The final Sunday of the liturgical year celebrates the Reign of Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s kingdom as Jesus came to live it out. We’ll use the lectionary gospel reading and one more reading from Hebrews to close out our trip through that book.

The designation of this Sunday as celebrating the Reign of Christ (or Christ the King) dates from the rise of European fascism in the 1920s. The pope felt that it was necessary to set aside one Sunday to acknowledge that Christ, not any human leader or political entity, is the rightful object of our ultimate allegiance. Maybe now we should call it the Currency of Christ.

Contexts:

John 18:33-37 (may include 38a) This story takes place during Jesus’ trial. He has been betrayed, questioned by the high priest, and denied by Peter. Now the Roman governor, Pilate, has to decide whether to execute Jesus according to the wishes of the temple authorities or to set him free.

The lectionary cuts this reading off after verse 37, when Jesus affirms his identity with the truth. The folks on Sermon Brainwave suggest reading v. 38a, which is Pilate’s rebuttal: “What is truth?” This often sounds cynical, coming from the powerful Roman governor who truly holds Jesus’ life in his hands, but the larger scene (John 18:28-19:16) paints the picture of a man who can’t make up his mind whether to capitulate to the religious leaders or to release Jesus, whom Pilate can’t find cause to execute. He ultimately orders that Jesus be crucified just to keep the crowd from rioting. “What is truth?” It’s a power beyond the control of even the powerful. The word truth comes up a lot in John. Translation: this stuff matters.

As Jaime Clark-Soles points out, the issue of Jesus’ kingship is not new in John. After he feeds the 5,000 people, he is almost crowned by force (John 6:15). Although John differs from the synoptic gospels on the details and timing of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem, this story joins the others in describing that Jesus was greeted as the king of Israel when he entered Jerusalem.

While our GNT renders v. 36 as “My kingdom does not belong to this world…” the better translation would be “My kingdom is not from this world.” It’s not necessarily a kingdom that exists elsewhere (like heaven above), but it is a kingdom with its roots elsewhere.

Hebrews 13:1-8 The letter to the Hebrews wraps up with a summary of encouragement to persist in the Christian life. Here the lofty descriptions of Christ’s greatness come down to earth in specific instructions and reminders.

Breaking this reading down point by point, Bryan Whitfield describes the Hebrews exhortations as the practical shape of Christian worship. Hebrews has been a book about worship, specifically about the power of a true sacrifice – the true sacrifice, made by Christ. This list of ethical exhortations may not add too much to the conversation we’ve tracked through the rest of the book, but it has certainly resonated through Christian history. As Whitfield points out, hospitality was a matter of safety and protection in the ancient world. Prison was an ever-present possibility for any Christians. Marriage was under threat, not just by moral questions raised by the pagan world, but by impulses among the early Christians to reject marriage and family life in favor of the gospel community. All this ethical teaching, true as it is, finds its real meaning in the steadfast and effective love of God in Christ. After all, this passage has to be about what the rest of the book has been about.

What’s going on here?

I always think of Reign of Christ as a kind of punctuation mark, or almost an extra Sunday that doesn’t quite belong to either lectionary year. It’s our moment to focus on the eternal, the glorious, the perfect, before we descend once again into the stable of Jesus’ coming. Advent also refers to Jesus’ promised return, but especially in a year when the cultural celebration of Christmas is in full swing, there’s no real way I’m going to recover the apocalyptic tint of this Sunday.

Instead, I want to focus on the power of that word, truth, and the reality that exists when we live by it. It’s a chance, perhaps, to look toward our ideals and imagine what the world could look like. Reading Hebrews, imagining that Jesus has come into his reign, and recognizing that the list of virtues and practices can still apply. These are eternal things, earthy as they are. In fact, in their earthiness – welcoming strangers, caring for the suffering and imprisoned, seeking to be faithful as God is faithful – these practices help us to build Christ’s reign on earth. These are ways to live by the truth.

Other resources you might find useful

Nancy Rockwell reflects on the power of truth and the smaller truths we submit ourselves to.

Rick Morley reflects on power, vulnerability, and truth.

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