John 18:33–37

In the Church’s calendar this day is known as the Feast of
Christ the King, the last Sunday before the season of Advent, that four
week period in which we prepare for the Nativity of Christ. Before we
can receive the baby Jesus, the calendar seems to say, we first have to
accept the fact that He comes into the world to rule over a kingdom. But
what, and where, is that kingdom?

When you ask people who do not believe in God to describe the God
they do not believe in, they almost always refer to the images of God
found in the Old Testament and in the book of Revelation. They describe
God in terms of thrones with an ancient white bearded figure meting out
judgment. Thunder and lightning attend Him, and people fall down before
him. He is the quintessential almighty ruler, potentate and Lord. Such
images have almost no resonance for us in this country. Our nation was
birthed as a result of conflicts with royal power. Despite the fact that
several modern royals are making positive contributions to their nations
and to the world, too many of us still regard them either as tyrants or
as privileged people with too much time on their hands. The popular
image of a sovereign is that he or she is old and stiff. If we had to
have kings and queens, let them be young, good looking and cool like the
hip music and film stars that populate our magazine covers. And above
all, our royalty should be rich.

In one of the many funny scenes in classic comedy film Monty
Python and the Holy Grail
, two muddy peasants in tattered clothing
are discussing whether or not the man they see coming toward them is a
king. One assures the other that he’s positive that the man is a
king because he is not covered in manure. The implication, of course, is
that everyone else in that medieval setting works and lives in filth,
and only the king would have the luxury of being clean.

In modern America not all of us now live in filth, but we still have
a vision of a ruler as being one who lives in luxury. Take the White
House, for instance (a very clean place, I assure you, having been there
and rubbed my finger along a window sill, and—you guessed it, no
dust!); it also has a movie theater, a gym, a pool, and more sitting
rooms than one either needs or deserves to keep straightening up for
company that may drop in. Our presidents, the closest we come to
“rulers,” do not have to drive their own cars, search for
the cheapest gas stations, wash their own clothes or buy their own
groceries. In wealthy countries that still have kings and queens, we
would expect them to have several palaces, crown jewels, servants and
land. Even rulers in nations which are very poor often have the best of
what can be had in that country, including houses and cars and clothing
that the vast majority of their subjects could never dream of owning.
All around the world we seem to share in common the understanding that
our rulers should have a standard of living beyond that of the majority
of people they rule.

Certainly that was true in Jesus’ time as well. The Romans, of
course, were known for the opulence of their ruling classes. But even
the Hebrew kings like Herod lived in palaces with luxuries of food,
clothing and entertainment of which the masses could only dream. Given
all of this, then, perhaps you can begin to understand the Roman
governor Pilate’s confusion today’s gospel lesson. There
standing before him is a simply dressed man of humble background called
Jesus, with hands bound behind his back, and no servants in tow. He had
been informed that this man was brought before him on sedition charges,
since he and several of his band of followers had declared him to be,
well…a king. But his appearance was anything but
“kingly” in the world’s terms. With his jaw dropping
nearly to the floor, Pilate blurts out, “Are you the King
of the Jews?” In terms of the usual definition of
“king,” Pilate’s question is clearly a joke.

And what had he heard about this man Jesus? That he was born in the
midst of manure, in a cave amongst animals and scruffy shepherds around
Bethlehem? That he did not shy away from the filth and struggles of the
world, but ministered in the very midst of it? That he hung out with the
outcast and marginalized in society, even touching lepers who were the
epitome of trash? That he sat on hillsides and played with and held
dusty, dirty children? That he stooped down on the floor and washed the
grimy feet of his disciples? Do you mean to tell me that this man,
acquainted as he is with common people and filth, is a king?
“Are you the King of the Judeans?”

Jesus didn’t reply to his immediate question, but redirected
the focus back on the questioner. “Do you say this on your own, or
did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “Am I a
Judean? It’s your own people and their religious leaders who have
handed you over to me. What have you done?” To this Jesus
responded, “My kingdom is not of this world…it’s not a
secular government like yours. If my government were like all the others
in this world, then my companions would fight to keep me from being
arrested. But as it is, my government is about a whole different set of
values than power, control and violent force.” “So you are a
king?” asked Pilate. Jesus replied, “You’re the one
who says that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into
the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the
truth can hear my voice.” And if we were to continue to read the
dialogue beyond today’s lection, Pilate responds in exasperation,
“What is truth?” (vs. 38)

The image of Jesus as a king simply does not fit our expectations,
and the kingdom of God as a place on earth it seems highly improbable.
And rightly so. The kingdom that Jesus was talking about is not an
earthly place. It’s not even specifically a heavenly place. Jesus
did not deny his being a king, but showed that his kingdom, while
revealing itself in human affairs on earth, is not of earthly origin.
Rather the kingship of Jesus belongs to the realm of truth. It is as if
Jesus were saying to Pilate, “I am a king, but not in the sense in
which you understand it. My kingdom is a dominion not over
people’s bodies, but over their hearts and minds; and it is
maintained and extended not by instruments of control and violent force,
but by power of truth that finds its way from heart to heart and winning
the world through love.”

The kingdom Jesus speaks about is not a place but a relationship. It
is a relationship to the truth, to God. When Jesus said that the
“kingdom of God is in your midst,” he was talking about his
disciples’ relationship to himself, and through him to the Divine
life. (Luke 17:20–22) That is why the kingdom of God is
better understood as a relationship of the heart that extends into every
aspect of life on earth. Our experience of Christ teaches us that the
kingdom of God dwells in ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. The
authority of the divine king over the kingdom within us varies from
person to person, depending on our willingness to allow the king room in
our hearts. And this king doesn’t care if our lives resemble a
shack or a palace. The important thing for you and me is to open the
door, the door to your deepest self, the door to your heart, or at least
to let down the drawbridge into your “interior castle” as
St. Teresa calls it.

This all brings us to the ultimate theological question of the day,
which is “So what?” What does this mean about what we do
tomorrow? What does this mean for the work, the people, the decisions
and the things we do the rest of this week? At this point most of us
start heading for a mental exit. We say to ourselves, “I have no
idea what some kingdom of God has to do with my life, so I can just
ignore it.” Unfortunately for you, though, the exits today are
barred by a big man named Micah. He is an Old Testament prophet who once
answered the question, “What does the Lord—this
king—require of you?” His answer: “You know
what the Lord requires. What is it but to do justice, love mercy, and
walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Now that’s
not too obscure…that’s very concrete. Who here can’t
think of at least one person who could use some mercy this week? Find
that person, and you will find the kingdom of God this week. And who
here can’t find even a few minutes this week to “walk humbly
before your God” in prayer? I suggest some moments of silence that
you can offer to God, whereby you aren’t trying to direct God with
your requests and instructions, but rather you seek to be directed by
God in silent meditation. Do that, and don’t be surprised if the
kingdom of God reveals itself in your midst.

Loving mercy? We can do that, with some daily practice. Walking
humbly before God? Not too difficult, once we make the commitment to
pray. But it’s that third requirement, doing justice, which
can keep us awake at night.

We know that the view of justice in the Bible can be described as
those actions and policies that promote the well-being of all the people
in a land, including their access to the resources available for safe
and abundant living. But what is justice in today’s complex world,
given our seemingly scarce resources and intractable conflicts? A few
months ago 23 persons made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, sponsored by
this cathedral. As we visited with both Palestinian and Israeli leaders,
and witnessed the despair in that land: the violence, the poverty, the
confiscation of lands and resources, the assaults on people’s
dignity, the Wall of Separation (as if that would solve the problems
between the peoples), we spent a lot of time thinking and talking about
what would justice look like there.

We left knowing that unless there is a change in thinking, attitudes
and policies that focus solely on who gets to rule and who gets to
“own” the land, then justice cannot take root there.
What’s needed is another way, another vision for a broader
“kingdom” to govern that conflicted land.

That longing for a new realm, a new way of doing business in the Holy
Land, is beautifully expressed by someone who has captured Jesus’
vision of the kingdom of God. But this quote is not by a Christian, nor
a Jew, but a Muslim named Mohammad Hourani. Mr. Hourani is a fellow at
the Shalom Hartman Institute, a center for religious research and
conversation in Jerusalem. He received his doctorate in education at
Sussex University in Britain. A resident of Beit Hanina in northern
Jerusalem, he has been working for many years to create cross-cultural
educational encounters in high schools and colleges in which Arabs and
Jews of different religious backgrounds can learn about each other.
Commenting on the current situation there, he says:

We are at the edge of an abyss, a double tragedy for
both Israelis and Palestinians. Yet there has to be a way out. We need
two states for the two peoples, right now. A Palestinian state in the
West Bank and Gaza…can negotiate with Israel the outstanding
issues under dispute, with nothing taboo. The walls of separation need
to come down. If the political leaders would change their ways of
thinking, we could make peace. The religious leaders ought to be helping
in this process by reducing tensions, advocating compromise, and above
all, affirming the ultimate value of human life. They should oppose
incitement to violence, but they usually lack the confidence to do this.
Throughout history, Muslim religious leaders have been dependent on the
political authorities for their status, and only rarely did they
confront the rulers by advocating different policies. They tended to
prefer bad leaders rather than risk fomenting anarchy.

For me as a Muslim, there is no more a division of the world into two
realms [or “kingdoms”], Dar al-Islam (the Domain of
Islam) and Dar al-Harb (the Domain of War, to be conquered for
Allah). There is now one world, and religious leaders must help
in creating one world community by articulating a vision of a single
humanity under God. Yes, there are different peoples and faith
communities in God’s design, as stated in Sura 49:13 of the
Qu’ran, and these differences are meant to enrich each group with
knowledge and wisdom. But there must be one standard for human rights,
human welfare, and freedom of expression. As God’s agents on
earth, all of us have the authority and responsibility to work for
peace, in order to save human lives. Any religious leader who justifies
the taking of human life by violence has made an alliance with Satan,
not Allah. (Quote on p. 32 of Healing the Holy Land:
Interreligious Peacebuilding in Israel/Palestine, by Yehezkel Landau;
a report published in 2003 by the United States Institute of
Peace.
)

If Christ is King, as we Christians declare that he is, then his
kingdom on earth must look a lot like Mr. Hourani’s vision a realm
of peace and justice in his land. And if we are committed to becoming
the hands and feet of God in fulfilling the petition in the Lord’s
Prayer of “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is
in heaven,” then we must pledge ourselves anew to work for that
kingdom by supporting the work of peacemaking in the Holy Land.

The kind of religious work that Mr. Hourani called for has begun. The
first Middle East Interfaith Summit with the participation of the
leaders of the three monotheistic faiths was held in Alexandria, Egypt
in January 2002. Anglicans should take some pride in the fact that that
conference of Christian clergy, Jewish rabbis and Muslim leaders was
conceived of and organized by His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury,
Dr. George Carey, and his staff. The initiative resulted in the First
Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land. The
Declaration begins:

In the name of God who is Almighty, Merciful and
Compassionate, we, who have gathered as religious leaders from the
Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities, pray for true peace in
Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and declare our commitment to ending the
violence and bloodshed that denies the right of life and dignity.

It goes on to make seven statements about how the religious community
can help the political process to move forward toward peace; I hope that
you will familiarize yourself with that report, which you may find at www.anglicannifcon.org/Alexand-Declaration.htm. Also, this Cathedral is
committed to the work of reconciliation in that land, which you can help
support through our Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation headed
by the Rev. Canon John Peterson—who as Secretary General of the
Anglican Communion, the position he held before coming to the Cathedral,
helped to organize that Alexandria interfaith summit in 2002.

So, as we confront places of conflict and injustice around the world
today, we need to constantly ask ourselves, “Is Christ a king
here?” Our answer to that question—and what we commit
ourselves to do because of that answer—can make a tremendous
difference in how we can live together. Now more than ever, come King
Jesus!