Symbols of Power

Symbols of Power

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37

“My Kingdom is not of this world…My Kingdom is not from here.” — John 18:36

God is ineffable so all our talk about God must be metaphorical or in some other way symbolic. Something in the world that we know stands in the place of the One who dwells in another world that we cannot know, someone in this world “re-presents” someone in another world. There is nothing alarming about this because all communication is symbolic in this sense of one thing standing in for another. Whenever we go beyond a rudimentary pointing and grunting we communicate by implicitly or explicitly comparing one thing with another. At the very least a sound stands for a thing or an attitude; the sounds of speech are significant because they recall states and substances.

In this sense “King” is a symbol for God and today is the festival of “Christ the King,” and the last day of the Christian year. Next Sunday, the first of Advent, is the Christian New Year. Then we look forward, now we look back, and our point for today’s sermon is the pro and con of summarizing all of what we see of Jesus when we look back, under the symbol “King.”

In our culture “King” is not a familiar symbol. We have not had a king in the US for a long time; not since Elvis Presley, and in his case it was a semi-serious almost joking exaggeration, promoted no doubt by his handlers. It was meant in the simple sense that Elvis was the best, the greatest. There is a sense in which the Christian use of the symbol is like that; we want simply to say that Jesus is the best and the greatest (I can just hear the accusation that I said Jesus was like Elvis).

In its imperial and military context our Gospel lesson in essence says that “King” is the wrong symbol, – unless we alter its meaning so radically that it loses all sense. Jesus tells us that his kingdom is not of this world, not from here, and that is tantamount to saying that we cannot look at an earthly king if we wish to understand what Jesus’ status is. In the passage in question, the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, the mark of a king is that he has armies to do his will, that his power is the power of violence and that he compels homage and obedience by force and the threat of force. Emphatically Jesus will not accept that he is a king like this, and this refusal introduces another kind of power that does not work by fear, force or flattery like a king’s.

The symbol of this “other” power is the Cross, a symbol of the force that does not resist overtly but prevails covertly. Who won the battle of wills between Pilate the earthly power and Jesus? Pilate used his army to torture Jesus to death, Jesus used his “other” kind of power to bear the pain, accept the hostility, absorb the agony and bear it out of the world, Taking it upon himself he sank like a stone beneath its weight and then rose from under it to live triumphantly, millennia longer than Pilate and all of ancient Rome.

From our vantage point we see that Pilate was being played for a fool, not by divine malice but by his own vanity and the deep distrust that caused him to put his confidence in coercion and domination. We all misplace our confidence like that and so we all have to be instructed that if we use the term “King” to describe Jesus we intend something radically different, virtually opposite to the earthly meaning of the term. This king does not put his faith in the force of arms but rules by the power of God, and God’s power is different from and greater than the power of this world.

Nevertheless, as I have hinted above, all the gospels see Jesus if not as an earthly king still as a king of some sort, – like Elvis the greatest – because he brings near a kingdom and teaches the laws and customs, the style and strategy of this kingdom. In the older translations it is called the “Kingdom of God, ” or “the Kingdom of Heaven,” and it sums up everything Jesus stands for. All the parables are parables of the Kingdom. All the miracles are acts of the power of the Kingdom, and that mysterious moment called “Resurrection” is the return of the Kingdom from its attempted expulsion on the Cross. Jesus is the presence of the Kingdom of God, and this is very good news, because his burden is light and his judgment is merciful and understanding.

Thus the old thing in the symbol as used here is that Jesus is a ruler and a lord, the new thing is that his way of ruling is “other” and his authority is grounded beyond this world. Human kings rule by force and base their dignity and status on their genealogy, Jesus rules by the “other” power and grounds his dignity in himself. So the royal symbol of a Christian year, which traces the life of Jesus from birth to death and beyond is quite appropriate for indicating Jesus’ real status as the head, the most important, the unparalleled one over us and among us. Christ is a king, but his kingly authority is not founded in this world and his power does not flow from the barrel of a gun as Mao Zedong so famously claimed.

It is this “other” power that makes Jesus pre-eminently the authority that must rule and it is this “other” power that constructs his kingdom. For Jesus is a great and gentle king and his kingdom is a reign of love. Nevertheless, this gentleness is tougher than the toughest steely force in this world and this love is stronger than death. This glorious, royal “other,” is what we see when we look back over the liturgical life we have lived this year past, the life of Jesus, from crib to cross to climax, from this perishing world to the world of resurrection. It is also what we see when we look ahead from the opening moments of the New Year and from the vantage point of the Crib see the Cross and beyond to the glory of Resurrection and the promise of eternal life.

To believe in the power of this gentleness and love is not easy. In this world it is virtually impossible to live them without being crucified. We who wish to live an “other” life based on an “other” vision cannot do without the protection of the rulers of this world, the army and the other instruments of force that keep the criminals off our backs, but we must never lose sight of or give up on the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and the life Christ the King of Love gives us.

This is why the festival of “Christ the King” and feast of Thanksgiving fit so comfortably into one and the same Sunday. We give thanks for all Jesus the “King” has given us the and done for us, during the past year of our pilgrim journey through this vale of tears; and thanks for the heaven prepared for us as our destination.