John 18:33-37/Revelation 1:4-8
Who is Jesus? On this last Sunday of the church liturgical year, Reign of Christ Sunday, figuring out who is Jesus becomes a bit more pertinent since it is all tied up in this “reigning” issue. As the image on the front of our bulletin suggests, the Christus Pantocrator (“ruler of all”) is a very ancient idea. From our reading in the Book of Revelation, when it is all said and done at the culmination of all things, Jesus will be declared “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Who is Jesus and just how is he a “ruler of all?”
Jesus once famously asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They shouted out various things they had heard. To which Jesus said, “But how about you? Who do you say that I am?” Confidently, Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Despite Peter’s forthright declaration Christians have been trying to figure out who Jesus was and is for two thousand years. And the discussion has been fraught with rancor and schisms. Indeed, these debates raged on for several hundred years. It all came to a head when, in the early 300’s, the most consequential of all Christian converts, Constantine the Emperor of Rome, said, “Enough of this division. I want this all settled, now!”
Thus, the first of the great church councils was convened in Nicea in 325 to put an end to all the rancor and arguments and determine conclusively, once and for all, just who Jesus is. It was a grand affair. More than 300 bishops from all of Christendom gathered in Nicea, a coastal town in current day Turkey? The Emperor himself presided. At issue was Jesus relationship to God. Was Jesus co-eternal with God, never having been created? Or was Jesus a created being, albeit the firstborn of creation, but created nonetheless? The conclusion? Jesus, they determined, was co-eternal, fully divine and co-equal with God. They wrote a confession, the Nicene Creed (which is in our PCUSA Book of Confessions), to explain it all:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? And those who lost the debate? Well, they were kicked out, apostates all.
Did this conclusively put an end to the question of who is Jesus? Of course not! It turns out trying to nail down the nature of Christ was a theologically and philosophically impossible task. But they kept trying.
The Council of Nicea concluded that Jesus was fully divine. But what about his humanity? How could a person be fully divine and also human? Over the course of the next hundred years the church kept at it. The Council of Constantinople in 381 determined that Jesus was, indeed, fully human. In 431 the Council of Ephesus determined that Jesus was a unified person, not two persons. And finally, in 451, the Council of Chalcedon wrestled with the concept that Jesus was human and divine in one person, but not confused. With this concept they could say that on the cross the human nature of Jesus died but not his divine nature. For the most part, these determinations remained the orthodox definition of Jesus for centuries to come.
But not for all. Christians in the Near East rejected the work of Chalcedon. They rejected the idea that the divine and human natures were joined together in Jesus without confusion. They held that he possessed one nature in which the divine and human natures were indistinguishable, one nature not two. Today the Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian body in Egypt holding to this definition of the nature of Jesus.
These hundreds of years later we might say that all of this theological wrangling was just too much. Too controlling, too judgmental. Indeed, throughout history, the church has spent an inordinate amount of energy sifting out those who don’t believe rightly about such things. Apostates, heretics, traitors to the faith – many have been kicked out, excommunicated, often executed. Truly a vexing issue.
Can’t we just put all this stuff behind us? Can’t we just follow Jesus without defining him into a box? And yet, it’s incredible how the issues of the divinity and humanity of Jesus still vex many today.
For instance, there are many Christians today who still can’t seem to come to terms with Jesus’ humanity. These are they who tend to ignore Jesus’ earthly ministry of teaching and healing and confronting religious oppression.
Some don’t even celebrate Jesus’ birth! Christmas! For you see, they believe we aren’t supposed to celebrate or even regard Christ as a baby. They believe that once Christ ascended into heaven after the resurrection and is now seated at the right hand of God in glory that is the only way we are to think of him. No longer as a human or, in this case, as a baby. So, in this view, celebrating the birth of Christ is to demean the now glorified Christ. To think of Jesus as a baby is to diminish his divine glory. The glorified divine Christ, not the humble human Jesus! A Book of Revelation perspective – the divine “ruler of all.”
Then, at the other end of the spectrum there are those who have issues with this whole King Jesus kind of talk. That would be us, I suspect! To focus too much on the divinity of Christ hinders us from appreciating the humanity of Christ. And this talk of kingship conjures up all kinds of disturbing images of patriarchalism and domination and empire building. So it is that we studiously eliminate any and all language hinting of the male domination of “kingship” and other such language. Indeed, for many of us the language of this day, the eternal reign of Christ, works against our sensibilities of a Jesus who is humble and compassionate. So, on this Reign of Christ Sunday we might squirm a bit in our seats.
Likewise, our gospel text today squirms a bit with the whole notion of this view of the reign of Christ. John’s gospel story certainly doesn’t evoke the sentiments of these words from Revelation: “I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” No, instead we have Jesus standing before that scoundrel Pilate who questions him about a kingdom that doesn’t seem to exist. This is no glorious acclamation of Christ’s reign; this is Jesus who stands alone in shame and then is killed. Where is this kingdom he speaks of?
Pilate asks him straight out: “So, are you a king?” And, here the action freezes while we ponder what Pilate might really be thinking: ‘What kind of king do you think you are? Where is your kingdom?’ And then he catches himself: ‘Maybe he’s just being sneaky. Maybe he has an army hidden somewhere.’ But then he returns to his senses assured of the fact that he, the governor of the land, can’t see any such kingdom and it is his job to know such things.’ And so, Pilate concludes: ‘He’s not a king; he seems more like an un-king to me. There certainly is no kingdom of which I need to be concerned’.
Pilate is not alone in his musings. Christians ever since have been looking for Christ’s kingdom. The early Christians really thought that Jesus would descend from the heavens in the clouds at any moment to set up his kingdom. When it didn’t happen, they had to shift gears. Maybe, they thought, it isn’t supposed to happen now but off in the future some time. Two thousand years later they are still looking for that dramatic intervention of Christ’s kingdom, as the text from Revelation suggests.
So, when Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world,” we tend to think his kingdom is in heaven, up there somewhere, waiting to come down to earth. Indeed, when Jesus goes on to say “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”— we think heavenly kingdom. But Jesus is not affirming some unearthly, spiritual kingdom off in heaven somewhere. Rather, Jesus announces a kingdom that is “in the world, but not of it.” In doing so he announces a kingdom unlike any Pilate has ever seen or known. Pilate’s kingdom rests on the force of power to maintain itself. Pilate’s kingdom uses violence to accomplish its ends. But Jesus’ reign does not depend on the violence of which the powers of the world depend. Jesus’ answer to Pilate says it: As his kingdom if not from here, this world, there will be no one fighting to keep him from being handed over to the Jews. Indeed, the distinction between violence and non-violence is the central distinction between the “kingdoms of this world” and the kingdom of Jesus. From Pilate’s perspective Jesus’ kingdom is an un-kingdom and Jesus is the un-king.
Jesus time on earth was a repudiation of the world’s notion of power and rule and authority. He turned the whole idea on its head. He came not as one who lords his authority over others but as one who rejected domination and came as a servant. He came not with pomp and wealth but as one identified with the poor. He came not as a mighty warrior but as one who refuses to rely on violence. As Jesus stands before Pilate the kingdom he cannot see is right there before him in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ kingdom is in the midst of the city and of the world.
Thirty-seven times. That’s how many times Jesus described the reign of God in the gospels. Not once is that kingdom described like a kingdom of earth. Instead, stories – sowers of seeds, a friend in the night, lamps and debts, wine, nets, pearls, weeds and treasure. All to tell of a different kind of kingdom. Thirty-seven times Jesus reshapes the possibilities of how the world can be for his followers. Thirty-seven times Jesus tells a story of, not a kingdom, but a ‘kin-dom’. A kingdom based on relationships; of empathy, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation. A kin-dom.
All who follow Jesus are citizens of that kingdom or kin-dom. We are citizens, not of a kingdom yet to come, but of a kingdom already here. That kingdom does not look like the kingdoms of this world; indeed, it may look like an un-kingdom – or a “kin-dom.” And our “king” might, to the Pilates of this world, look like an un-king. But that is the king we honor this day. Long live the king. Amen.