Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (Read the rest here)
Father Angelo’s tour of the Cathedrals of Northern Europe was cut short by the events of last week’s bombing. Over the past few days, he had been helping the group of St. David’s find return flights home. However, his plan had been to stay after the tour and spend some holiday time in the UK. So, Father Angelo made his way from Germany to France and crossed the chunnel, in order to stay with a priest friend, Rev. Kate, in the British countryside.
The heightened security made his trip slow, and even across the pond off the European continent, tensions were still high. He was grateful to finally arrive at his friend’s doorstep in the hopes of finding some calm and peace.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year. Christ the King serves as doorway from one stage in the story to the next. We wrap up the story of Jesus having spent the year telling it from birth, to ministry, to passion and death, to Easter and resurrection, to parables and teachings, to predictions about his return again. Christ the King sums it all up by pointing us to the coming Kingdom of God. And then next week, we start all over again with Advent and waiting for the birth of Messiah.
And oddly enough, the story we use to tell of Christ the King this year, is the story of Jesus on trial before pilate, the roman governor over Judea. Seeing a supposedly king-like Jesus on trial is meant to turn our view of kings and kingdoms upside down.
But it is the Revelation reading that should really make us uncomfortable. Often Christians read the book of Revelation like some mystical book of prophecy. It isn’t that. Revelation was written to be a book of hope and encouragement to the early Christian community facing persecution under the Roman Empire.
In the decades following Jesus ascension, the early church developed into a small band of believers whose beliefs put them in opposition to Roman military religion. And because of this, Christians were often persecuted. They were excluded from proper society, unable to access the normal benefits of citizenship, marginalized economically and socially for being different. Sometimes they were even arrested and thrown into the gladiator arenas to meet their death fighting fierce warriors or wild animals like lions.
The early church lived under the thumb of Empire. Becoming a Christian meant a difficult life on the edges of society and potentially the danger of being executed for your radical and non-approved beliefs. The Romans saw Christianity as a threat to their Empire, to normal and acceptable ways of life. Rome saw the Christian view of God and the afterlife as opposed the Empire’s official religion, and they saw Christians as religious radicals sowing dissent and sedition, unwilling to integrate into society, instead radicalizing people into their movement.
Sound familiar? It should.
The early church of the 2nd century that lived under Roman persecution would by the 4th century be handed the keys to the Empire by Emperor Constantine and Christianity would become Christendom for the next 1600 years. Emperors became Holy Roman Emperors, Christianity became the official religion and western societies became Christian societies even today.
Here is the part where we should be getting uncomfortable. When we hear this scene between Jesus and the Roman Governor Pilate we should not identify with Jesus. What we should see is an official of the Empire overseeing far away middle-eastern lands holding a trial for a religious radical who has been preaching revolution and overthrow of the empire to his small group or “cell” of young male followers. We should see an Empire worrying about the threat of foreign religious zealots riling up backwards people against the approved and acceptable values and religion of the day. We should see proper and upstanding people fearing violent acts from a small and oppressed religious group suffering under the thumb of Empire… and we should not identify with the one on trial, but the one sitting in judgement.
And yet, the one on trial is not only our King, but our God come to us in flesh…
Father Angelo’s friend Rev. Kate was the vicar of a small church of about 35-40 members. Yet, when the two arrived at the church for morning prayer, the church was hopping with activity. Dozens and dozens of people were streaming into the church. A few were the typical church sort, older grey-haired folks wearing formal church appropriate clothes. But most were younger people, often with kids. Dark skinned people, men with black hair, women with head scarves.
Father Angelo turned to Rev. Kate as they walked into the church.
“What is all this about?” he asked. “Have you been invaded? Have you switched teams or something? Why are these people here? Why are all these… muslims here?”
“Come and see” Rev. Kate said.
As the Early Church suffered under Roman persecution, the words of Revelation would NOT have been heard as mysterious prophecy about the end of the world. They would have been words of promise to a suffering community. They would have spoken about a new reality, one that trumped suffering and marginalization. Revelation was a promise that Empires didn’t hold all the power, because God was going to overturn that power. God was about to usher in a new reality, and the One who would rule this new world was one who knew suffering himself. One who had lived under the thumb of oppressors himself. One who had been tried, beaten, and killed by Empire, yet who had overcome the most powerful tool of Empire – death. The hope they heard was in the firstborn of dead, the resurrected Christ for whom death was nothing to be feared.
Yet for us, standing on the other side of that equation, as the ones who have been the empire for over 16 centuries, this radical religious political prisoner King is our hope too.
Because empire will not save us, just as persecution and marginalization did not save the early church.
Instead, Jesus shows us a new way. Jesus shows us, that even now as Christianity is in the power position, we have still not saved ourselves. In fact our relationship to power and empire is just as much something we need to be saved from as persecution was.
Jesus shows us that the old ways of empire, where the privileged rule, are over. Jesus comes to call us to a Kingdom where all nations are welcome, where all people are equal, where death is no more, because the first born of the dead has shown new life, even to us empire people. Jesus pushes our old ways, our dead ways, our empire ways to the margins and declares that God is the new beginning and end, the new first and last, that God transcends power and empire, that God rules from a place of weakness, that God is be found in the One whom our empires would see as a threat and would fear.
In Christ the King, God shows us a new Kingdom. Not a Kingdom of power, but a kingdom of service. Priestly service. A kingdom based in proclaiming the good news, washing sinners, feeding the hungry, welcoming all.
Jesus shows us that God’s Kingdom begins from the bottom up,
Begins with weakness yet welcome.
Begins with vulnerability yet mercy.
Begins with uncertainty yet compassion.
Begins with risk yet openness to the other.
Christ the King reminds us that God is saving those who are persecuted and marginalized, those who suffer at the hands of empire. Christ the King also reminds us those of us in Empire need that same salvation. That we too are marginalized and persecuted by our own fears and efforts to retain control.
Christ the King reminds us that God’s salvation for us comes in completely unexpected ways, from the margins and from the underside
Today, Christ the empire threatening, religiously radical, political prisoner King declares a new order where no one is left to the margins and no one holds the power. Jesus declares a new Kingdom that is our salvation from persecution and from empire.
Inside Rev. Kate’s church, all the pews and alter furnishings had been pushed to one corner. The rest of the space was filled with tables and chairs. People chatting in various languages over coffee, doing art-work or crafts, in small groups practicing reading or filling in resumes. There were kids running around and playing.
Rev. Kate looked at her friend, “No, we haven’t switched teams. Jesus just reminded us what the Kingdom of God really looks like.”
Father Angelo smiled at Rev. Kate,
“I can only think of one thing to to say to that…
The character of Rev. Kate in my illustration was inspired by a story I heard about Rev. Sally Smith, which you can see here: