Yes, I made the sword joke the last time I preached on this passage. I can't believe anyone is surprised that a pastor recycles jokes. ;-)
This, the last Sunday before Advent begins, has often been called “Christ the King” Sunday in church history.
A sizable number of Christian folks are uncomfortable with some of the images that conjures up. Kings are authoritarian, maybe even dictator-like. They represent power figures that often use their power to get their way and keep weaker people down so they can’t fight for themselves. They may have long noses and funny-looking ears – well, at least the King of England will after Queen Elizabeth passes on.
But because of all these images that seem directly opposed to who and what Jesus was, some folks suggest we modern people should get rid of the idea of Christ as a King It’s a way of thinking a lot more appropriate to that day and time than to ours.
I’m not sure, though. I think this passage shows us that Jesus was trying to communicate the difference in his understanding of kingship even here, with a Roman governor. And we know he came from a people who counted kings like David and Solomon as among the most important figures of their national history.
In those days, kings might set up most of their own laws if they wanted to, with very few checks on their authority. Even so, they couldn’t guarantee they would be followed on the throne by the person they wanted for that job, because they usually didn’t quit being kings until they died. So a new king would come into office facing uncertain times.
Would the old king’s advisors support him? Would the people? How about his own family? Many kings married more than one wife and the new king will have brothers, half-brothers and probably some uncles who might be gunning for the crown. What to do about them? The usual answer to that one didn’t involve a family meeting, by the way, but it did make sure that the holiday card list was a looooot shorter than it had been.
Where a modern king might very well rely on some form of settled legal precedent for his assuming his throne, the ancient kings had to rely on a more basic argument.
“Hi, I’m the king.”
“Me and all my buddies with the sharp pointy metal things.”
“How may I serve Your Majesty?”
So people in the ancient world were very likely to surround their vision of kingship with the same kind of potential authoritarianism and maybe dictatorship that might trail that word in our time. They may have been just as unhappy with the idea of some kind of absolute ruler as we are.
But, as Jesus establishes in his conversation with Pilate, he’s not that kind of a king. His whole understanding of kingship and the power that comes from it reverses what people then thought about it. “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over,” he says. He hasn’t told his followers to do that. In fact, when one of them tried it, he told that guy not to fight.
Even more, Jesus knows exactly what kind of pressure he could bring to bear on Pilate if that’s what he chose. Legions of angels, heavenly warriors who would let Toga-Boy here know exactly who ran things in this universe, and Jesus can summon them with a word or less. His kingdom, though is “not of this world.”
It is a kingdom where the greatest power ever known will not be used to crush his enemies but will instead allow itself to be crushed. It will not count power as a thing to be grasped and fought over, but used instead to build up the weak, even those so weak they try to force that power to submit to their own. It is a dignity and a might and an authority so awesome it fears not to take a towel and wash fishermen’s feet.
Or, as we begin next week to prepare to note, to arrive in this world completely helpless and totally dependent on a teenage Jewish girl and her carpenter husband.
I agree that a couple of things about the idea of Christ as King might need to be changed. But in the person of Christ, that change has already taken place. Hadn’t you heard? It’s the good news.