Let’s pause to imagine the scene from today’s Gospel.
Here’s Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. His hair is neatly cut and combed. He’s clean-shaven. His clothing is simple but sumptuous – finely-woven cloth bleached bright white, edged with gold.
The room in which they stand, a meeting room at the Roman headquarters, is probably simply furnished, not lavish – a desk and chair of finely-carved exotic woods – materials for writing letters and decrees – guards in the doorway, clad in the fierce beauty of Roman armor, shield on one arm, short sword at hip, spear in hand.
Somewhere, perhaps on a pole beside the door, a gold standard bearing the letters that stood for the dominion of Rome: SPQR. Simple physical signs of overwhelming military and political power.
Pilate is not a king. He’s a provincial governor in a rather backward province of a sprawling and fractious empire.
Rome was supposed to be a republic, founded on the Greek principles of democratic rule, like the United States. But as Rome’s power had grown and spread, so too had the power of her rulers.
Maybe some of you also read Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, in high school English class? Julius was a statesman and general who was assassinated in 44 BC by a group of Roman senators who feared that he was turning the Roman republic towards tyranny.
But killing Julius didn’t save Roman democracy. Instead, Caesar Augustus avenged his killers and turned Rome into a de facto monarchy, ruling for 41 years until his death. Augustus was the first Roman emperor to be worshiped as a god. (An idea which led to the persecution of Christians, decades later, when they refused to make sacrifices at the temples of the Emperor.)
So that’s the vision of kingship Pilate brings into the room – whether he personally likes it or not: the King as god, emperor, untouchable tyrant. Kingship that spreads like a cancer, distorting and devouring.
And what about Jesus? Look at him: he’s not clean-shaven or tidy. He’s a mess, dirty and bloody from being roughed up by the guards. His clothes weren’t that nice to begin with, and they’re torn and filthy now. His hands are bound. He’s not a king, either – at least, not in any of the ways Pilate means.
What image of kingship does Jesus carry? A thousand years earlier, Israel begged God for a king, so they could be like the other nations around them. And the prophet Samuel, speaking for God, warned them: Kings take. They take your sons as guards and warriors. They take your daughters as cooks and concubines. They take your wealth to arm their troops, decorate their palaces. They take the best of your crops and your flocks and your land. You will become no better than slaves to the power, ambition, and greed of the King you want so badly.
But the people wanted a king. So first Saul, then David, become the Kings of Israel. Our Old Testament lesson today brings us an excerpt from David’s last words: “God has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.” David’s vision of kingship has a lot to do with wealth and wellbeing – and the hope that his sons and grandsons will sit on his throne when he is gone. And he appeals to God as the Power who will make it so. After all, David hates the godless so much that he wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole – so surely God will continue to favor David’s lineage – says David!
In fact… all has not gone well during David’s kingship, and all does not go well after his death. His son Solomon is kinda faithful to the God of Israel, but more than his father, he fulfills Samuel’s prediction: He takes. His lavish tastes build resentment among his people.
After Solomon, the Israelite kingship begins a rapid decline. David’s kingdom breaks in two. There are kings who are too weak and kings who become tyrants. There are wars, coups and assassinations. The Northern kingdom, Israel, is conquered, then, a generation later, the Southern kingdom, Judea, where David’s capital city Jerusalem stands. There is exile, and, eventually, return – return to homeland, but not to independence. Now Judea’s kings are allowed to rule only so long as they serve the interests of the latest great empire.
In Jesus’ lifetime that empire is Rome, which conquered Judea sixty years before his birth. Rome placed the criminally insane Herod the Great as Judea’s king. He was still king when Jesus was born; another Herod, Herod Antipas, was king when Jesus was killed. Both were vassal kings, holding power only because Rome gave it to them, and expected to serve Rome.
That’s the image of kingship Jesus brings into the room, as a Jew, a member of God’s people Israel. Israel’s kingship was a story of hubris, war, greed, and loss. Kingship failed for Israel, over and over.
Pilate asks Jesus, I’ve been told that you’re the King of the Jews. Are you a king? And Jesus answers,, If I were a king, don’t you think I’d have some followers fighting for me, instead of standing before you, bound and utterly alone?
All those meanings of kingship – power, greed, violence, hubris, authority, glory – they’re thick in the air between these two men. I think Pilate fully intends the irony of his question. I think Jesus fully hears it, and responds in kind.
The Godly Play stories we use with our younger children say, “Jesus was a king, but not the kind of king people were expecting.”
A King who sought to change human systems, not by decree or force, but through radical nonviolence. A King sought to change human minds, not by silencing or dominating, but through questions and stories that break open old habits of thought, and let new light shine in. A King who sought to change human hearts, not with manipulation, shame, or fear, but by living a life of radiant generosity and grace. A King who loves us so much that They will never coerce us or violate our wills.
I like to remind us each year that the feast of Christ the King, which we observe today, is very new, in church terms: not yet quite 100 years old. The observance of Christ the King Sunday, on the last Sunday before Advent, was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. The Pope was concerned about rising nationalism in Europe, in the wake of World War I. He saw Christians falling into nationalistic ideologies that too readily identified human power with divine power. People equated my nation’s prosperity with God’s favor, my nation’s interests with God’s righteousness. Pope Pius wanted to remind Christians that that our first loyalty is to a kingdom not of this earth – and that God’s rule is very different from human rule.
What does the kingship of Christ – and the difference between human and divine ideas about power – have to say to us today, 96 years later? Pondering that question this week, I found myself thinking about comfort and discomfort. Some of the movements of this moment seem to have a lot to do with avoiding discomfort. The war on transgender people – legislative and cultural – is based on people’s discomfort with changing gender norms; and – maybe more importantly – with a strategic effort to try to turn people’s discomfort into a political weapon against the vulnerable. The new wave of pressure on teachers is another example – this idea that students shouldn’t have to learn anything that might make them uncomfortable. Some white parents are saying: I don’t want my child to have to read or hear anything that makes them feel bad about what people who look like them have done in the past – or how they benefit from that past.
Let’s spend a minute with that word uncomfortable. Notice that it’s a metaphor: when we’re talking about mental or emotional or spiritual discomfort, we’re making an analogy from the experience of physical discomfort. There are lots of kinds of physical discomfort, right? Maybe your shoulder is a little achey because you raked the lawn yesterday. Maybe your bad hip is twinging. Maybe you’re too warm or too cold. Maybe you’re not sitting comfortably in your chair. Maybe you’re wearing shoes that pinch your toes. All those discomfort are invitations to change something. To move to a different space or put on a sweater or take an ibuprofen. To adjust how you’re sitting. To take those too-tight shoes to the thrift store!
Comfort is static. Discomfort is an invitation to adjust, move, make a change. That’s an interesting way to think about emotional, mental, or spiritual discomfort too. Those discomforts are also messages that we need to make some kind of adjustment. Move into a new frame of mind, or set aside something that doesn’t fit anymore.
Now, to be clear, there is good and bad discomfort. A classroom, a church, a community at its best should always be fundamentally safe, even if it’s sometimes uncomfortable. Safe means your boundaries are respected; no one will try to hurt you or use you; the people around us are trustworthy. Safe is really important.
But if we seek to avoid all discomfort, we’re almost definitionally saying that we don’t want to change or grow, to have any new thoughts or experiences.
Churches so often imagine Jesus as if he were an earthly king, the kind with a throne, a crown, a treasury, and an army. Our hymns, our prayers, our art are full of examples. Part of what’s wrong with that is that we are trying to make Jesus comfortable.
Comfortable for him – how about a nice velvet robe and a silk cushion? – and comfortable for US, because we understand that kind of power, the kind that’s about security, wealth, and control.
But when God chose to come among us as Jesus, God did not choose comfort. To see Jesus Christ in poverty, poorly dressed, dirty, footsore, going hungry, without a stable place of residence, at constant risk of being harassed by the authorities… to see him arrested, beaten, executed as a criminal… to see God choose discomfort is a reminder that we, too, may be called to tolerate some discomfort, and seeing where it leads us.
So many kings, so many kingships, haunt this brief conversation between Pilate and Jesus. Julius, Augustus and Tiberius, David and Solomon and Herod. Strong or weak, bold or craven, ambitious, self-indulgent, cruel. And there’s one more concept of kingship in the room – so different that it almost can’t wear the same name.
It’s the image of kingship that lives in the part of Jesus that is God and not human.
It’s the idea of kingship that carries him to this bitter hour, and beyond – to his death under that sign Pilate has made, that reads, “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews.”
It’s the image of a king without army, palace, or crown.
A king who invites instead of commanding.
Who rules through persuasion, love, and grace, instead of rule of law backed by force.
A king who chooses discomfort, the better to share the fulness of human life and human struggle.
A king who frees instead of binding.
A king who gives instead of taking.
It is nonsensical, in terms of human understandings of power.
And it is the holy kingship of Jesus.