On the Reign of Christ
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
Canada’s first Catholic bishop, Saint François de Laval of Quebec, clashed repeatedly with the 17th century French colonial authorities over the liquor trade. He vehemently opposed selling liquor to the Aboriginal population, but French traders were making too much money for the French officials to stop it. Then, as now, Bishop Laval would be dismissed as a moralizing cleric out to deny people their freely sought pleasures. But he knew what he saw before his eyes, namely that alcohol was devastating the communities under his care.
On October 17 of this year cannabis became legal in Canada. As I was driving to the office that day it didn’t seem to matter which radio station I tuned into the impression I got was that something wonderful had occurred in Canada. It was as if some great victory had been won and the winners were now taking a victory lap—or, to change the metaphor, were spiking the football in the end zone. Not everybody agreed. An editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal of that week warned that Canada was launching “a national, uncontrolled experiment in which the profits of cannabis producers and tax revenues are squarely pitched against the health of Canadians.”
I concur with Father Raymond de Souza on this issue; “That something is legal does not mean that it is something to celebrate.”
1. “My kingdom is not from this world”, said Jesus to Pilate. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” In other words, if Jesus’ kingdom or reign were like those of this world then his followers’ actions would mirror those of the world. Clearly God’s thoughts are not our thoughts nor his ways our ways. Thus Jesus’ reign does not look like what we would expect given our experience in the kingdoms of this world.
Jesus reign isn’t defined by a distinction between legal and illegal. I am not meaning to imply that Christian citizens of Canada should be unconcerned about the laws that are to govern our country. Jesus’ reign encompasses so much more. His reign is defined by his rule in our hearts, a rule that emerges from a love relationship. Our behaviours are governed by the expulsive power of a new affection; an affection for the One who gave himself completely for us.
In the gospel we learn that God’s love for us knows no bounds; that God’s love is unconditional in the One who “freed us from our sins by his blood.” But to experience this love we need to get over ourselves and our excessive concern for all things me. We give ourselves for the One who first gave himself for us. We love because he first loved us. In the power of this love we find ourselves being touched by that place where Jesus’ kingdom is from—that kingdom of love and light. Worlds or realms intersect, so to speak, with Jesus in our hearts. Our loves are reordered and lifted such that the lesser gods of appetite don’t have dominion over us. Our question is not some thing’s legality but with respect to doing everything for his glory. Jesus’ reign is not from (or like) the kings or principalities that reign in our world.
2. Our missionary friend Reg Reimer recently sent me an article posted on the Christianity Today website calling Vietnam a land of extraordinary Christian faith. Many will know of the devastation suffered by Vietnamese people in the terrible war of the last century. In the northwestern highlands of Vietnam lives an ethnic people known as Hmong numbering about one million. The Hmong are part of a large ethnic grouping of several million straddling the borders of China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. Given the remote region in which they live coupled with being a target of ethnic hostility these people have lived, in many respects, isolated lives.
Today about 40 percent of the one million Hmong living in Vietnam are Christian and the story of how faith came to them is really quite remarkable since this has all taken place in the last 35 years. No foreign missionaries were physically present in Vietnam’s highlands when Christianity started to spread in the late 1980s. Instead, villagers stumbled across a Hmong-language evangelistic radio program broadcast from Manila. Thrilled by hearing their own language on air, Hmong listeners told neighbors and relatives to tune in as the message spread like wildfire.
When Jesus sent seventy of his followers ahead of him to announce that “the Kingdom (reign) of God has come near to you,” he gave them this promise. “Whoever listens to you listens to me.” (Luke 10:16) The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans declared the importance of proclaiming the good news noting that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17)
Our Lord’s reign is not from this world. It is not about borders and ethnicity and jurisdictions and power won by force of military might. The word of Jesus’ love announced penetrates the human heart facilitating that faith which is encounter with him. In the Biblical story of creation God speaks and things happen; by God’s very utterance the world is called into existence. His word spoken is never idle but fulfils what God declares. So too the word of Christ’s saving love speaks into existence the very faith pouring his love into our hearts that is this salvation. We were dead in trespasses and sins but our spiritual inertia is overcome as Christ’s saving word is proclaimed.
In a 2014 study British addiction specialist Professor Wayne Hall, who is an advisor for the World Health Organisation, said that Cannabis use can be highly addictive and have numerous harmful side-effects, including mental illness, impaired driving ability and lower educational attainment. I wonder if our human propensity to risk such things like the use of cannabis and other like substances is an attempt to medicate that emptiness or angst we feel with regard to life. We have found that the things on offer by the powers of this world never really satisfy. The reign of Christ has to do with the very core and nature and purpose of our existence; it sets right our relationship with God which in turn spills out into every aspect of life forging the reality of Christ’s reign in the world.
3. “Are you the King of the Jews”, Pilate asks Jesus. His question isn’t a friendly one. He has heard the accusations against Jesus. Pilate’s question is to determine if Jesus poses a threat to the Roman Empire. Pilate already has one insurrectionist in custody—a man named Barabbas. Pilate isn’t concerned about the relative innocence of the person now in front of him—he just wants to make the decision that will be best for his own political future. “Everybody lies to save their own skin,” thinks Pilate. He is ready for Jesus to deny the charge.
Jesus’ answer must have shocked Pilate. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus is asking Pilate if he is really interested to know about Jesus being King. You notice how suddenly the interrogator is now the one being interrogated. Pilate’s indignant retort—“I am not a Jew, am I?”—is aimed at regaining control of the interrogation. Pilate is in charge of this interview and he will ask the questions, thank you very much!
In a number of respects the way Pilate treats Jesus is how many treat God. We want to be the one to ask the questions. God needs to fit into our concepts of things. If God loves us and has power to create the world as Christians claim then God wouldn’t allow bad things to happen. Our questions are aimed at perhaps dismissing God—you don’t measure up so away with you. Or questions aimed at domesticating God keeping God under our control—as long as you behave in a fashion that promotes my agenda and welfare I might keep you around occasionally tip my hat towards you. Or like Pilate—you may be king of others but you are no king of mine.
I notice how genuine and kind and loving Jesus is towards Pilate. Jesus reaches out to Pilate—do you ask this in your own? Do you want to know for yourself or are you going to rely on what others say? Jesus tries to penetrate the defences Pilate has built up over the years. Defences that perhaps derive from a sense of self-sufficiency because he has climbed the corporate ladder of the Roman hierarchy to achieve his position as ruler in Palestine. Jesus willingly will probe with Pilate his notions of God and the Jewish people and the God the Jews proclaim as the God above all gods. Jesus is genuinely interested in Pilate as a person.
We see in this story that God does not achieve his purposes by the force typical of the world’s kingdom. Though Pilate was dismissive of Jesus, Jesus continues the conversation and endeavours to explain the terms of his reign to Pilate. “My kingdom is not from this world.” Pilate is intrigued. “So you are a king?” He is curious. Where is this kingdom from? Can Pilate suspend his prejudices and prestige and presumed power for just a minute to hear? In the end Pilate does not—at least at this moment in his life.
What happens in the particulars between Jesus and Pilate is an instance of the reality of God’s saving work in our lives. We have come to hear the message of Jesus declared in the Bible and, like other things we hear, we make evaluations. We may not have the judicial place of Pilate with Jesus but we still are evaluating, making judgements. What we find is that in the gospel God is interpreting or interrogating us. Our prejudices and presumptions about God are exposed. WE are being interpreted. When Jesus says that his reign is not from this world he isn’t saying his reign doesn’t have anything to do with us. Jesus claims to reign—a reign that has very much to do with us.
Jesus went on to explain to Pilate, “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.” Jesus comes among us to testify to us about the truth of God and our existence. Keep in mind that Jesus is not using the word “truth” here in some abstract way. Truth isn’t something that exists independent of God and we can now measure whether Jesus is being truthful. Jesus, as he declared to the disciples in the upper room before he sacrificed everything for us, is way, truth and life. God is truth. Jesus has come among us with a message from God to bear witness to the truth of God’s saving sovereignty.
4. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was a French military leader and emperor who conquered much of Europe in the early 19th century. He once remarked, “Jesus Christ alone founded his empire upon love, and at this hour millions of men would die for him.” I am not sure if Napoleon was jealous of Jesus because of the loyalty to Jesus that faith fostered in people. Perhaps Napoleon wished for such loyalty for himself in his empire.
Pilate determined that Jesus was no threat to Roman power and so tried to release him. He seems shocked that people actually preferred that he release Barabbas. Pilate returns to his headquarters “and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:8-11)
God does not behave like the kings of the world forcing authority down peoples’ throats, so to speak. But God is sovereign all the same. Willingly he gives himself completely for us and turns the evil perpetrated against him by a sinful world for our salvation. His purposes to save are not thwarted by earthly powers. Kings and kingdoms have come and gone since Pilate’s day but our Lord’s people remain in every generation.
Mother Teresa said, “By blood and origin, I am all Albanian. My citizenship is Indian. I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the whole world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to Jesus.” When we believers confess that our hearts belong entirely to Jesus we bear witness to the truth of Jesus’ reign. It may not be from this world but his reign is in and over this world.
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Amen.