After Jesus has fed the crowd, John says that he hid himself ‘because they were about to take him by force to make him king’. On the day we celebrate Christ the King, the gospel tells us that this is precisely the title Jesus refuses! And not only here but throughout John’s Gospel. Of all the titles of Jesus, John seems to say, it’s the one most susceptible to misuse. When Nathaniel is the first to recognise Jesus as a man like no other, he says: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ And Jesus’ responds by telling Nathaniel not to make too much of it: ‘do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these’. And this understated way of using Old Testament kingship language pervades the whole gospel. Jesus distances himself from popular acclaim as if to say: you have your ideas about what kingship means; but I will show you another way. So he contrasts the shepherd-kings of Israel and Judah who abused and betrayed their trust with the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The messianic ruler, entering his city on a donkey to palm branches and shouts of hosanna turns out to be the Teacher and Lord who washes feet.
When Pilate says to him in the passion story, ‘so you are a king then?’ he replies, ‘this is your word, not mine. But if this is the language you insist on using, I had better explain carefully what it does and doesn’t mean’. ‘My kingdom is not from this world’ he begins. He is saying that there is a world of difference between kingship as mortals set it up and the divine character of God’s rule. Jesus’ kingship comes from another source entirely. It is stronger than any earthly power. It endures when all other kingdoms have crumbled to dust. But not everyone can see it, still less welcome and embrace it.
This is not the kind of rule Pilate knows about. His is the world of power politics and coercive force. But what Jesus is speaking about comes from a different place. ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.’ Power and violence are not very far apart in most societies, whether it is the Rome of Pilate, the Jerusalem of the zealots, or the Babylon of Belshazzar’s feast. Jesus emphatically rejects a kingship built on them. His reign is based on a different premise, what he calls the ‘truth’. What does it mean to be citizens of this kingdom of truth? This is what Jesus goes on to explain to Pilate. ‘For this was I born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’. In the upper room, Jesus has spoken of himself as the truth, the truth that sets free. Truth, in the way Jesus means it, scrutinises how we see ourselves. It’s an uncomfortable judgment upon us all, for truth has implications for all that belongs to ‘human empire’: the governance of nations, the leadership of society the management of institutions, and all that belongs to the life of every human being.
Jesus has come to testify to the truth. This is why we must not be seduced by power. Even in the church we easily fall prey to lazy notions of victory and triumph. For some churches it is elaborate building projects; for others it is church growth and success in outreach and evangelisation. Or we talk the language of politics, winning or losing the argument over female bishops, and still the categories are of human power in its assertive, adversarial mode. We begin to think that we can grow or build or extend God’s kingdom with our own hands. Yet Jesus teaches us that the kingdom is God’s act, not ours. We must be open to it, embrace it, live out its values, but we can never bring it about. In places like this we must be especially vigilant against triumphalism. The Normans built Durham’s castle and Cathedral as a sign of their conquest of the Saxons of the north country. That subjugation meant terrible attrition, the notorious harrying of the north. In the Cathedral the prince-bishops erected the highest throne in Christendom. It all sits uncomfortably alongside St John’s image of the Christ who washes the feet of his disciples and goes out to die.
How is the human power embodied in places such as this stronghold redeemed then? One answer is, in the shrine of the man who was remembered on this peninsula for his Christ-like humility and truth-seeking holiness. Cuthbert is its conscience, the key to its spirituality, the antidote to triumphalism. This is how his beloved St John saw things, for one of the identifying marks of the church for him is truth. Truth-telling, in the sense of open, honest unafraid relationships, is part of being ‘aligned’ to truth. ‘Truth-telling’ is an outcome of loving the truth for its own sake, believing that truth is something to stake one’s life on. I am saying that to be the church in an authentic way, truth-seeking must always be at the core of our endeavour. It is costly and difficult. It involves dying to oneself. Bearing witness to it entails sacrifice. We must not forget that the Jesus who speaks of being ‘from the truth’ is on his way to the cross.
The cross is where this kingdom ‘not from here’ is finally revealed. Golgotha is the writing on the wall of the world-empires. There, the fingers of the man’s hand write the fateful words for all to see: that they are numbered, weighed, divided and destined to topple before the coming kingdom of truth and peace. The cross is the judgment of truth on all falsehood and fantasy. Jesus says just before his crucifixion: ‘now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out’. We who want to hear the voice of our king and be his loyal subjects know where we must go. We will find him not where crowd-pulling signs and wonders are worked, but outside the city wall. For if he is Christ the King, his heavenly reign is not different from his earthly coronation on Golgotha where, high and lifted up, he is sovereign in a purple robe and crown of thorns.
Yes, we have been to the place of a Skull. We have looked on the king we have pierced. We have seen his glory.
Durham Castle University College,Christ the King, 25 November 2012.
Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; John 18.33-37