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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Thy kingdom (not of this world) come

In the middle of the Easter octave I hope it’s not too late to add a few more thoughts from the Passion reading last Good Friday. Because of all the reflection I’ve been doing in the wake of Holy Week, it’s hard not to hear these things in a slightly new way, and so I share a few more musings with you.
So Pilate went back into the praetorium 
and summoned Jesus and said to him, 
“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.”
 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

Among the many strange things Christians  do, one of the strangest is obsessing over the “kingship” of Christ. It’s as though we were the apostles, already the subject of some ridicule in  the gospels, particularly Mark and John, for their missing the point of Jesus’ teaching and example about leadership. I certainly don't blame them. Two millennia later, we haven’t made much progress. In the gospels, the apostles are expecting a king like they know kings to be, one who has the power to get his work done by threat, strength, and force. They want to be on that king’s side. They want to rule next to him. It takes the crucifixion and resurrection and a new spirit in them to convince them otherwise. But their own deaths and the struggle of the church in the first two centuries of its existence left many in the church looking for some secular help. When this arrived in the form of Constantine, and his “vision” in the sky of a cross and the words “in hoc signo vinces,” they grabbed onto it and haven’t let go. So the church in the 21st century has princes, and a city, a country even, and money, and ambassadors, crowns, scepters, golden vesture; in short, we have every thing that kings who are of this world have, and we don’t seem all that ready to give them up.

John’s Jesus, standing before Pilate, is already in an ironic situation. To John, it is the Judge who is being judged, the Power who is arrested, beaten, and scourged by the powers. But John has a different idea, one that has germinated in his community and passed on from eyewitnesses, passed through the refinery of his poetic imagination,  touched by the divine spark of inspiration. For John understands that the Logos of God, the “word,” the symbol of God’s being and doing, became a human being and dwelt among us as a human being. This great mystery fills him with awe that seeks some kind of expression, “love tumbling upon love.” John sees that God is love, the Holy One is something like complete and utter self-giving, the emptying of being, for the other. For John, the quintessential act of Christ’s ministry was the washing of the feet at the Last Supper. The meal itself is not detailed in John like it is in the synoptics. When Jesus says his “do this in memory of me” in John, it is in reference to footwashing, not eating. Why is that? It is because the servanthood of Jesus the man, washing the feet of his disciples, and later his death on the cross, is the perfect echo of the kenosis (self-emptying) of the Logos into the incarnation. More importantly, I guess, the resurrection of the Lord reaffirms the image of the divinity of the servant Jesus, that is to say, that complete and utter self-emptying leads to life, not to death, and fuller, greater life than was even possible before. Servanthood/kenosis/love is the alchemy of the divine, it is the engine that is the forge of the universe.

So we keep praying, as we were taught by Jesus, “thy kingdom come,” not because we want a kingdom like the ones of this world, of pomp and splendor, crowns, golden vestments, the “power to crucify or set free,” but exactly because the “kingdom” of God is not like those of this world. In other words, it’s “thy kingdom come,” the one where people don’t use violence to defend themselves because they know that God’s life is the only life really worth having. It’s the kingdom in which the king is a servant, and all who would follow that king serve as well. It’s the kingdom where being right means surrendering the right to force your will upon another, and bending down to wash the other’s feet. It’s the kingdom in which there is no exclusion, in which love and benevolence fall upon the good and bad alike, and where our desire is finally tamed and given over to the cascade of self-gift that is mesmerizing Mystery that is the source of all being, imagination, and energy.

We have no words to talk about this. Pilate is us. “So, you are a king?” Jesus can only say, because he doesn’t have words either, “That is your word for it.” And for this, our fascination with power and glory continues, because we can only describe God in terms of what we want most and what we don’t have, and that is ultimate control over our destiny, control of life. But we don’t have that, and can’t have it, so we opt for wanting everything else. What stands as a witness is the story of the Logos before Pilate, one who actually has the power to give life, the other who only has the power to take it away; one who will wash his hands of the other’s blood, one who has washed the feet of his disciples, his subordinates whom he names as friends. Jesus has shown the truth in his washing of feet, Pilate, concerned with only with strength and power, can only mutter at the figure before him, “Truth? What does that mean?”

I’m not saying it’s easy to take all this in. I see myself in the disciples; I want to be right, to be on top, to be the winner as much as anyone else. But I keep seeing that the only way to that in any permanent, ontological way is to go down, to see myself as superior to no one, and to take on the suffering of anyone as my own. Armed with the power of my own weakness, I ought to be convinced at some point that the life-breath at the heart of the universe can change any situation. What’s so hard about this kind of surrender? Isn’t all the evidence in? Haven’t the powers for which we lust shown themselves to be deceivers in every moment of history and over and over again in our own lives? It’s true that the “kingdom of God is at hand,” right beside us. It’s like we could take a step, a breath, leap, and start living in a whole different way. Why do so few of us make that move?

Maybe that’s why we have a church, so that we can keep telling the story, keep the truth alive, and so that we can find some kind of common courage, some communal faith to move together, tentatively, toward the truth, leaping into the apparent darkness that is the only genuine light, the power-that-is-not-force that gives itself over and over eternally to make a universe, and even the imagining of the words on this page.

The song on this page, “You Are a Sacrifice,” is from my 1987 collection Mystery. The copyright has reverted to me; the song is no longer available from the publisher. Enjoy the entire song an an Easter gift.