Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year. It occupies that strange, in between space that concludes the year past and sets us moving on the path toward the beginning of Advent next week. The image of Christ as the king of all creation reminds us of the glory and justice with which God has ordered the cosmos and a glimpse of the coming kingdom where all is reconciled to the divine order.
Today’s feast was added to the calendar of the church in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. He was concerned at the tensions he saw in Europe following the end of World War I. The leadership he saw in governments around the world was increasingly fractious and he worried that leaders—hereditary and elected—were forgetting the obligations that came with their roles. (We could, with a touch of cynicism, also discuss the quickly ebbing influence of the papacy on civic governments and how that might have motivated this addition to the calendar.) Pius XI believed that the world needed an annual reminder of what a good and just king ought to be: A leader concerned with understanding, love, care, and the wellbeing of all people.
Discussions about leaders in the world today bring up a great many concerns. We see many of the same divisions in society that Pius XI was concerned about. The news is filled with stories about rising tensions and increasing calls for the exclusion and oppression of people whose colour, religion, sexuality, and political ideals differ from those with local power. These concerns raise questions about those who hold authority.
God’s authority and God’s power are unlike anything that we humans might give to, or take from, one another. God’s authority belongs to God by right, not by agreement and it is not held by force nor is it ever under threat of being taken away. In the broadest sense, God is the only legitimate ruler in our lives. All of our human systems of government are efforts at organizing ourselves in helpful ways but, as with all human endeavours, they are vulnerable to sin.
In today’s gospel reading, we see some of this spelled out for us. The conversation between Pilate and Jesus immediately preceding the crucifixion is an important moment. Pilate has questions for Jesus about who he is, but Jesus is not convinced that they are entirely sincere. When Pilate first asks him “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus does not answer. Instead he asks Pilate whether this is truly a question of his own heart or whether he is beginning the conversation from a place of prejudice, instilled by local leaders angry with Jesus.
As the conversation continues, we hear Pilate trying to distance himself from the local leadership and using phrases easily heard today. “I am not one of those people!” As though he has no choice but to act out the prejudices of the unjust, angry mob who turned Jesus over to him. At each exchange, Jesus puts Pilate’s own questions and statements back on him, pointing out that he has given himself over to injustice. Jesus names the hypocrisy, injustice, and abuse of power that Pilate is committing.
At the same time, Jesus reiterates that his kingdom is entirely unlike the kingdoms Pilate knows. It is a kingdom whose values and sense of justice follow a different pattern than those of Judea or Rome. God’s kingdom, power, and authority are not like any of this world, not like any that we might give one another. It is not a kingdom where a rabbi who calls out hypocrisy is executed. It is not a kingdom where black, indigenous, people of colour can be bought, sold, and murdered without consequence. It is a kingdom whose king is willing to suffer humiliation and death if it will turn the hearts of the people toward love.
In the season of Advent, we look for the arrival of God’s kingdom. We recall the first coming at Christmas and the hopeful promise of salvation given to humanity in the form of a tiny baby. We also look for the second coming: the return of God, the fullness of God’s kingdom, and the day of God’s righteous judgement. We reflect on the tension of the time and space we live in: One foot in the fallible, broken kingdoms like Pilate’s court and the other foot in the glory and justice of God’s kingdom.
To live as a Christian is to be constantly pulled in these two directions, moving toward God’s kingdom and, the closer we get to it, the stronger the desire to make it known in this world. To share the light and life of the place that we glimpse with all of our neighbours.
This season of anticipation the pairs the first and second comings of Christ is no accident. As we look for the second coming, it is important for us to remember the first. When God chose to take on human flesh, it was not in Pilate’s court, nor that of the emperor in Rome. God did not appear in any of the throne rooms that humans would have deemed important or powerful enough. God did not appear as the leader of an army or with great wealth. Instead, God appeared in human flesh as a helpless baby, born to an unwed mother who had no home in the city where they were. God was born a citizen of people occupied by a foreign power—Pilate’s empire. God was born into a family who, very soon, would become refugees, fleeing for their lives from the violent fear of a powerful man. When God appears in the midst of humanity, it is not where humanity expects God to be.
As we walk through Advent together this year, we will hear more about the places where God has chosen to dwell. The homeless, the refugee, the disenfranchised are those for whom God has such love that, in spite of being able to choose any circumstance in creation, they were God’s first human family.
Christ is the one, true king of all that is and all that will be. Christ is a just and loving king who chose to dwell among the people who the rest of the world deemed lowest and worth the least. When God’s kingdom is revealed in full view of all people, the throne room will look nothing like what we expect.
Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.