Today is the Last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost. Although, it is not a formally recognized feast day in the Book of Common Prayer, today is often celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King. The collect and readings for today focus on Christ’s kingship. The gospel appointed for today is John 18:33-37.
33Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Last spring I went back to school. There are about fifteen students in the program in which I am enrolled. At our fall session in September students from another program were also present. Though we did not have classes together we did share meals. One evening at supper I sat with a woman from the other program. I introduced myself and she asked, “Where are you from?” “Texas,” I said. She asked, “What do you do?” I responded, “I am a priest in the Episcopal Church.” Her very next question was this, “Are you one of those liberal priests?”
As we talked I realized she was asking not so much about me but for herself. She really was not interested in learning about me. Although she did not come out and say it, what she really wanted to know was whether I would challenge her beliefs, values, and opinions; was I a threat to her self-identity and understanding of God, herself, and the world; would I upset the status quo of her kingdom. At a very basic level she wanted to know “are you for me or are you against me?” It is a question we all live with and answer with every new encounter.
That question and the concerns she expressed are at the core of Pilate’s encounter with Jesus in today’s gospel. “Are you the King of the Jews,” he asks. What he really wants to know is if Jesus is a threat to his identity, his power, his rule. “What have you done,” he inquires. Behind that question lay his real concern. “Have you upset the status quo I seek to maintain? Are you changing the usual way of doing business and life – our beliefs, values, and relationships?”
Whether spoken or unspoken, conscious or unconscious, those concerns get triggered every time we encounter another person, a different idea or belief, a new decision or event that might affect us. Like Pilate we want to know what we have to do in order to defend our kingdom. The kingdom we most often defend is the kingdom of our status quo. We do not want someone to mess with our self-identity, values, beliefs and opinions. They should not question our understanding of God, self, others, or the world. And we certainly do not want them taking away our power, privilege, control, or comfort. We have worked hard to build that kingdom and we do not want someone coming along making changes.
And yet Sunday after Sunday that is exactly what we ask for. We ask that those very systems would be changed. We gather and together we pray, “thy kingdom come” – thy kingdom in which you are king; thy kingdom of love and compassion; thy kingdom of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation; thy kingdom of justice and concern for the poor; thy kingdom of humility, surrender, and self-giving; thy kingdom of peace and holiness. Thy kingdom come. We are praying that God might rule our hearts, lives, and world. We are asking for change – that this world, our lives, and relationships might be different.
If we really mean that prayer – “thy kingdom come” – then we must live, speak, and behave consistent with what we have prayed. We must change the way we see, think, hear, act, and speak. The status quo must go. There is a different way of living and being. If Christ is king then we are not. And the other systems and structures of power in this world are neither the first nor the final voice to which we listen. They are not determinative of our decisions about or encounters with one another.
If we truly mean “thy kingdom come” then we must also pray, “Our kingdom go.” Our kingdom of power, domination, and greed must go. Our kingdom of violence and oppression must go. Our kingdom of fear, prejudice, and resentment must go. Our kingdom of judgment and labeling must go. Our kingdom of individualism and indifference to the other must go. We must stop defending the kingdom of status quo.
In defending our kingdoms we tend to live as if the truth belongs to us. We live as if we know the mind of God and, therefore, we know what is right and best, who is in and who is out. And in that moment we are no longer listening to the voice of Jesus. We have become as deaf as Pilate. The truth does not belong to us. Instead, we are to belong to the truth. Only then will we be able to hear and listen to Jesus’ voice.
I must, in all honesty, tell you that the lady I met that night at supper was not the only one protecting her status quo. I too had my little kingdom. And with each question or accusation I retreated a little further and reinforced the walls, insuring that nothing was changed or lost. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of that night is that we never spoke about the Christ, the one who had called us both there to pray, study, learn, and be changed. I cannot help but wonder if we both were so sure that the truth belonged to us that we were unable to hear the voice of Jesus in each other.
The reign of Christ the King frees us to step outside the status quo and not just live in a new kingdom but to be and become a new kingdom – the Kingdom of God. If Christ is our King then the status quo must fall. If Christ is my king then next fall at school I will look for my new friend and begin a new conversation.