“Are you the king of the Jews?” asks Pilate of Jesus. Jesus has been arrested, hauled up before the Jewish courts, beaten up, bound and then dragged to the Roman governor’s residence. He was an ordinary Galilean carpenter, probably not outwardly impressive to look at at the best of times, but he must have looked even less like a candidate for kingship after the rough treatment he’d had. I wonder what tone of voice Pilate uses for this opening question. Is it ridicule or sarcasm? “How can this dishevelled man think he is king of anything?” Or is it just weary impatience? “Let’s get him to condemn himself, kill him quickly – get him out of the way and get the Jewish leaders off my back.” Whatever Pilate thinks, though, Jesus isn’t fazed, and his answer catches Pilate on the back foot. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Instead of trying to defend himself, Jesus seems to be trying to open up a dialogue with Pilate, to find out what is in his mind and his heart. It’s not what Pilate is expecting. Doesn’t Jesus know who holds the power here? But Pilate’s abrupt response shows that Jesus has got under his defences. By the end of this conversation there is at least the start of a real exchange of ideas.
Pilate goes back out to the Jewish leaders and declares that as far as he is concerned there is no case to answer here. In the end Jesus’ accusers wear Pilate down and Jesus is crucified anyway, but we can tell that Pilate won’t forget this particular case in a hurry. He had tried to treat Jesus as a bureaucratic task, just another troublemaker in a long line of them. But Jesus treated him as a person, a human being, someone with thoughts and feelings worth exploring, even as he stood there bruised and beaten and at Pilate's mercy,just as he treated all those he had met during his ministry.Who is really in charge of this conversation? Who has the power that matters? Not Pilate, but Jesus, because while Pilate is terrified of getting it wrong, terrified of messing up, terrified of his bosses back in Rome, Jesus isn’t terrified of anything, not even death. This is true kingship. Jesus has power that even the might of Imperial Rome can’t destroy.
Today is the feast of Christ the King, a feast that is a fairly recent . It was first declared as a feast day in 1925, by the then Pope, Pius XI. In the wake of the First World War, he’d watched Fascism grew in Germany, Spain and Italy. He’d watched Communism sweep across Eastern Europe. Nationalism was on the rise everywhere. Boundaries were being drawn, positions were hardening. The Pope didn’t like what he saw. Nationalism had fuelled one war; he didn’t want to see it fuel another.
His response might seem a rather inadequate one to such enormous challenges. Setting aside one Sunday a year to celebrate Christ’s kingship doesn’t seem likely to make much difference to the tide of world affairs. But it was meant to be a reminder to Christians that their allegiance to God should always come above their allegiance to their own tribe. “My country, right or wrong,” just wouldn’t do. It was one thing to love and care about the nation they lived in, but it was quite another to think their nation had an absolute claim on them. The feast he inaugurated reminded Christians that they had king whose rule trumped that of earthly rulers. God’s call to serve others took priority over national interests.
As Jesus put it, “My kingdom is not from this world.” He didn’t mean that his kingdom was other-worldly, only existing in some heavenly realm, to be inhabited after we die. In fact he meant quite the opposite. It is a kingdom that is very much here and now, but which crosses the national boundaries and political rivalries of the world. It runs over and under and through all the other loyalties we might have, to family or workplace or friendship group or nation.
That’s the theory anyway, but living with that kind of dual nationality can be costly and complicated. In the early years of the Church, for example, Christians were almost always pacifists. How could they fight for the Roman Empire when it was the very force which had crucified Christ? For those already in the army when they became Christians the decision was agonising. One of the early soldier saints was a man called Martin. He’d become a Christian, but what should he do now? Eventually, on the eve of a particularly important battle, he laid down his arms and declared "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight." You can imagine how well that went down. He was arrested and would have been executed, but he offered instead to go into the frontline of the battle unarmed. He was only saved because the enemy decided to sue for peace the next day instead of fighting. Martin was released from military service and eventually became Bishop of Tours in France. We know him as St Martin.
Civilians had to make tough choices too. The Roman Empire insisted that all its citizens offered incense to the Emperor, who they believed to be a living God. They didn’t mind who else they worshipped, but this was a test of loyalty to the Empire. Many Christians refused to do this, and paid for their principles with their lives.
The pressure to marry and have children was another common point of discord. It was the task of every good Roman woman to have children - the more the better. This wasn’t just to provide heirs for her husband’s family. It was also to provide the workers and soldiers that the state needed. It was considered to be a patriotic duty. But what if you didn’t want to support this oppressive, freedom denying Empire? What if you’d discovered another calling – to pray, to serve, to spread the message of the Gospel? People often think that the early Christians were prudish about sex, but that’s not really true – they just felt that there other priorities which had a greater claim on them. For women, refusing to marry someone who didn’t share your faith, or wouldn’t allow you to practice it was one of the only ways they could take a stand. Most of the early Christian female martyrs were killed for this reason, women like St Cecilia, whose feast day is also today by coincidence. Their refusal to become part of a system they disagreed with was an act of civil disobedience, and one which often cost them their lives.
These were some of the dilemmas those first generations of Christians faced. They had stark and costly choices to make. But every generation has its own struggles, ways in which their allegiance to Christ the King cuts across their other allegiances to family or nation, and in some ways it became even more complicated when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Instead of being countercultural Christian faith became the route to secular power. This may have brought it into the mainstream, but it also multiplied the opportunities for it to be misused to manipulate and oppress. The list of ways that happened is too long to name, but here are a few; the Crusades, the conquistadors, the inquisition, the burning of witches, anti-semitism homophobia… Terrible things happen easily, and almost inevitably, when power and religion get tangled up together. It isn’t just a problem with Christianity, of course – any faith, or secular ideology can be used to oppress. The devastation ISIS are wreaking across the Middle East, the massacre in Paris last week is fuelled by a religious vision of world domination. That twisted vision wouldn’t matter so much if was just a privately held fantasy, but backed by arms and money, as we’ve seen over this last few weeks in Paris and in Mali, it is catastrophic. But as we condemn and lament this perversion of Islam, we also need to recognise that Christian history is just as bloodstained.
With the dark shadow of those abuses of religious power looming over us, it is tempting to think it would be safer simply to keep our faith private, something to be discreetly dusted off on Sunday mornings, then put back in a box for the rest of the week, not allowed to affect the rest of our lives. There are many who would argue that is just what weshould do – keep our noses out of politics and education and science and ethics. But that isn’t possible or realistic. We all have to make decisions; how we spend our money, how we spend our time, how we vote, how we raise our children or treat our neighbours. Consciously or unconsciously, our beliefs will influence these decisions. We all have power; it can’t be otherwise. Our responsibility is to make sure we use it wisely.
That’s why it matters that we should keep this feast, however many questions it raises for us, because it is the questions which really matter.The time for easy triumphalism is long past – that idea that we are entitled somehow to throw our weight around because of the historical importance of Christian faith. We have grown wary, and weary of that. But that makes it all the more important that we should ask ourselves what it means to call Christ king now.
That’s why it is good that the Gospel today pulls us back to the place where we ought to be; alongside a bruised and ragged man who showed us what real power looks like. The power we really need, the power that makes the difference doesn’t rely on wealth or force or political influence but on love. The kind of love that sees even your enemy as a human being, worth listening to, worth talking to. The kind of love that is not afraid of anything, because it is rooted in the love of God which is eternal and indestructible. That kind of power is the only power that, in the end, can conquer the world.