Gospel for Christ the King (25 November 2018)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Then 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?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. 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.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:33-37 – NRSV)
In John’s Gospel Jesus has already been referred to as “King” in 1:49 and 12:13. In today’s Gospel – John 18:33-37 – Pilate asks Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” In 1:49 Jesus avoids addressing Nathaniel’s acclamation; in 12:13, Jesus does not respond to the cry of the crowds as he enters Jerusalem. However, when Pilate asks him directly, Jesus affirms that he is “King”: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Ironically, the truth of Jesus will be finally affirmed when Pilate crucifies him.
One commentator contrasts this account of the kingship of Jesus with that which is found in the Synoptic Gospels: “The synoptic tradition had already used the trial of Jesus before Pilate and the sign on the cross to proclaim Jesus as ‘king’ (cf. Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32; Matt 27:11, 29, 37, 42; Luke 23:2, 3, 27, 38), but in the Johannine story the theme of Jesus’ royal status dominates the interrogation of Jesus by Pilate (cf. 18:33, 37, 39; 19:3, 12, 14, 15) and continues into the scene of the crucifixion (cf. 19:19, 21). .... The decisive issue is how Pilate and ‘the Jews’ respond to Jesus’ royal status” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 493).
King of the Jews: Kings and kingdoms were well know to the people of Jesus’ time. Kings were all-powerful. They also lived with the possibility that someone would want their power. The Jews would remember Judas Maccabaeus. He “had established his dynasty, two hundred years before Jesus met Pilate, through military revolution against the Syrians, winning for the Jews their independence, and for himself and his family a royal status they had not previously aspired to. Herod the Great, thirty years before Jesus was born, had defeated the Parthians, the great empire to the east, and Rome in gratitude had allowed him to become ‘King of the Jews’, though he, too, had no appropriate background or pedigree” (N T Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004, 113). We could reasonably conclude that Pilate might have been fearful of Jesus leading a revolution and thus disturbing the Pax Romana – potentially, at least, a capital offense. We could also reasonably conclude that perhaps Pilate sees no threat in Jesus. It is entirely possible that he thinks Jesus is a poor deluded but harmless peasant. If this is the case – and that is what I choose to believe – we must at least suspect that Pilate is playing some other game here. He would in fact have seen the threat coming not from Jesus but from the religious authorities. In which case, there is a profound if ironic truth being played out here: Jesus’ death on the Cross is instead of the religious authorities, to save them .....
My kingdom is not from this world: The “Kingdom” referred to in all four Gospels is not a worldly kingdom. One commentator writes: “No: the point is that Jesus’ kingdom does not come from ‘this world’. Of course it doesn’t. ‘The world’, as we’ve seen again and again, is in John the source of evil and rebellion against God. Jesus is denying that his kingdom has a this-worldly origin or quality. He is not denying that it has a this-worldly destination. That’s why he has come into the world himself (verse 37), and why he has sent, and will send, his followers into the world (17:18; 20:21). His kingdom doesn’t come from this world, but it is for this world. That is the crucial distinction” (N T Wright, ibid).
Kingdom: “Best understood as the kingship, or sovereign and saving rule, of Israel’s God YHWH, as celebrated in several psalms (e.g. 99:1) and prophecies (e.g. Daniel 6:26f.). Because YHWH was the creator God, when he finally became king in the way he intended this would involve setting the world to rights, and particularly rescuing Israel from its enemies. ‘Kingdom of God’ and various equivalents (e.g. ‘No king but God!’) became a revolutionary slogan around the time of Jesus. Jesus’ own announcement of God’s kingdom redefined these expectations around his own very different plan and vocation. His invitation to people to ‘enter’ the kingdom was a way of summoning them to allegiance to himself and his programme, seen as the start of God’s long-awaited saving reign. For Jesus, the kingdom was coming not in a single move, but in stages, of which his own public career was one, his death and resurrection another, and a still future consummation another. Note that ‘kingdom of heaven’ is Matthew’s preferred form for the same phrase, following a regular Jewish practice of saying ‘heaven’ rather than ‘God’. It does not refer to a place (‘heaven’), but to the fact of God’s becoming king in and through Jesus and his achievement. Paul speaks of Jesus, as Messiah, already in possession of his kingdom, waiting to hand it over finally to the father (1 Corinthians 15:23–28; cf. Ephesians 5:5)” (N T Wright, op cit, 178).
The Feast of Christ the King – or the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, to give it the full liturgical title – is a fairly recent addition to the liturgical calendar. It was introduced by Pope Pius XI with his encyclical, Quas Primas, given on 11 December 1925. There the Pope links the introduction of the Feast with the Council of Nicaea – the first of the great Councils. That Council was convened by the Emperor Constantine and lasted less than a month in May-June, 325. Pope Pius writes: “This jubilee Year marks the sixteenth centenary of the Council of Nicaea .... (The) Nicene Synod defined and proposed for Catholic belief the dogma of the Consubstantiality of the Onlybegotten with the Father, and added to the Creed the words ‘of whose kingdom there shall be no end’, thereby affirming the kingly dignity of Christ” (#5).
Quas Primas follows two complementary lines of thinking. The first is that of the biblical evidence – from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures – for the Kingship of Christ. The second is that of the victory of God in Christ in defeating the forces of evil in our world.
Concerning the biblical roots of the Feast, we can take today’s Gospel as a good example. In today’s Gospel – John 18:33-37 – Pilate asks: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus affirms that he is “King”: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” This is an explication of two earlier references to Jesus as “King” in 1:49 and 12:13. In 1:49 Jesus avoids addressing Nathaniel’s acclamation; in 12:13, Jesus does not respond to the cry of the crowds as he enters Jerusalem. It is only when Pilate asks him directly that Jesus accepts the designation of “Kingship”. In doing so, Jesus is careful to specify the meaning of that designation: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth”. Which brings us to the second line of thinking.
Jesus has come that may have life and have to the full (see John 10:10). Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (see 14:6). St Irenaeus (140-202 CE), often regarded as the first Christian theologian, sums this up well: “The glory of God is the human being fully alive and the life of the human being is the vision of God”. Jesus’ mission is to enable us to become what we are – God’s creation, made to be partakers in God’s life (see 2 Peter 1:3-4).
Jesus has not come to establish a political or military or cultural dominance. He has come as the Way to the Truth and Life. That necessarily involves overcoming all that prevents us finding our Way to the Truth and the Life. He is Lord!