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Sunday, 20 November 2011

A subversive practice of "kingship"

This is the Sunday in the liturgical calendar of the Christian Church which is celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King. This carries with it much of the odor of Christendom and the terrible things that were undertaken under the alliance of the church and the empire. what I would want to argue is that if we dig down below our cultural memories and associations we find in the original account of Jesus' kingship a deconstruction of such associations and a subversion of our commonly held accounts of power.

Let me start with the Revelation of John chapter 1: 4-8 From John to the seven churches of Asia: grace and peace from him who is, who was and who is to come, from the seven spirits in his presence before his throne and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first born from the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth. He loves us and has washed away our sins with his blood and made us and Father; to him then be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen. It is he who is coming on the clouds; everyone will see him, even those who pierced him and all the races of the earth will mourn over him. this is the truth. Amen, ‘I am the Alpha and Omega’ says the Lord God who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Jerusalem Bible)

The key phrase around which the rule of Jesus revolves is that which describes him as the faithful witness and from that faithfulness his power and rule flows. He is the first born from the dead, the ruler of the Kings of the earth. Faithful in suffering a highly political death that was a scandal to all the religiously respectable. A death loaded with political and religious meaning. This is the paradox at the heart of our faith which we keep wanting to obscure, if not deny.

It is out of this faithfulness in dying a death which left Jesus identified with those who rebelled against Rome,  with all those who were outcasts and marginal that Jesus is affirmed by God to be ruler of the kings of the earth.

The stunning force of this claim needs to be registered if we are to seriously consider our own commitment as Christians. There is so much which seems at first to stand against it. To glance at the newspaper headlines or the lead stories on television is to be bombarded with evidence that whoever or whatever is in control it sure isn’t God. Perhaps John is suggesting that is not what God is about - God’s claims are overarching but perhaps her preferred mode of working is not by control.

Indeed the claim of death as the power which rules our age seems to confront us once we stop and ask the question. The newspaper headlines may be part of our problem because they already assume who the rulers of this world are and are shaped by the visions they claim to merely report on. that what is done by the powerful is all that is important and defines what is important for our life. That it is in the spectacular, the momentary that the measure of success is to be found.

Perhaps we don’t see the signs of God’s activity and rule because we are looking for the wrong thing, we are looking in the wrong places, we have the wrong assumptions about how God’s power and rule are to be identified. To change our sight our vision our expectations about the kind of kingdom or commonwealth Jesus was talking is going to be necessary before the evidence of God’s activity will become apparent - in a word we need to see with the eyes of faith.
What was the result of Jesus’ faithfulness? According to John the visionary it was that we might become kings and priests to serve God - his rule is so that we might become rulers - it is an empowering kingship. Is this empowering activity evident in our life together?

If we go back to the gospels and the gospel reading which we have not got to yet, the power of Jesus, the rule of Jesus is power that disturbs the status quo, offends the respectable, challenges the certainties of those who have God worked out and boxed within their system - preaches good news to the poor, heals the sick, eats with the unclean, touches the lepers, the AIDS victims of his day, announces the year of jubilee - a time of economic redistribution -the renewal; of God’s commonwealth Where do we see these signs? The Gospel passage John 18:33-37 focuses our attention on the nature of Jesus kingship.
So Pilate went back into the praetorium and called Jesus to him. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Jesus replied ‘Do you ask this of your own accord or have others spoken to you about me?’ Pilate answered ‘Am I a Jew? It is your own people and the chief priests who have handed you over to me; what have you done?’ Jesus replied “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this kind.’ “So you are a king then? said Pilate ‘It is you who say it’ said Jesus “Yes I am a king. I was born for this. I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.’  

If we come to this passage with the assumption along with those who take a narrow spiritual view that Jesus kingship has nothing to do with politics then we will miss the point of what Jesus has to say. Pilate it seems with his Imperial pragmatic and realistic view of politics missed it too. Jesus denies that what he is offering is a kingship of the traditional kind. Human beings, and Pilate will serve to stand in for all of us here, find it hard to imagine kingship except in terms of violence and force.

Jesus accepts the title of king but it is not of the kind that is established by violence. But it is a kingdom for all that – a  kingdom rich in politics, economics, social relationships and strong in its affirmation of the earth and our material existence. It is not ethereal, vague, individual lie mystical and feel good in your own way sort of entity. It is a kingdom which is exercised in our practice of truth and faithfulness in relations not in force or emotional violence. It is tough and uncompromising - the practice of truth as demonstrated by Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, or Jean Vanier.

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