Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, a day known as ‘Reign of Christ’ or ‘Christ the King’ Sunday. In light of my ongoing series on different images the Scriptures use for sin and salvation, today’s theme offers an opportunity to remind ourselves of one of the most common images for salvation in the Gospels: The Kingdom of God.
This metaphor occurs over a hundred times in the New Testament, all but a handful in the Gospels. So we can safely say it was front-and-centre in Jesus’ teaching. It offers a slightly different nuance to the metaphor of ‘bondage and freedom‘ we looked at a few weeks ago. There, the problem in the world, ‘sin’, was understood to be a lack of freedom, like being enslaved or living under foreign domination. And certainly for the Jewish people in Jesus’ day and a world where the economy was as dependent on slave labour as ours is on fossil fuels, this was a ready and relevant idea. But in speaking of the Kingdom of God, Jesus takes it one step further: the problem is with the way the world as we know it works. Left to our own devices we will always end up oppressing ourselves or each other. Politics will always let us down. Beautiful ideologies will be corrupted. High-minded revolutions will fall into tyranny. There is something powerful at work behind the scenes — Jesus called it “the ruler of this world” or “Satan,” the Accuser; Paul called it “the Principalities and Powers,” and we might call it social contagion or even shadow — that works to twist authority into authoritarianism, wealth into oppression, that makes the strong stronger at the expense of the weak.
Today’s Gospel is a scene from Jesus’ hearing before Pontius Pilate. Just a few days before, the people of Jerusalem had welcomed Jesus as their king; now, his accusers have used this against him knowing that this is a charge the Roman authorities would take very seriously. Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” After some back-and-forth, Jesus tells him:
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… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. … 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. (John 18.35-37)
Jesus is a king, but not like the kings of this world. In his kingdom, truth is not twisted to lies. In his kingdom, authority is not lorded over others. In his kingdom, the poor, the merciful, those who seek after justice with all their hearts are blessed. In his kingdom, there is no retaliation, but sins are forgiven and the ‘other cheek’ is turned. In his kingdom, the smallest acts can have the biggest impact. In other words, his kingdom overturns the ways of this world. No matter what time or place we may find ourselves in, the ways of Jesus’ kingdom will always be counter-cultural and always challenging.
This is why Paul challenged the Christians in Rome not to be “conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Romans 12.2). Being a citizen of Jesus’ kingdom means living under a new constitution — a new way of being, in the world, yes, and for the world, but not being taken in by the world and its glamours.
As a metaphor for sin and salvation, these two kingdoms are in many ways about humility. They tell us that we cannot govern, legislate, or revolt ourselves out of the human condition. What we need instead is to have our hearts and minds renewed — flipped on end to see the world as God sees it and to live as citizens of His Kingdom.
And so on this day when we remember Christ our King, let us remember and live out the words of our national anthem:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.