Jesus had wandered the hills of Galilee and Jerusalem, Samaria and The Decapolis, and most of those he gathered into his mission were people like Steinbeck’s Joad family, save Matthew and Zacheaus, who had some means.
There was no middle class in Jesus day like we have in our country, shrinking though it is. And Jewish custom kept the disparity between rich and poor relatively small. But other societies like Egypt and Rome harbored a ruling elite that lived in a whole other zone of royal abundance.
But does the politics of money have anything to do with faith? Yes and no. Nothing to do with nurturing the gift of faith. Everything to do with organizing people for mission.
The bible, for better or worse, doesn’t come with a Chicago Tribune or Newsweek subscription to tell us the social or political back story of Persia in 500BC or Palestine in 30AD. The scripture writers just kind of assumed their readers would know that stuff, which they did at first, but not so much anymore.
Pontius Pilate, a kind of governor of Judea, appointed by emperor Augustus, and dispatched from Rome, served about a decade, and had every resource at his disposal to enforce order and collect taxes in the Jewish province. He lived in the opulent roman coastal palace most of the time, but always came to the equally upper-class Jerusalem headquarters during festivals. And it was there he had a long back and forth encounter with Jesus, according to John’s gospel. After beating around the bush to answer Pilate’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus finally told Pilate, “my kingdom is not from here.” Up until then, Pilate was having a hard time getting his head into this particular game. Looking at this wandering peasant from rural Galilee, he thought the Jewish leaders were wasting his time bringing him to his headquarters. He looked more like an artist or earnest teacher than the leader of national movement that could in any way threaten Pilate’s firm grasp on power. But Jesus piqued his interest, just a bit, when he claimed, he had a kingdom. “So you are a king,” he asked Jesus? But it quickly devolved again, and so Pilate tries more than once to release Jesus, finding no claim to the charges of sedition.
Nothing says power, of course, like the use of military, clandestine or coercive, force and intimidation, and Rome was a master at all three. Many empires have reproduced this sure-fire, and ultimately tragic recipe, even the nation we are members of today. And in some ways we have become better at it, than all our predecessors.
So as followers of Jesus, we too take notice of Jesus’ words, the same ones that Pilate did, only, for a different reason. It’s not the threat of a rival king and his kingdom that will fight to the finish, that piques our interest and perks up our ears, but the vision of a kingdom, or realm, or reign of Christ, that is not from this world.
Jesus’ reign is born anew, from above. It is of God, and full of truth for the life of the world. And so artists have delighted us with paintings of a kingly Christ sitting on a throne in the clouds of heaven, though it will turn off some people today, or at best confuses us, as it no longer fits our 21st C cosmology. But it still paints, in broad strokes at least, a picture of a sovereign one whose reign is everlasting, and who originates from a holy, just, and truthful place.
The church has sometimes misused it, however, whenever it portrays this kingdom as finished and fixed, insisting that the next step is simply climbing our piously holy ladders up to heaven to join him. For then it has forgotten the beautiful, earth-shattering, yet hopeful, apocalyptic description in Revelation:
“Look! He is coming with the clouds;
Every eye will see him,
Even those who pierced him…
So it is to be. Amen.”
The reign of Christ is forever, but the promise to come down and enter our lives, and our world, and make a difference, is immediate, and dawning among us in our midst right now. The apocalyptic language of the coming of the Human One in Daniel, and the coming of Christ, not to take us out of this veil of tears, but to come down to redeem the whole world, was born out of some of the deepest grief’s the people of God had to live through – the worst depressions, deportations and occupations – and as such, was a holy gift of Hope.
There’s a parish in Chicago that is trying something new today, for Christ the King Sunday. They’re using the prophetic voice of one of America’s most popular recording artists to amplify the message of Jesus our King. I doubt it will become very widespread, but there’s no doubt a number of the songs that Grammy winner Bob Dylan has written, make imaginative use of biblical imagery, which ring a distinctively apocalyptic note. In the Dylan’s ballad, A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, for example, it’s the innocent youth who speak the prophetic truth,
And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Though one of his earliest songs -50 years old now- it could easily describe the signs of our times today: tsunami’s, the drum beat for continuous war, the despair of the poor and derision of the rich, the under appreciation of the arts and their place in our culture, and the tragic irony of morality turned kitsch.
But the purpose of apocalyptic is always to point us to the hope of our king, whose reign is not from this world, so that we may learn to let Christ rule in our hearts and minds, with all our strength, in the here and now.
If you are in need, ask a poor person. Jesus, who feeds both body and soul, bids us to be filled with the holy spirit, the clandestine blowing of the wind answer, my friend. For the world will be healed and the truth of our reigning Christ the King, grows from one believer to another, and is never dependent on the top down kingdoms of this world. It is us, those captured by faith, poor or rich, and us alone, who are called to bear God’s truth. We have an amazing faith-story to tell and a passion to share.
As the followers of Jesus grew and stayed true to his mission, the heart of their makeup was poor people supporting one another, and when they had to change or reorder social structures, they organized people and money, from the bottom up.
As a king with a specific mission, Jesus has come into the world to testify to the truth. The truth may use other political purposes, though it never becomes an instrument of, or identified with them. Jesus does not need us to prop up his power or authority, as he reigns from the right hand of God. But it is us, the followers of Jesus, who have been empowered to be “of the truth” rather than “of the world.”
Truth is one of God’s deepest desires for us, and the language of apocalyptic is a faith-tool that literally pulls back the curtain, the veil that hides the truth, to reveal God’s hope and will for us, empowering its citizens to be sent out into God’s creation that we may build partnerships with all those, ready to work for the new kingdom and realm of God. Now, we are kings and queens, in Jesus’ name, and nothing can oppress us, no hard rain can deter us! We seek help, whether from poor or rich, from whoever is of the truth, rather than of the world. By the power of the holy spirit, we come together for the truth and beauty of the reign of Christ, here in this world, and forever.