“My kingdom is not from this world,” says Jesus. No kidding. That seems pretty obvious. Yet at the same time, this has to be one of the most obscure statements from Jesus. Working for Jesus’ kingdom, praying for “thy kingdom come” is a rather difficult endeavor when it seems so far away from the reality that we know and in which we live. The kingdoms of our world could hardly be more opposite than the kingdom Jesus has in mind.
What kind of kingdom does Jesus propose? Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, kingdom language in John is rare, used only here (John 18:33-37) and in the conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:3-5). Interestingly, Jesus’ reference to kingdom in the Gospel of John comes up in dialogue with those who represent the kingdoms of Jesus’ present day world. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus represents the kingdom of the Jews. As a Roman procurator, Pilate represents the Roman Empire. It seems that the kingdoms of the world as it was known back then are called into question by Jesus who is the Word made flesh loving the world (John 3:16).
It will not be sufficient when preaching on Christ the King Sunday simply to suggest that the negative aspects of today’s kingdoms are therefore made positive in Jesus’ kingdom. Or, to insist that we can name every bad feature in kingdoms of today and turn them around so as to describe adequately the goodness of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is not opposite of our kingdoms, it has to be more than — it just has to be.
I am finishing this column on the day of the Paris attacks. In the face of sheer horror, peace seems impossible (Revelation 1:4). In the face of senseless violence, imagining the absence of terror seems hopeless. God’s kingdom looks so very far off on these kinds of days, in these kinds of moments, in this kind of world. Working for God’s kingdom feels like a rather futile determination. It’s not just an up hill battle — it’s unfeasible, even ridiculous to think that our efforts and energies can turn a world around into the world God sees it can be. Across my Twitter feed today was this quote, “Changing the world begins with a small group of people who simply refuse to accept the unacceptable” (Richard Branson). It is beyond hard to believe that we can stand up against the unacceptable, but we have to believe it — we just have to.
While God’s kingdom will come regardless because it’s God’s after all, Revelation reminds us that Jesus “made us to be kings” (according to the Greek; not “a kingdom,” Revelation 1:6). And since we have been made to be kings (and queens) of God’s kingdom, it is our calling to work for that kingdom and not for those kingdoms of this world. It is our calling to strive for different. It is our calling to bring about “thy kingdom come” even with the promise of God’s kingdom coming.
Of course, part of the challenge in all of this is the penchant to limit kingdom to location. This is when the “reign of Christ” is a helpful corrective for this festival Sunday, not just for the sake how we talk about Jesus and the titles we give to Jesus, but for the sake of realizing that Jesus’ kingdom is a state of being, a way to live, a commitment to a particular way to view the world.
And in John, Jesus wants us to see that his kingdom is only about place if place indicates the profound and intimate “place” of relationship with God. Jesus’ kingdom is not about amassing additional amounts of control. Jesus’ kingdom is not about his ultimate rule over and above others. Jesus’ kingdom is about relationship. “My kingdom is not from this world” because it is from God. Pilate attempts to construe the boundaries of Jesus’ kingdom in terms of those perpetuated by the kingdom to which he is beholden. But Jesus’ kingdom is from God, just as Jesus is from God (John 1:1) and Jesus is God’s kingdom. The concept of kingdom is radically recalculated in the Gospel of John, from kingdoms that strain and sever relationships to a kingdom that puts relationship at its core. That’s a whole different perspective on kingdom. When kingdom is construed from the truth of relationship and not rule, from the truth of incarnation and not location, from the truth of love and not law, then Jesus as truth will ring true.
This is the truth that the kingdoms of this world cannot see. God’s truth. Jesus as truth. But it is the truth that we can see and that we are called to preach, that we have to preach, not only on Christ the King Sunday, but every Sunday. To love fiercely even in the face of fear (“In the face of fear I will love fiercely,” Jessica Ortner).