Correction: the Church Times apologises that the readings for Year B have been used for this column. The correct readings for Sunday 20 November (Christ the King) should be: Jeremiah 23.1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43.
Eternal Father, whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven that he might rule over all things as Lord and King: keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace, and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
THERE is an edge to Pilate’s address to Jesus, as he returns to the Praetorium to hear the Jews’ complaint that goes beyond the routine identification of the defendant. “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18.33), or even “So you are the King of the Jews,” assumes either a false and dangerous claim, or a case of severe delusion.
Jesus refuses to play this game. He has already made seven statements that begin “I am” (John 6.35, 8.12, 10.9, 10.11, 11.25, 14.6, 15.1), but “I am the King of the Jews” is not one of them.
In his reply to Pilate, he shifts the noun from “king” to “kingdom”, something he has referred to only once, in John’s narrative, in his nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus (John 3.3 and 5). There, the Kingdom is explicitly God’s, and it is reached through new vision and new birth.
Nicodemus struggles to comprehend this new birth. It will be through the resurrection, when the “Son of Man” is “lifted up” (John 3.13-14) — and that lies some way ahead — although clues to salvation are already to be found in the prophets’ writings.
Jesus’s possible allusion to Daniel’s prospect of a world justly ruled by “one like a son of man” after disorder and oppression, is available in most translations, except the NRSV, which opts for “like a human being” (Daniel 7.13).
The explanation of the Kingdom which Jesus gives to Pilate is no less complex. René Kieffer’s suggestion that a better phrase would be “royal dignity” is helpful (Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, 2001).
This is not a question of territory. There is something about Jesus, recognised very early in his public ministry as an astonishing authority (Mark 1.22, 27; Luke 4.32, 36). John associates it firmly with the Father, who is the source of all authority exercised by the Son (John 5.24-27). The Son can do nothing on his own (John 5.30).
It is out of this vital relationship that Jesus speaks to Pilate, reminding him again that it is he who has named Jesus as a king (John 18.37).
The paradox of Jesus’s power becomes more and more compelling through his trial: it derives its strength not from claims of importance, but from a complete putting aside of self and status. Its mission is to “testify to the truth” (John 18.37), a simple statement in its own right, but world-changing in its implications.
Pilate, through cynicism, nervousness, or plain indifference, chooses not to probe the implications (John 18.38, 19.4, 19.6). The feast of Christ the King, which we keep this Sunday, invites us to approach the mystery of the kingship that is celebrated. Here, we are challenged by the ordering of the Church’s year, which ends with this feast, and begins again officially on Advent Sunday.
At one level, it is logical that “the year that begins with the hope of the coming Messiah ends with the proclamation of his universal sovereignty” (Common Worship: Times and Seasons). At another level, however, this ignores the longer development running through the readings from the Sunday after All Saints’ Day to the final week of Advent.
These readings reveal the “full manifestation of the reign of the Lord”, an insight that I owe to the Advent Project, which promotes the recovery of a seven-week Advent that concentrates on the rich development of this theme (http://theadventproject.org/rationale.htm).
Judgement is certainly part of the final and eternal reign of Christ over the world, but it is rooted in love for the world — love that gives its own life, and leads those for whom it dies into new life (Revelation 1.4). Christ gains his title to kingship by doing what no earthly king could do: dealing with sin, the ultimate enemy, by offering at great cost liberation from sin.
The Kingdom that he establishes is a structure of worship, not of power (Revelation 1.6), and the judgement that it brings comes in the hardest and gentlest form. One way to imagine it is to sing Charles Wesley’s great Advent hymn as a meditation, not a war cry, in the weeks to come:
Every eye shall now behold him,
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at nought and sold him,
Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
Shall the true Messiah see.