Nov 22, 2015
John 18 :33-37
Reign of Christ, Kingdom of God
The United Methodist Church has a tradition of asking its preachers a series of questions during their interview process; the first one is, “Have you faith in Christ?” The second one is, “Are you going on to perfection?” The second question reflects on the Methodist theology of sanctification; we are to constantly move towards perfection (although it’s not possible to actually reach it). Once during the sixties, one candidate was asked this second question, to which he answered, “No!” The bishop then asked him, “Then where are you going?”
Where are you going? Which direction is your life taking? If you continue going that direction, where will you end up? These are good questions to ask ourselves today because it is the last Sunday of the Christian Calendar! Next Sunday is the Christian New Year’s Day, so it is appropriate to think of our New Year’s resolution. Preparing for the New Year’s Day, we often make a resolution to decide next year’s direction. The same thing happens when we graduate. Do you remember when you were graduating from school, any school? You had to decide what to do after graduation, ideally before you graduate. The direction we take at the end of a chapter of our lives, such as the end of the year or a graduation, will decide what our future will look like. Therefore today, as we end our Christian Year, we will make a New Year’s resolution to decide how we are going to live during the next Christian Year.
But first things first, let’s see what Jesus tells Pontius Pilate in John’s gospel. Pontius Pilate was the Roman ruler of the province of Judea during Jesus’ time. The Jewish leaders brought Jesus to them, accusing him of blasphemy and high treason; blasphemy for claiming to be God, and high treason for claiming to be the king of the Jews. But the accusation was so vague that Pilate had a difficulty deciding whether to accept the accusation or not. Of course the Jewish leaders had their own agenda for wanting to get rid of Jesus whether he was really guilty or not. Pilate considered this case tiresome. He doesn’t really want to get involved. That’s why he asks “Are you the king of the Jews?” and Jesus answers by asking, “Is that what YOU think or are you repeating what other people are saying?” In this rather reluctant interrogation on Pilate’s, Jesus finally answers; he is indeed king, but his kingdom does not belong to the world. He is not like the earthly rulers, and his realm is not like the earthy ones. His kingdom is not of this world, and his function as a king is not about dominating his subjects but to testify the truth to them; the truth of God’s reign. In the Gospel of John, “the truth” mentioned is the true knowledge of God. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). “Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God” (John 8:46-47). It sounds esoteric, doesn’t it; he’s saying, “If you belong to God, you’ll understand”. But then John’s gospel is overall esoteric.
The Greek word that we usually translate as “kingdom” is basileia. Basileia doesn’t really mean a physical domain that we call kingdom. It means more like “rule” or “reign”. For example, during the basileia of Henry VIII, England broke up with the Catholic Church (he also broke up with a lot of wives, and broke some of their heads along the way). It doesn’t refer to the actual land he ruled over; it is an abstract political concept. Likewise, when we speak of the basileia of God, it’s not about an actual physical space; it’s an abstract political concept of a community operated by the principles of God manifested by Jesus the Christ. That is why the reign of Christ and the Kingdom of God should be understood as the same.
Then what are the principles by which the reign of God is operated? What did King David say, Jesus’ ancestor, in 2 Samuel? “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me… One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning…” Two things we can learn from David’s last words; God rules justly, and God is light (not darkness).
Now what did Jesus preach as God’s representative? We have been learning from different gospel texts so far that Jesus preached love, compassion, humility, equality, serving others, and brining justice to the suffering. In John’s gospel, Jesus is that kind of leader; although the incarnation of God, he washes his disciples’ feet and teaches them to follow his examples and serve each other. Washing people’s feet is a servant’s job. Palestine and Middle East are dry and hot regions, so visitors would enter your house with dusty feet wearing sandals, and servants would come and wash their feet instead of taking their hats and coats like in Europe. That is why the realm of Jesus is not of the world; earthly rulers sit in their thrones and receive his subjects’ prostrations, or “Hail Cesar!” They don’t serve their subjects; their subjects serve them, with their labor, tax, obedience, with their lives. Jesus taught the opposite of this.
The last Sunday of the Christian Year is called Reign of Christ Sunday. We start the year with hope and anticipation for the Christ child Jesus, and now we end it with a BANG declaring that the reign of Christ/ the kingdom of God is among us, and that Jesus Christ is the head of this realm! If we have started with the hope for the reign of God to come, we are ending by declaring it to be our present reality. God’s reign, basileia, kingdom is here among us if we make it a reality with our words and actions; but most of all, bringing God’s reign here and now is an attitude, a lifestyle. We don’t go out and perform acts of love, compassion, and justice because we are just obeying the teachings of Jesus; no no, that’s not enough! We live a lifestyle of loving and humbly serving each other. This is what discipleship is about.
Today, on the Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian Year before the Season of Advent, as a New Year resolution, we declare that the reign of Christ is among us and that we are the main players in this basileia. We spread the message of God’s reign as we learned through Jesus. We live out his principle of love, compassion and justice as if it has always been normal. We stand up against the evils of our world that are manifested in the forms of domination, oppression, discrimination, and hatred towards selected groups of people. A lot of Christians consume their energy opposing things like stem cell research, same sex marriage, abortion, and a coffee shop chain’s holiday cup design, and accuse the society of waging a war against Christianity and Christmas because we are trying to respect and acknowledge people who are not Christians. They persecute people from different cultures and faiths because of a small percentage of extremists in their midst, and they refuse to welcome refugees while setting up a nativity scene where Jesus is born in a stable because no one would give his parents a room to stay; this very attitude IS a real waging of war against the teachings and spirit of Jesus that they declare to follow. This attitude is not of God’s kingdom.
Let us remember one thing at the end of this Christian Year; hate doesn’t belong to God’s realm, and neither do elitism, classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, or people using their privilege to dominate others. God’s reign doesn’t condone negligence to actively “do the right things” either. So this New Christian Year, let us be disciples and principle players of God’s kingdom on earth. As followers of Jesus, we should know better than to spread hate and injustice. Declaring the reign of Christ means making an active resolution to work for that reign with Christ as our leader. So which direction are we taking next Christian Year? Where are we headed? Let’s make it towards the realization of God’s reign in our world, if it isn’t already so. May God fill you with the love of God and a burning desire to bring the reign of Christ here and now. Amen.