In nomine Jesu!
Jesus might have been clearer; he might have been more precise. It must have been the pressure. After all, when he was standing before Pilate, he was standing in the crosshairs of the mightiest power on earth. But still, I wish he was more precise in his response to Pilate.
"Are you a king?"
"My kingdom is not from this world."
That seems clear enough, on the surface. "My kingdom is not from this world." Yet how we have misapprehended this over the millennia with paralyzing and often disastrous results. We've interpreted Jesus' words to mean that Jesus stands powerless before Pilate because Jesus' kingdom is remote, not immediate; spiritual, not physical; in the world to come, not in the world that is. Crassly stated, we've regularly concluded that in this world, especially in the face of what we believe is overwhelmingly superior might, the kingdom of God is useless and that, in the face of such power, Jesus then and Jesus'
followers now are powerless. "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild" is the way one of our sappier hymns puts it. More ominously, "how many divisions does the Pope have?" is the way Stalin once put it. For nearly two millennia, too many people -- faithful as well as fearsome -- have concluded that when Jesus says his kingdom is not from this world he really means that his kingdom is not in this world; that it is now and will remain hidden and powerless until the end of time when Jesus finally comes "with power and great might" to re-establish God's kingdom and deal with the rest of the world with retributive violence.
God's kingdom delayed -- Jesus and his followers powerless until that "great and awful day" when he will come back and, with them as his mighty army, rule the earth -- this false understanding of Jesus' words "my kingdom is not from this world" has paralyzed the very people it was meant to empower and emboldened the very systems it was meant to transform. This kind of often deliberate mis-reading and misunderstanding of Scripture and of the way God exercises power has led to a whole host of theologically-based calamities. To name two: The
so-called quietism -- paralyzed inaction and therefore tacit consent -- of Christians in Nazi activities in the 1930s and 40s; and today's mostly-American fundamentalist disregard for the global environment and disdain for those who wish to address it which is currently coupled with a seemingly unquenchable desire for an Armageddon-starting Middle East war which they hope will hasten the day when the Promised One comes as victorious Lord of all and violently and decisively wipes out all God's enemies and finally establishes the all-powerful kingdom of God. With only slightly revised theology and correspondently opposing definitions of "God's enemies," fundamentalist Buddhists, fundamentalist Jews and -- today most violently --fundamentalist Moslems operate from the same principal: God's kingdom is delayed and therefore powerless, but it's coming back and we're going to bring it back -- with a vengeance. Welcome to the 21st Century.
In Saint John's telling of Jesus' story, "My kingdom is not from this world" does not mean his kingdom is not IN this world; does not mean that Jesus stands powerless, and does not imply that as his followers, we are powerless too.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Jesus is perfectly clear about the difference between Pilate's "from-this-world" power and Jesus and his followers' "not-from-this-world" power. "From this world" power is exercised in this world through the threat and use of violence. "Not from this world" power is exercised in this world through all persistent love. "If my kingdom were from this world," Jesus tells Pilate, "my followers would be fighting..."
Can you see the difference? A kingdom from this world exercises power coercively; to subjugate, ]intimidate, oppress, suppress, humiliate and dominate in order and get what's in its own interest. A kingdom not from this world -- Jesus' kingdom, Jesus' followers' kingdom -- exercises power by offering, not coercing; by serving, not by dominating; by offering one's own life, not demanding the life of others; by allowing the tidal wave of violent, fearsome power to break and expend itself on the strong and solid rock of non-violent, faithful love.
Last Tuesday, one of our homeless guests put
this perfectly to me as he described the actions of some police toward homeless people in response to the terrorist bombings in Beirut and Paris. "They tried to look responsible by acting with violence" he told me. Which is what Pilate did. Which is what many insist is the only way to do things today.
We are living in a time of violence -- religiously-driven, bad-theology-based terrorist violence; and the goal of that violence is to drive us first to fear and then to respond in kind with massive from-this-world power. Sadly at this juncture, the way of violence may be the only way. But especially on this day as we celebrate Jesus' reign and Jesus' kingdom; especially on this day, as we stand with Jesus in Pilate's court, watching Pilate wield from-this-world power while Jesus wields the "not-from-this world" power of persuasive, persistent love. Especially let us remember Jesus' way and Jesus' death and Jesus' resurrection
by which and through which and in which God pours out the Holy Spirit to draw us more deeply into Christ's kingdom and to fill us more fully with power exercised in this world through forgiveness, grace and love. "If my kingdom were from this world," Jesus tells Pilate, "my followers would be fighting..."
Think, sisters and brothers, what this means. Think Christ. Think Resurrection. Persistent love is anything but powerless. Through the power of persistent love Jesus rules the world. May that kingdom come, not despite us but through us. Into this world. Today, tomorrow and forever.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York