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John 18:33-37

This Sunday marks the final Sunday of the Christian year. Another cycle of our participation in the story of the Triune God culminates in the proclamation that Jesus Christ exercises dominion over everything. Christ is indeed the ruler of heaven and earth.

One might assume that the gospel texts for such a Sunday would attest to the awe-inspiring coming (or coming again) of the Messiah, riding on the clouds and dispensing of his enemies. If this is/was your assumption, you will be disappointed in Year B’s gospel pericope. Our gospel text for today is an episode from John’s version of the passion narrative. With eyes to see and ears to hear, however, this passage provides God’s people with a kind of hope no revolutionary hero or earthly ruler could ever offer.

Our gospel text for today is an episode from Jesus’ trial. Jesus has been brought from the headquarters of Caiaphas, the high priest, to the headquarters of Pilate to stand trial. After questioning Jesus’ accusers, Pilate confronts Jesus inside his headquarters. Pilate gets straight to the point and asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” As Jesus is wont to do, he responds with a question of his own, deftly asking Pilate about the origin of his inquiry. If it is a question posed by Pilate himself, then he is asking whether or not Jesus sees himself in competition with the Roman Empire. If the question is posed against the backdrop of Judaism and its messianic expectations, then Jesus’ answer would be yes.

You can hear the disdain in Pilate’s voice when he quickly retorts, “I am not a Jew, am I?” Jesus, now understanding Pilate’s assumptions, knows that he must make it clear that his kingdom is not competing for space with the Roman Empire. It operates by a different set of standards. Power, coercion, and violence are not part of the exercise of God’s reign. It is most certainly present in the midst of the Roman Empire, but Jesus’ reign will not operate by employing the means of the beast of Rome. “So you are a king, then?” Jesus will allow Pilate to refer to him as a king, but Jesus wants to make sure that, if such language is to be used, it is radically redefined. Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Jesus’ response should temper our use of earthly models for thinking of the reign of God. We are quick to assume the language of “kingdom” when we discuss the reign of God without critically reflecting on the meaning inherent in/the worlds created by such language. We must remember that it is not Jesus who is on trial in the passion narrative. Instead, it is us and Pilate who are standing before the ruler and judge of all.

The language and ideas of kings and kingdoms do not carry the meaning they once did. Monarchs and royal families have been mostly relegated to the role of figureheads and tabloid cover fodder. If you are preaching to a congregation in the United States this Sunday, you will be speaking in a cultural context that was founded in resentment and rejection of monarchic rule. Such distance from kings and kingdoms makes it easier to think about God’s reign in the abstract and to relegate it to the “spiritual.” If you preach this text in this way this Sunday, you are doing your congregation a disservice. When Jesus asserts that his kingdom is not from this world, he is most certainly NOT saying that it does not have dominion over every aspect of our lives. The reign of God is not just one topic among many that Jesus preaches and teaches. Everything single thing Jesus says and does is the proclamation of the reign of God. When Jesus speaks about money, he is talking about the reign of God because our wallets and bank accounts are subject to God’s reign. Everything falls under the sovereignty of God’s reign. If there isn’t a holiness sermon in that, I am not sure where you will be able to find one.

“King” and “kingdom” language is inherently masculine language. In combination with the violent nature of kingdoms and any peace that they might promise, this makes “king” and “kingdom” language difficult to rescue for use to describe the reign of God. Many attempts have been made to find other language for speaking about the reign of God. One of my favorites is a play on the word “kingdom”— kin-dom. A term used by Ada Maria Isasi-­Diaz, “kin-dom” serves as what I would argue is a more appropriate translation of basileia, than “kingdom.” The images “kin-dom of God” evoke are much different than those evoked by “kingdom of God.” I think those images are more faithful to the radically alien nature of God’s reign. Make no bones about it— Jesus’ reign, the kin-dom of God, is established not in competition or in contrast with lord Caesar’s kingdom, but as completely other and above it. Caesar’s kingdom should be compared to the kin-dom of God and judged by it accordingly, but to try and compare God’s kin-dom to Caesar’s kingdom is to set one’s self up for disappointment.

When we recite the creeds, we confess that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Even though Pilate tried to wash his hands of what happened to Jesus, it was on his orders that Jesus was tortured and executed. For Jesus’ followers, for those who hoped that Jesus’ was the chosen one of God, Jesus’ suffering and death was a mark of his failure. The messianic expectations of God’s people did not include continued subjugation to the occupying Romans (or anyone else, for that matter). They expected the Messiah to come and deliver them militarily from their enemies, to rule from the throne of David, and to oversee the building up of Israel into a great nation. I do not think it would be a stretch to say that many in Jesus’ day might have envisioned the reign of God to look a lot like the reign of Caesar, just a lot more hospitable to the Jews. How often do we think, were we to put the right person in power, everything will be better?

Jesus certainly did suffer, but we are mistaken if we understand that suffering to signify his defeat. In John’s relating of the events that took place in the Praetorium, it is not Pilate who stands as judge and interrogator before Jesus, but Jesus who stands as judge and interrogator before Pilate. Jesus is driving this encounter, not Pilate. It would appear that Jesus and his questions/answers disorient Pilate. In his book Christ on Trial, Rowan Williams examines the various accounts of the trial of Jesus in all four gospels. What becomes evident is how Jesus and the reign of God, to which he witnessed with the entirety of his being, stand outside of the power structures of our world. Jesus and God’s reign are not competitors in our world. If Jesus were to simply use the language provided him and attest to his sovereignty before Pilate, it would be misunderstood as one more in a long string of reaches for power. Rather than Christ being on trial, it is Pilate (and us alongside him) who are in the hot seat. Our assumptions and understandings and practices of power, of God, and of truth are all put on trial before the true judge. Our response to the falsehoods of power, influence, wealth, and prestige are judged before the one who was wrongfully convicted and executed and who was subsequently raised by God from the dead.

May God pour out the Spirit as you speak prophetically to your congregation about the nature of the reign of God and what it means to be disciples of the God revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth.