Have you ever had that experience where you’re talking to someone, carrying on a conversation — maybe it’s in real life, but this happens to me more when I’m texting and have just sent a few texts right in a row — but it’s that situation when you’re going along, just talking or texting — and then suddenly it becomes very clear that the two of you are having two very different conversations. Has this ever happened to you? They say something that doesn’t fit with all of the different directions the conversation could go, and so you look at your phone for a minute, and then you have to type, “Wait - what are you talking about? I was asking about dinner.” Or something. I don’t know. But have you experienced this?
For me, in this season of my life, it happens a lot with my two-year-old. We are regularly on two different levels having two very different conversations.
I’ll say, “Eliza, what did you do at school today?”
And she’ll say, “I need fruit snacks.”
And I’ll say, “You want fruit snacks. You just had yogurt. You don’t need fruit snacks.”
And she’ll say, “I want mommy.”
I still don’t know what she did at school.
And I’m not saying that Jesus talking to Pontius Pilate is like talking to my two-year-old, but I’m not not saying it. I am definitely saying that it’s clear they’re having two very different conversations.
Here’s the scene: This story comes near the end of John’s gospel — John’s narrative retelling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s a story we usually hear during Holy Week — the week leading to Easter, but it’s also a fitting story for Christ the King Sunday, also called Reign of Christ Sunday which is today. More on that in a bit.
But first, at this point in the story, as Jesus stands face-to-face with Pontius Pilate, Jesus has hosted the last supper — the final meal with his friends. He has been betrayed by Judas, one of his disciples. He’s been arrested and brought to Caiaphas who is the high priest, the chief Jewish religious leader there in Jerusalem, where he was beaten and interrogated. And now, he’s been taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who will determine his fate. And we know that fate: He’ll receive the death penalty, murdered by the state, crucified. This is the moment that leads to the crucifixion. This is the last straw.
Pilate enters his headquarters and summons Jesus, and Pilate asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” It’s a pretty straightforward question in Pilate’s mind. There are two ways this could go. He says yes, in which case he’s committed treason because the Romans only have one king. Plus his so-called “kingship” could spark an uprising or insurrection, and that needs to be nipped in the bud ASAP. Or Jesus answers no, in which case Pilate lets him go and lets the Jewish people deal with him themselves.
But instead, Jesus responds to Pilate’s question with a question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” And you can almost imagine Pilate heaving a heavy sigh here and asking, “Look, I’m not a Jew. Your own people have handed you over to me. I didn’t ask for this.” Pilate asks, “What have you done?”
And again, Jesus offers an ambiguous answer, “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’s trying to understand: “So you are a king?” Pilate’s trying to pin him down. Trying to get him to confess.
But Jesus again dodges, refusing to call himself a 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.”
You see? They’re talking to each other, but it’s like they’re having two very different conversations. Pilate wants Jesus to confess to being a king. Jesus won’t give him what he wants. Because he knows that Pilate isn’t really asking if he’s a king. Pilate doesn’t care about that. Instead, what Pilate is really asking is, “Are you a threat?” Are you a threat to my power? Is your existence a threat to the Roman empire? And Jesus isn’t interested in engaging those questions. Which is why Jesus basically says, “You’re saying this. Not me.” This is why he dodges.
Here’s the reality. Here’s the bottom line. Jesus is not interested in having this conversation with Pilate about kingship because he knows it’s pointless. Pilate is blind to the truth standing in front of him. Jesus and Pilate are coming at things from very different places.
It reminds me of that famous quotation from writer and activist Upton Sinclair who was prominent in the first half of the 20th century. He said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” In other words, you can’t make someone see something that their entire system is built around not seeing.
This is what Jesus is dealing with. This is what he’s up against. Even if Jesus were to say, “Yes, I am a king,” Pilate wouldn’t be able to comprehend what Jesus means because Pilate’s livelihood depends on his not being able to recognize the type of king Jesus would claim to be. He wouldn’t be able to comprehend that kingdom. What does that mean? Hang tight. We’ll get there.
But I want you to see that this idea becomes clear to us when we hear Jesus’ famous response: “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.”
My kingdom is not from this world.
I think sometimes, we hear this phrase, and we get stuck thinking about a kingdom solely in geographical terms. In other words, we might think of it like the United Kingdom. We might think of a kingdom as something from Game of Thrones — a land to rule over. Or like The Lion King when Mufasa tells Simba: “Everything the light touches is our kingdom…”
And so when we hear Jesus say, “My kingdom is not from this world,” we might default to this concept, this schema, this framework we have in our minds that is focused on kingdom as place. As if to say: We are here on earth. Jesus is up there with God. And when Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world,” he’s clearly talking about the fact that his kingdom is up there while ours is down here. We might hear this as Jesus basically disavowing and disowning this realm. This earthly kingdom.
But this line of thinking is completely antithetical to who John, the gospel-writer, tells us Jesus is. In the very first chapter of this same narrative, John’s gospel, John describes how Jesus — the Word — became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. He was sent into the world to be love made local.
As we discover in story after story of Jesus’ life, he cares deeply for this world and its creatures — healing the sick, welcoming the stranger, restoring the marginalized to community. He doesn’t do this just so later he can disavow it all and say, “This place? Not my problem.” So there must be more going on.
And what’s going on is that Jesus is inviting us to open our minds. To go beyond the binary. To imagine something new.
When Jesus talks about a kingdom, he’s talking about a way of living. He’s talking about a way of seeing the world and being in it. He’s talking about a new reality, a certain realm of existence, a new creation bursting forth — if only we’d have eyes to see it.
Pilate doesn’t. Because they’re talking about two different things.
When Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world,” the subtext is the kingdom that Pilate exists in and the kingdom that Jesus exists in are two very different things.
Pilate’s kingdom is the kingdom of empire. It’s a kingdom in which power is gained and retained through dominance, control, obedience, and wealth. It’s retained through a lack of agency. Through pitting people against one another. Driving false narratives, promoting false equivalencies, and championing a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality. In Pilate’s kingdom — the kingdom of this world — the chief aim of power is to hold onto it as long as possible and by any means necessary. And so any threat to this power must be neutralized. This is the kingdom Pilate knows. This is the kingdom of empire. This is the kingdom of this world.
It’s a kingdom defined by oppression. Of persecution. Of haves and have nots. Of winners and losers. Of insiders and outsiders. And of systems and structure built to maintain itself — built to keep it all just that way.
Pilate can’t see beyond this because this is as far as his imagination can take him.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
But Jesus’ kingdom — you might hear it called the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven — is different. His kingdom is an alternate way of living together. It’s a reality in which power isn’t gained or retained through upward mobility but by downward mobility. Not by dominance but vulnerability. Not by military might but by selflessness and service. It’s a kingdom In which everyone, especially the poor, has enough. Where all, especially the marginalized, have belonging. Where there is healing for any who have been harmed. Justice for all who are oppressed. Blessing for all who have had cause to doubt their sacred worth. Where there are no more tears. Where we are at one with one another and with the land in relationship defined by harmony and mutuality. Where violence isn’t even a thing. Where isolation and loneliness give way to beloved community.
And what’s more, the chief aim of this power — the power that Jesus embodies — is to give it away. This is the kingdom “not from this world.” This is Jesus’ kingdom. This is God’s dream.
So to answer Pilate’s question beneath the question: Yes, Jesus is a threat.
Ye, Jesus is a threat to the very structures and systems that support empire. This is the truth that Jesus came into the world to testify: That God is love. Period. Full stop. And this love will reign. This love will win.
But… so what? I mean, what does this dialogue millennia ago have to do with us today? What difference does it make in a world where a pandemic is still raging? Where there is so much inequity and so much injustice in so many of the structures that support this empire? Where climate change is threatening our future? Where families can’t make ends meet? Where our collective mental health is struggling? What’s the meaning we can take?
This conversation — this dialogue between Jesus and Pilate — is the scripture appointed for today which is Christ the King Sunday, or you might hear it referred to as Reign of Christ Sunday. And this is the day in our liturgical calendar — the calendar that gives us a rhythm of life as followers of Jesus — this is the day in which we reflect on what it means when we proclaim that Christ is King. That Jesus is Lord.
Christ the King Sunday every year is the Sunday before Advent. Advent actually marks the beginning of the Christian year which makes today, Christ the King Sunday, basically New Year’s Eve in the church.
And just as we often do on December 31, we use this opportunity today, Christ the King Sunday, to pause and reflect on the last year — to reset and reorient our lives. We’re invited to sit with and contemplate what it means to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. To imagine a different future.
And I want to offer this guiding question for us: Which kingdom are you a part of? Which are we a part of as a community? Which are we supporting with our lips and with our lives?
Why does this matter? This is why this matters.
I had a conversation this week with a friend who asks such good questions. We went on a walk here in town, and he said, “Brent, it seems to me that the Church (meaning the big-C Church, not specifically The Local Church) the Church has done some pretty harmful stuff. I don’t know why anyone would want to be a part of it.”
And as if the question wasn’t enough, he rattled off some sobering examples. Among others, he mentioned the church’s sanctioning of slavery during the Civil War and the years leading up to it. He mentioned the harm done to the queer community. I recalled how Christianity was used to justify Apartheid in South Africa. And finally, he said, “Brent, what’s this about?”
And I said, “That’s a great question. It’s one I’ve wrestled with, too. And I think it’s important to remember that the Bible was written for people on the underside of empire. For the oppressed. The marginalized. The vulnerable. The poor. The weak. Which makes it really hard to read and comprehend — hard to imagine — when the world in which you live is empire.”
I said, “And when you have that perspective and that power, you’ll do whatever you can to hold onto it — perhaps even because your livelihood depends on it.”
And the conversation between Pilate and Jesus matters because it resets us and reorients us. It invites us to see with fresh eyes and have our imaginations opened. It begs us to resist the pull of empire, to begin to dismantle the systems and structures that prop it up, to consider the ways we have power, and what we might do with that power — how we might give it away — for the good of the world. It presses us to audit the work of the Church and imagine a new future by God’s grace — a future rooted in a kingdom that is not from this world. A future rooted in a kingdom of repentance, of repair, of healing, of hope, of blessing, of service, of mutuality, and of love.
If you’re here in person, you should have a prayer card in your seat. I want to invite you to write a word or a phrase that captures the dream you have for this future in God’s kingdom. Let this be your prayer. How does Jesus’ kingdom move you to reimagine this world? What does that future look like?
Let’s see what Pilate can’t as we remember that Christ is king and step forward, empowered by the Spirit, into that kingdom that is not from this world.
In the name of the God who reigns, Amen.