants seek asylum. But they have been deployed. They are on the border carrying weapons of war. Take a good look, sisters and brother, for that is the domination system of the world. We are not to love that system, according to John. We are not to conform to that system, says Paul (Rom. 12:1-2).
But the kin-dom of God is there as well. I read a letter this past week signed by 570 faith leaders, representing 145 faith-based organizations across religious traditions. The letter was only a couple of pages, but when I sent it to the printer it just kept printing and printing. It was printing all the leaders and organizations that had signed the letter. The key points the letter makes are these: 1) We call on Congress to reverse course and see that the U.S. complies with its own laws and international obligations to welcome those seeking protection. 2) The U.S. must stop facilitating displacement and should partner in remedying the root causes of forced migration. 3) It is a human right to seek asylum. 4) We oppose using the plight of migrants, children, and families as leverage to enact dangerous policies. 5) Asylum seekers, families, and children should never be separated or locked up. 6) Congress has opportunity to reverse course by limiting funding for detention, deportation, and border militarization. There is a paragraph devoted to each of these points in the letter. The Baptist Alliance, who we affiliate with, signed the letter.
These faith groups and others are mobilizing as well. Coalitions and alliances are being formed to support the migrants to deliver everything from basic necessities, such as food, water, clothing, and basic medical care to legal, spiritual, and psychological support. Our own Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is working to funnel supplies and money raised in the U.S. to supportive ministries already in Mexico. Such is the work of the kin-dom of God
The kin-dom of God counters exclusion with inclusion. The kin-dom of God counters prejudice and alienation with acceptance and affirmation. Instead of adding to their burdens, tearing people and families apart, oppressing them even more, the kin-dom of God offers healing and hope. God’s kin-dom welcomes the stranger; it doesn’t lock them up or send them away. The reign of Christ is simply a reign of love. If we are not committed to a reign of love, then we are not committed to the kin-dom of God.
Our good God, may our ears and eyes be open to hear the words of truth and see the life of truth lived out before us in the life of Jesus, our Lord. So that we may advance your agenda. So that we may take your side, which is always the side of the oppressed and the vulnerable. So that we may be instruments to help fulfill your dream for the world and be active participants in the work of you kin-dom on earth. Show us how to love others the way you love them, and to realize that we all belong to one another and to you.