Homily for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, 2012
There are two ways we can understand the idea of not belonging to the world, aren’t there? In a first way, which is rather superficial, we might think of not belonging as not being present, being foreign, separate or distant. And if this were the sense in which Jesus was speaking in today’s Gospel, as we imagine his attendants who he says are not of this world, we might think of countless hosts of angels all in battle armor standing on the sidelines, held in check by God the Father even as Christ is speaking to Pilate. But I think that is the wrong image for this scene.
And that is because there is a second way and much more profound way in which Christ speaks about not belonging to this world throughout the Gospels. In John’s Gospel, he tells his disciples that while it is true that they live in the world, they do not belong to the world, they belong to their heavenly Father. That, as St. Paul says, their citizenship, our citizenship is in heaven. We often express this simply by saying that Christians must live in the world but cannot be of the world. And this way of being in but not belonging bears some thought as we try to understand Christ our King and his kingdom.
In the first place, this sense of not belonging to this world makes it clear that Christ’s kingdom is certainly not absent. Far from it! What did Christ preach continuously throughout the hills of Judea and Samaria? The Kingdom of God is at hand. And in Luke’s Gospel, our Lord speaks very clearly: “Asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he said in reply, “The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.”
So it is undeniable that Christ’s kingdom is here – it’s real, it is in this world.
But it doesn’t belong to this world. In other words, it is not contained by this world, limited by this world; it is not external and comprehensible; it is not a mere passing earthly kingdom like other kingdoms. Christ’s dominion is God’s dominion and we know that God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts. So Christ's kingdom is not like our kingdoms, and Christ is a King unlike any earthly king.
Pilate asked Christ: “So you are a king?” And how did Christ respond? “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
Pilate does not understand the true kingdom and so he doesn't understand the kingship of Christ. Because Jesus does not visibly demonstrate his power, does not force others do his will, Pilate does not take him seriously. He only believes in kingdoms that are ruled from thrones, that are governed by coercion, fear and oppression. A king without a castle? Without an army? Without a treasury? “Ah, that kind of a king,” we can imagine him smirking, “The king of the little blue people who came here from another planet? Yeah, we have a special place for ‘kings’ like you.”
Pilate sees the world in only one way: in external, worldly expressions of power. Earthly power is what motivated him. His desire for earthly power is what brought him to his position, and the fear of losing it drove him to stand back and watch as Christ, who he knew was innocent, was led away to be crucified. He could not see beyond earthly kingdoms. The only Kings that mattered to him were those who had control over your life, your possessions, your reputation, your comfort. Earthly kings. Vague notions of a mysterious kingdom of God that could only be spoken of in parables and metaphor seemed to him an escape from the real world and of no real practical use or consequence. Real kings and real kingdoms demonstrate real power in the real world. So thought Pilate.
But Christ came to testify to the truth. And what is the truth? That earthly power is an illusion. That all of these people and assets and stuff that earthly rulers try to push around and control externally, from above as if they were little gods – they are horribly deceived. They are moving around mere shadows and fictions. Their power, their glory and honor, their wealth and might, even their legacies: it is all earthly vanity and chase after wind. Beneath all of this superficial power brokering and greed and ambition, quietly and powerfully and beautifully holding all things in existence is the real Kingdom. The Kingdom of God. It is a kingdom not ruled externally, not ruled by force, not treating subjects as objects, but a Kingdom that is sustained and built and grows from within through the sacrificial love of God that dwells within his creation and is drawing all things to himself. A kingdom that is spread far and wide not by conquering armies, but by the converted hearts of saints who serve the poor and the needy. That is defended not by strong walls of stone, but by the steadfast love of its citizens, who freely and generously seek first not to be served, but to serve others. That is sustained not by earthly waters and lands and resources, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God, and by the mysteries, the sacraments of his love. Christ is the king of this only true and lasting kingdom, God’s dominion over the whole created order of time and space. And Christ reigns not by subjecting creation to himself, but by subjecting himself, emptying himself and giving his life to sustain and unite all of creation in one eternal offering to our Heavenly Father. The reign of Christ is the reign of sacrificial love, the love of God outpoured, the true source and origin of all life.
And so as we look once more at the scene of our Gospel, at Christ the King of Sacrificial Love who stands before Pontius Pilate, where are the King’s attendants? Were they tensely standing by in the clouds of heaven, just itching to be set free so that they could strike down Pilate and save their king? No – that is what the attendants to an earthly kingdom and an earthly king would do.
Instead, the attendants of Christ’s kingdom, the kingdom of God, took their lead from their king. And as their king mounted the true throne of the universe, the Cross on Calvary, they stood steadfast in prayer, united to their Lord in mind and heart, praying with him that all would be one, offering their lives to the Father in one communion of sacrificial love. Mary, our Lord’s mother, certainly is the first of these attendants, she who quietly accompanied her son with her heart and mind along his royal way of love. And all of the saints have likewise attended to Christ as they have striven diligently to be more closely unified to his life-giving sacrifice of love in the often mundane and simple tasks of daily life.
At this Mass we stand once more at the threshold of the throne of the true king, we stand before Calvary, before Christ’s sacrifice of love. We are his attendants, his beloved sons and daughters who he has summoned before him to be one people, one Church, one kingdom. But we must remember what he has taught us: Christ’s throne and kingdom do not belong to this world, are not of this world, and nor do we who attend to his throne belong to this world. Our mission is not to go out and overpower our enemies as earthly kingdoms do; it is to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us. It is to serve the widow and the orphan, to give generously to the poor and the suffering. It is to love one another as Christ, our king, has loved us by offering his life for us.
May we be faithful attendants to Christ our King: steadfast at his side as he works for the good of all people from the throne of the universe, the throne of sacrificial love.