Kings and Kingdoms (Christ the King Sunday)

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This fall in Confirmation, we’re studying the Lord’s Prayer.  And this year, we’re trying a new format, where the kids and parents all read material I send, and then the kids answer questions on a worksheet before we meet for the in-person class.  As I’ve designed those worksheets, I’ve tried to ask questions that get the kids thinking about some of the things we’ll talk about when we gather in-person.

At our last class, we studied the petition of the Lord’s Prayer that asks for God’s kingdom to come.  And in preparation for that class, I asked the kids to tell me what images came to mind when they heard the word “kingdom.”  And they had lots of good and interesting answers! 

For them, and for many of us, the word “kingdom” often conjures up images of fairy tale castles.  On the other hand, sometimes the idea of “kingdom” can imply an authoritarian state, which may or may not be good depending upon the character or the ruler.  And often, the idea of “kingdom” just seems distant and irrelevant to our daily lives, because our country isn’t a “kingdom.”

And so on this day, as we celebrate “Christ the King” Sunday – and as we heard Jesus and Pilate debate kingdoms in the Gospel reading – it’s good to consider for a moment what Jesus means when he talks about the “kingdom of God”.  What does it mean for us to also be citizens of this “kingdom”, into which we baptize Logan this morning?  And how do we live into and experience that kingdom in our real, everyday lives?

Those are good questions for us to consider, and I asked them of the confirmation class, because usually, as soon as we hear the words king and kingdom, we think of rulers and dominions which are clothed with power, prestige and authority.

Yet as Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, he seems to have none of these things.  Jesus has no power to force Pilate to release him.  His own people have handed him over to a hated foreign power, so Jesus doesn’t have much prestige in Pilate’s eyes.  And even Jesus’ authority seems at first glance to be limited to another realm – he says that his “kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate, on the other hand, is the Roman governor.  He’s the personal representative of the Emperor.  Sometimes, we look at Pilate as the guy who looks most like the kind of “king” we imagine.  But although many modern readers don’t realize it, Pilate is somewhat lacking in kingly qualities as well.  Unlike our usual images of kings or representatives of kings, Pilate lacks:

  • power – Pontius Pilate usually hung out in Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast; when he came to Jerusalem to personally oversee keeping order during Passover, he came with maybe 1000 Roman soldiers (there were probably only 300 or so permanently posted there.)  During the festival, the population swelled to more than 40,000.  Pilate was basically outnumbered …
  • prestige – Pilate, for all the pomp and circumstance, was despised, even by the collaborating authorities who handed Jesus over to him; people hated him in spite of honest efforts to do helpful things like build an aqueduct …
  • authority – of course, he had authority from the Emperor to do whatever was necessary to maintain order, but therein lay the catch. It wasn’t really his authority; and if he failed to keep order, he’d be kicked out of office (which eventually he was).  And the one thing his “authority” didn’t buy him was the ability to keep a riot from happening …

So what we really have in today’s Gospel reading is two figures who don’t much reflect our image of kings discussing what it means to be a king.  Yet while Pilate can’t seem to wrap his brain around the idea that a king and a kingdom can be different from what he thinks they ought to be, Jesus’ words and actions show us that maybe our ideas of kings and kingdoms are also wrong.  In fact, if we’re looking for the kingdom of God in our lives, and we’re expecting to see the kinds of kings and kingdoms we’ve grown to expect, we may miss it entirely.

And that’s because Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom of God is:

  • real – not a fantasy or a dream based on image … (some kingdoms, like the Roman Empire, were actually based more on good PR than on actual power – that’s why the image of peace and order was so important to the Romans; and even Biblical images of the kingdom of God can sometimes sound like dreams or fantastic visions – as in today’s first two readings…)

Yet Jesus appears as a real person, in a real place, at an actual time, and proclaims God’s presence in the here and now; it’s one way of saying that people should be looking for the kingdom of God in the mess of their real world, not in fairy tales and dreams of power …

  • engaged in the real problems of the world – not looking for a way to escape the reality of the problems … (Pilate was just looking for the easy way out to maintain the status quo; and often, people think of their relationship with God as a way to escape from the harsh realities of life…)

Yet Jesus appears, bound and ready to die; it’s one way of showing that the kingdom of God is present in order to give us strength to face the harsh realities of life and to give us hope even in the face of death; it’s not to tell us that, if we believe, nothing bad will ever happen to us …

  • doesn’t depend upon the rest of the world going along with the agenda of God’s kingdom … (Pilate desperately used his power to keep people from being able to challenge the agenda of Rome; and for 1500 years in the West, Christians have sometimes figured that the way to promote the kingdom of God is to make it politically or socially difficult for people to challenge even the cultural appearance of Christianity, and that somehow if Christianity isn’t the biggest, most popular group in town, the whole thing will fall apart …)

Yet Jesus stands before Pilate ready to live and die for the kingdom of God whether Pilate, the Temple Authorities, or anybody else goes along with it or not …

In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther says this about praying for the kingdom of God in the Lord’s Prayer.  He says, “to be sure, the kingdom of God comes of itself, even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may also come to us.”

That is, God’s kingdom – the reality of God’s presence, God’s power and God’s love – comes because God wills it, not because of anything we do or what anybody else does.  God’s kingdom doesn’t depend upon earthly power.  It doesn’t depend upon prestige.  It doesn’t even depend upon the authority or influence of Jesus’ followers.

But the kingdom of God does get experienced and shared whenever people stop looking for power, and prestige and authority.  Indeed, the kingdom of God gets experienced and shared whenever we look for God’s presence in the midst of the real world.  God’s kingdom gets experienced and shared whenever we seek God’s strength to help us through the tough times instead of trying to escape them.  And God’s kingdom gets experienced and shared whenever we live the truth of God’s love in our lives, even and especially when the rest of the world doesn’t cooperate.