I once was asked to preside at a Catholic school Eucharist that revolved around the theme of Christ the King. Taking nothing for granted, I began my homily by asking the students what they thought of when they heard the word king. Was I surprised!
Hands immediately went up all over the place. "It's someone who's the head of gang who kills people from other gangs," said one eighth grader. "It's a person who wears fancy clothes and always makes other people bow down to them," said another. Of course, there also were the obvious comparisons to Elvis. But in the end, no one was even close to the Eucharistic theme's definition.
My experience shouldn't be a surprise. This king-stuff applied to Jesus has been touchy from the very beginning. As we know from other gospels, when Pilate asks him about being king, he usually denies it. Today, in John, he gives a new definition of the term. Though we like to think of him in terms of Daniel's "son of man," receiving "dominion, glory, and kingship," such an image would have created huge problems during the ministry of the historical Jesus and in the first centuries of the risen Jesus. The empire already had a king: Caesar. Anyone else claiming the title would have been put to death for fomenting treason and revolt. It was a title one didn't normally mess with - unless one was willing to pay the price.
The biblical Christian community faced a problem when it zeroed in on Jesus' leadership of that community. Though his followers were convinced he was "in charge," and that the ultimate persons in charge in civil society were kings, Jesus certainly didn't mirror their style of leadership. If anyone dared refer to him as a king, they quickly had to provide a different definition of the title. In other words, they'd say, "He's our king, but he's not like any king we've ever known."
Both John and the author of Revelation do precisely that. Each is convinced Jesus' leadership style runs counter to anything they've ever before experienced. Kings normally concentrate on themselves; Jesus concentrates on the community.
No doubt the author of Revelation regards Jesus as the leader of leaders. He even refers to him as the "ruler of the kings of the earth." Yet at the same time, the writer's job description of this ruler revolves around his making "... us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father." In Jesus' reign, the spotlight is on us, not him. His success as a leader is grounded in pointing out the importance of each one of us.
John's Jesus says something parallel in our gospel pericope. Pilate can't understand Jesus' kingship because Pilate's definition of the title is limited to his experiences of this world. The procurator is dealing with someone determined to bring about a different world, a kingdom at odds with this world's value system, a kingdom based on the truth he's been proclaiming throughout his ministry. As Jesus stated during his last supper discourse, his followers are "friends," not slaves - a "truth" most earthly leaders had yet to surface.
As any historian knows, through the centuries, institutional church leaders, following the experience of the historical and risen Jesus, have also appropriated titles from civil society. But unlike the historical and risen Jesus, many didn't change the original definition of those titles when they applied them to themselves. In some situations, they were convinced their "kingdom" actually belonged to this world. We still have a long way to go before we return to the radical, all-are-important vision of our original leader.