November 25, What kind of kingdom?

What kind of kingdom?

John 18:33-37


First off, I want to acknowledge that for some of us, there may be an issue with some of the language here in the scripture passage for this morning, and specifically that issue has to do with the word “kingdom.”

You may or may not be aware of this, but for quite some time now, there has been in some Christian circles, and among Christian feminists in particular, a suggested substitute word that can stand in for the word “kingdom” – that is, the replacing of the word “kingdom” with “kin-dom.” (K-I-N, hyphen, D-O-M)

It is unclear exactly who coined the word “kin-dom” to stand in for the patriarchal, imperialistic word “kingdom,” (although if you do some reading on the matter, the work of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz comes up again and again). But in any case, among theologians and preachers and others who have interest in the language of theology, the alternate “kin-dom” has been around for several decades now.

And it is both a linguistically and theologically interesting alternative, because not only does it shift away from an exclusively male-oriented, patriarchal image of the realm of God, but is also interesting because it suggests something about the church (as we know it, as we even imagine it) that is important and true:

The word “kin,” in the adapted description “kin-dom of God,” says something important about the relational, connectional, mutually dependent, intentionally open and vulnerable nature of the church. The church is not a kingdom, the church is place of kinship. In other words, we who wish to live as the body of Christ, both with each other and out into the world, have less interest in defining our relationships in terms of royalty and more interest in expressing our relationships in terms of family.

Reta Halteman Finger, a retired Bible professor at Messiah College, and a continuing part-time teacher at Eastern Mennonite University, writing for Christian Feminism Today, says this, “I think “kin-dom” is a good word and better reflects the kind of society Jesus envisions – as a shared community of equals who serve each other.”

But she also acknowledges that in Jesus’ time, the word “kingdom” in the phrase “kingdom of God” would have been appropriately used because “the statement is political, and there is no alternative term in that world – even though God’s reign through Jesus is radically upside down from Caesar’s and not at all martial or imperialist.”

So, she says, “In the larger context of the New Testament, both “kin-dom” and “kingdom” make sense. The Apostle Paul plants small house churches, and when he writes to them, he calls them adelphoi – sisters and brothers – united in a kin-group not by blood, but in a common loyalty to the Lord Jesus, over against Lord Caesar. (And) To these tiny outposts, Paul promises the coming victory of God over all other empires, through the return of God’s representative, Jesus.” (“From Kingdom to Kin-dom – and beyond,”

So, there’s probably a whole sermon to be preached on whether or not (if such language had been available to him) Jesus would have stuck with “kingdom” or changed to “kin-dom,” or even used both. And although I’ve probably preached about half that sermon already this morning, that’s not the sermon I really am aiming to preach today. I just wanted to wanted to lift up the “king” and “kin” difference, because I wanted to acknowledge that the narrow, exclusive, patriarchal might be often taken for granted, but it shouldn’t. And if fact, it can create significant obstacles for us.

Now, having said that, I will also acknowledge that in naming the obstacles, we might lose sigh of the path, but I will trust you to come along, because in the text for today, whatever issue we might take with kingdom-language, we need to recognize that Jesus isn’t the one driving the language. He’s not the one who offers himself as a king with a kingdom. It’s Pilate who introduces the imperialistic language.

“Are you the King of Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus. Pilate is the one with kings and kingdoms on his mind. But it’s interesting that in his first response, Jesus won’t give a direct answer. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” In other words, “Where are you getting this information? Who is claiming that I am claiming to be a king?”

With that initial answer, it sounds like Jesus is headed in the direction of denial. It sounds like he is about to say, “No, I am not the King of the Jews.” And of course saying, “No, I’m not claiming to be a king. I am not the King of the Jews,” would be a smart and strategic thing to do if he wants to get out of Pilate’s grasp – Pilate, who functions, who operates, in political circles, in a political power position.

If Jesus would just say, “I am not a king,” he might well get himself completely off the hook, because Pilate is concerned with power politics, not local religious disagreements.

But then as the encounter continues, it gets a little more sticky: Even though Jesus never says that he’s a king, he doesn’t completely avoid the image either. Instead, he kind of pushes into it as he claims a kingdom – not of this world, he says – but a kingdom nevertheless.

And we are left scratching our heads a bit. What is he doing? Of course, he must know that if he claims a kingdom, he’s claiming to be a king…and that’s what will get him in deeper trouble with Pilate and with Rome. So, what’s the plan here?

You might say that Jesus is side-stepping trouble by indicating that the kingdom he’s claiming isn’t a kingdom to compete with Pilate; not even a kingdom to compete with the Roman Empire at large, but a kingdom not of this world, but it’s still kingdom-talk.

And why is he walking right into trouble at this particular time? After all, how many times has he turned conversations upside down when the Pharisees have tried to trap him, for example? He knows how to think on his feet! He knows when someone is trying to back him into a corner! He knows how to receive a sharp question and parry it with another equally sharp question!

Why, in this critical moment, this dangerous moment, does he walk into the trap? Why doesn’t he just say, “No, I’m not a king and I don’t have a kingdom”? Or why doesn’t he change the language (which is often our solution) change the definition being assigned to him, saying perhaps something like this: “I am not a king; I am a prophet, a miracle worker, a teacher, a friend of sinners, a brother, a son, a leader, a servant, a washer of feet, a justice advocate, an upsetter of the status quo, a scholar, a community organizer, a story teller, a scripture interpreter, a preacher, a visionary, a peacemaker, an agitator, a healer – but I’m not a king.”?

And furthermore, even though he doesn’t have the language of “kin-dom” at hand – it’s not in the theological linguistic handbook of the time – there’s nothing stopping him from saying, “I’m not a king – over these people. I am kin – to these people.”

Of course, if you pose a lot of questions like that, even if you don’t have the answers, you better have some ideas! And I do have a few.

One idea I have, is that Jesus doesn’t sidestep the “kingdom” language because he recognizes that it is not just political language, but it is the language of authority. And the key question between him and the chief priests and Pilate, is this: Who has authority? Is it the political leader who is “in charge,” – the king, in Pilate’s terms -- or might it be the person, great or small, who tells the truth?

Because that’s where the encounter ends up: Jesus says, “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. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

And this is an important thing for that moment, but there’s also for us a very timely and relevant aspect to this statement: Power – political power, Pilate-type power – is not the same thing as authority, especially moral authority; and it is not the same thing as truth-telling. Pilate is focused on the matter of who can exert their own will. Jesus is focused on the matter of who can be trusted.

Yes, Jesus is kin to all people. “What a friend we have in Jesus” is how the old hymn puts it. But Jesus is also the supreme truth-teller. And because of that, Jesus is the authoritative voice of God.

What becomes clear, as the story continues, is that Pilate wants to reduce Jesus to just the King of the Jews. In the verses that follow after this morning’s text, when he offers Jesus to the mob, Pilate says, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” (And they cry out instead for Barabbas) and then later, when Jesus is crucified, Pilate has an inscription placed on the cross, “King of the Jews,” which the chief priests resist, but Pilate won’t change.

Maybe Pilate does that to cover himself politically – in other words, Jesus’ death must be laid at the feet of the Jews; it’s their fault for choosing a king other than Caesar. But I can’t help but think that there’s also this: that Pilate wants to make the point that Jesus, as “King of Jews,” is a failed and powerless king. He’s a nothing-king (next to the power of Rome)

Pilate is all about exercising political power. And to do it, he has to perpetuate a lie: that Jesus is nothing. But while Jesus might not have the political power to go toe-to-toe with Pilate, he isn’t “nothing” – Jesus is a truth-teller. Yes, he is a prophet, a miracle worker, a teacher, a friend of sinners, a brother, a son, a leader, a servant, a washer of feet, a justice advocate, an upsetter of the status quo, a scholar, a community organizer, a story teller, a scripture interpreter, a preacher, a visionary, a peacemaker, an agitator, a healer – but in each of those roles, in each of those practices, he is also a teller of truth.

He tells the truth of a kingdom that is now and not yet. He tells the truth of things turned upside down from the way they are, so that they can be turned right side up to match the intentions of God. He tells the truth that the powers that be in this world are often dealing in lies and always protecting and promoting illusions. He tells the truth that we are all kin to the him and to each other.

Pilate asks “What is truth?” but clearly, he hasn’t been listening, he hasn’t been paying attention, because Jesus, the king of truth, has been telling the truth all along. He’s been telling the truth and describing God’s realm all along.

What does the kingdom of God look like? What does the king of truth have to say?

It’s this: No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. (3:3)

And this: Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it might be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (3:21)

And this: God is Spirit and those who worship God must worship God in spirit and in truth. (4:24)

And it’s this: I am the bread of life. (6:35)

And this: I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me. (10:14)

And it’s this: I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. (11:25)

And it’s this: If I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (13:14)

And it is this: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (13:34)

And it is this: I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. (15:16)

You know that was just now? That was a brief tour though the entire gospel of John, a quick trip through John’s gospel from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, up to this moment when Jesus stands before Pilate. A quick tour of the truth of God’s realm, with clues to the nature of God’s kingdom: birth, light, spirit, bread, shepherd, resurrection, teacher, commandment, fruit. And action words too: see, worship, know, believe, wash, love, bear.

That’s the kind of kingdom Jesus claims. That’s the kind of king he is. Not a king who clings to power, but one who envisions a new realm. Jesus is the King of truth, the king of hope, the king of justice, the king of love.

And we? We are invited to live into such a realm. It starts with kinship – kinship among us, kinship with Jesus – but it does not end there.

It continues out into the world: challenging what is not true, challenging what is not just, challenging what is not God’s intention for creation, and replacing those things with a new order. And to that end, Jesus equips us – citizens of this new realm of God -- with what we need: grace and truth, courage and conviction, healing and hope.

May God’s kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.




Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

November 25, 2018