As the visions during the night continued, I saw
one like a Son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
when he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him,
the one like a Son of man received dominion, glory, and kingship;
all peoples, nations, and languages serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed.
Jesus Christ is the faithful witness,
the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood,
who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father,
to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.
Behold, he is coming amid the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him.
All the peoples of the earth will lament him.
"I am the Alpha and the Omega, " says the Lord God,
"the one who is and who was and who is to come, the almighty."
Pilate said to Jesus,
"Are you the King of the Jews?"
Jesus answered, "Do you say this on your own
or have others told you about me?"
Pilate answered, "I am not a Jew, am I?
Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.
What have you done?"
Jesus answered, "My kingdom does not belong to this world.
If my kingdom did belong to this world,
my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not here."
So Pilate said to him, "Then you are a king?"
Jesus answered, "You say 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."
Today’s feast always creates problems. One word is at the root of the problem: king. What does it mean? How is it applied to Jesus? What’s been made of it through the centuries? If Christians are to imitate Jesus of Nazareth, are we expected to make part of his regal personality our own?
Given the gospel Jesus’ reflections on his ministry, “kingly” would be the last adjective anyone would employ to describe it. Though many of his followers believed he was the Messiah they and their fellow Jews had been expecting for centuries, he frequently not only rejected that title, but on those rare occasions when he applied it to himself, he always defined the word at right angles to the way First Century CE Jews defined it. On Palm Sunday, for instance, instead of triumphantly riding into Jerusalem on horseback – the military Messiah Jews anticipated – he rides into the Holy City astride a donkey. The crowd would have done a double take. He isn’t the messianic savior for whom they’re waiting.
Jesus always insists on giving new definitions to traditional words, especially when it comes to his unique concept of leadership.
The author of today’s Daniel reading clearly describes the Messiah the vast majority of Jews were expecting during Jesus’ historical ministry. According to their apocalyptic theology, when he eventually makes his presence known, Yahweh will give him “dominion, glory and kingship; all peoples, nations, and languages (will) serve him.” A complete turnabout from the gospel Jesus’ determination to spend his life in service to others. No wonder most Jews saw only a Capernaum carpenter when they looked at him.
Though the author of Revelation regards the risen Jesus as “the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth,” he seems to be falling back on the importance this new creation has in his life. He appears to be much more poetic than realistic. The Christ certainly is the dead’s firstborn, but I don’t think the writer expected his readers to take his claim of Jesus being the ruler of the earth’s kings literally, especially when we hear what the gospel Jesus says about the issue.
Our gospel pericope from John is just one among several in which Jesus tells us not to celebrate today’s feast. Or, if we insist on celebrating it, to be careful how we do so.
The important thing to remember is that in every gospel passage in which Pilate asks Jesus about his kingship, he basically responds, “No! I’m not!” Had the Roman prefect taken Jesus’ response as a “Yes!” he would have had him crucified on the spot. This upstart preacher would have been making himself a rival to Tiberius the Roman emperor – high treason.
In today’s passage, John’s Jesus is basically saying, “If you insist on calling me a king, you have to give a brand-new definition to the title. I’m here to tell people about truths only God can reveal to them; not the kind of work in which kings normally engage.”
Jesus couldn’t be clearer: “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.” He obviously expects those who carry on his ministry after his death and resurrection to also be proclaimers of the truth.
Perhaps the question we face today doesn’t revolve around telling the truth about who Jesus is, but telling the truth about who (or what) the church is. The sexual abuse scandal we’re experiencing is rooted in giving a royal definition to the church, something the gospel Jesus rejects. If we don’t define our terms as Jesus defines them, we’re certainly going to have problems.