Christ the King B: Not of this World

John 18:33-37

Dear Partner in Preaching,

As I read the Gospel of John – and, indeed, all the Gospels – I am increasingly convinced that I have missed the more radical nature of the message of and about our Lord. Today’s reading offers a perfect example, as of late I’ve come to suspect that I have misread a key, and perhaps central, portion of it.

Here’s the verse in question: Jesus 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’” (John 18:36).

For most of my interpretive life, I’ve read Jesus’ statement as disavowing his connection to this worldly kingdom of which both Pilate and Jesus’ own accusers are a part. Jesus, in this sense, is asserting his independence, that this world and its powers ultimately cannot determine his fate, reminiscent of his words in John 10: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again” (v18). Jesus is essentially saying that if this conflict were happening in his kingdom, then indeed his followers would fight, but since it was happening in this other kingdom, a kingdom that cannot keep hold of him, his followers do not get involved.

But not too long ago, a colleague suggested I’d been misreading it entirely, and I’ve come to believe she’s right. What Jesus might be saying, this colleague proposed, is that were he and his followers of this world, then naturally they would use the primary tool this world provides for establishing and keeping power: violence. But Jesus is not of this world and so Jesus will not defend himself through violence. Jesus will not establish his claims by violence. Jesus will not usher in God’s kingdom by violence. Jesus will make no followers by violence.

Rather, Jesus has come to witness to the truth, the truth that God is love (John 3:16), and that because we have not seen God and have such a hard time imagining God (John 1:18), all too often our imaginations are dominated by our experience. So rather than imagining that God is love, we imagine God to be violent because we live in a world of violence. Rather than recognize the cross as a symbol of sacrificial love, we assume it’s the legal mechanism of punishing Jesus in our stead because we have way too much experience with punitive relationships. Rather than believe that God’s grace and acceptance are absolutely unconditional, we assume God offers love, power, and status only on the condition that we fear, obey, and praise God – and despise those who don’t – because so much of our life is quid pro quo.

But Jesus is not of this world. And therefore his followers will not fight for him because to bring the kingdom about by violence is to violate the very principles of this kingdom and cause its destruction.

Could there be a more timely passage to reflect on after the atrocities perpetrated last week in Paris? Or after the increasing number of protests over the last year or two of the excessive use of force of some police, particularly against persons of color?

We live in a world dominated by the view that the only answer to violence is more violence. And the end result of that view is death.

Does that mean Jesus is calling us to be pacifists? Some traditions – particularly Mennonite, Quaker, and Church of the Brethren believers – have given vivid testimony to the power of Christian non-violence. These courageous and counter-cultural witnesses have at times shaken the powers that be and cannot and should not be quickly discarded. My own tradition, influenced by Martin Luther’s sense of God’s two hands (also called governments or kingdoms), has stressed that temporal authorities like armies and law enforcement have a critical role to play in creating a more orderly and more just world. (Which is why it is particularly painful when law enforcement falls short of its calling.) Standing in this tradition, I think the perpetrators of the violence in Paris and terrorists everywhere should be opposed vigorously, fought tirelessly, and brought to justice whenever possible so that there is less such violence in the world.

But as members of the Church and followers of a very different kind of king, we need also to witness that there are limits to the reach and outcome of force. As Martin Luther King, Jr., another champion for Christian non-violence, wrote,

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.(1)

What does this mean for our preaching this Sunday? I wish I had a definitive answer. What I think at this point, still reeling from the details of this weekend’s violence and looking again at a world that seems less safe for my children than the one in which I grew up, is that we gather this Sunday to pray and to witness. To pray that God will comfort those who mourn, strengthen those who seek to thwart terrorists and bring them to justice, change the hearts of those who can see no other way forward but through violence, and equip all of us to work for a peace born of equity, for only such a peace will last.

And after our praying, we are called to witness:
to witness to the One who demonstrated power through weakness,
who manifested strength through vulnerability,
who established justice through mercy,
and who built the kingdom of God by embracing a confused, chaotic, and violent world, taking its pain into his own body, dying the death it sought, and rising again to remind us that light is stronger than darkness, love is stronger than hate, and that with God, all good things are possible.

Thanks be to God for this message, as the world has never needed it more. And thanks be to all who proclaim the radical gospel of Christ, the King so different than the world’s kings and the One who testifies to the truth and calls us to do the same.

Yours in Christ,

(1) From “Where Do We Go From Here?” as published in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?  (1967), p. 62.