God is not a king who rules by the threat of power, but a lover who empowers us by the gift of love.
Proper 29b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over... but as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Last week we reflected on the fact that no human being — Jesus Christ excepted — is quite like God. We are all, of course, like God in a few respects, having been made in God’s image. As the Catechism reminds us, right in the second question and answer, on page 845 of the Book of Common Prayer, this means that we, like God, are free: “free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason.”
Surely there is no doubt about God having these three attributes. “Reason” is God’s middle name, so to speak, for as theologians remind us, the Son of God is the Word of God — and that is the most meaningful and reasonable Word ever spoken: the Word through whom all things were made. In this we recognize God as the Creator of all that is and could possibly be. And as John the evangelist reminds us again and again, Love is at the very heart of who God is.
We human beings share in these capacities to love, create, and reason — but you can see at once that human likeness to God is limited in each one of these capacities. As I said in the sermon last week, “No man works like him.”
And as with God, so with God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is similar in some respects to earthly kingdoms, but ultimately so different from all of them that even thinking in such terms could be less than profitable, if we get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Of course, that did not stop people from thinking about the kingdom of God in very earthly terms throughout most of human history. The form that Messiah takes in the Jewish tradition is precisely that of a king. Messiah in Hebrew, and Christ in Greek, both mean “anointed one” — and this refers to the fact that the way a person is made a king in the Jewish tradition — and in most others — is by being anointed. You may remember, for example, how God chose David out of all the sons of Jesse and sent Samuel the prophet to anoint him as king with holy oil, after Saul (whom Samuel had also anointed king at God’s instruction) turned out not to be a faithful ruler after God’s own heart, and willing to submit to God’s instruction and commandment.
Our reading this morning from the book of Daniel shows that this idea of God, and God’s kingdom, was still very much in vogue in the centuries before the coming of Christ, and even up through and into the time of his ministry. Daniel portrays what amounts to a coronation scene in which the one “like a human being” — or “like a son of man” as the older translation has it — comes before the Ancient One, the one Ancient in Days, to be invested with all authority over all the nations of the earth. And you will recall that the disciples asked Jesus if the time was coming when he would establish his kingdom in Jerusalem. The disciples saw the kingdom of God in very literal terms — an anointed King sitting on a physical throne in a particular earthly kingdom.
So strong is this image of God as a kind of super-king — a King of kings and Lord of Lords — that it persisted well into the life of the early church, as attested in that reading from the Revelation to John. That vision portrays God’s heavenly court as being much like an earthly court; the only difference being that Jesus is the ruler over all the kings of the earth.
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And so he is — I do not want to deny by any means that the Son of God is King of kings and Lord of lords. But I want to remind us that this is an image, a metaphor. It doesn’t particularly well speak to us in our days, anyway, when there are very few kings sitting on earthly thrones anywhere. God is not simply the boss of bosses, the capo de tutti capi as they would say in the Godfather. God is much more than that, but also different from that. There is a danger in seeing God as simply the biggest, the best, the boss, the most powerful ruler, or even as just “the supreme being.” And the reason for this is that it doesn’t well jibe with what the Catechism tells us about God — that the primary attributes of God reflected here on earth are freedom, reason, and love — not compulsion and power.
And this is in part what Jesus was getting at when he told Pilate that his kingdom “is not from the world.” His kingdom is not a kingdom of one power dominating all other powers. No, his kingdom is a kingdom based on truth — and here we must understand truth not just as a collection of all things that are true, a collection of facts, but rather as something about the ultimate reality of all that is — something about the being of God rather than merely the power of God. It is not so much that God is in control of things, a power working over other powers, but that God is the source of all life and light and power that any thing has.
This is what is meant when John the Divine reports, a few chapters on from today’s passage, that the heavenly creatures sing out: “Splendor and honor and kingly power are yours by right, O Lord our God, for you created everything that is, and by your will they were created and have their being.” The kingly power of God is not that of an invading general conquering someone else’s territory; it is the gracious authority of the one who holds all things by right, not by compulsion.
For God is not only the creator of all that is, but the sustainer of it: were God to withdraw his loving care from the universe for an instant, were God to turn his gaze away or blink his all-seeing eye, all that is would simply cease to be — for God is the ground of all being, the source and sustainer of all that is, all things being created and sustained by the left and the right hands of reason and love.
This can help us understand on the one hand the nature of God’s creative reason — for he is the Word of Truth, the truth of everything that is. God is not simply reasonable in the sense of being intelligible or logical — God is the very basis of what makes Reason what it is — why cause follows effect and one and one make two. God is not just the Great Because; God is the Great Why.
But above all, and on the other hand, and again as John reminds us again and again, God is love — not just the love of affection and friendship and fellowship, not even just as the most loving being — but as the sustaining cause and end and purpose of all love. God is not a king who rules by the threat of power, but a lover who empowers us by the gift of love.
Perhaps no one understood this better than Dame Julian of Norwich, a great saint of the English Middle Ages. In her Revelations of Divine Love she wrote of God speaking to her; and the form of God that she saw was the wounded Christ on the Cross. And that Christ on the Cross spoke to her, in these words:
I am he, the might and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessèd love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the Unity; I am he, the great supreme goodness of every kind of thing; I am he who makes you to love; I am he who fills you with desire; and I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.
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Is God a king, even King of kings? Yes, so God is. But that kingdom is not from this world — it is to this world. For the love of God is not based on God needing anything, but having everything, so that all is a gift, a gift of freedom, reason and love, given to us by the one who took our nature upon, that we might grow into his nature; one who died for us, that we might live in him. So let us give glory to God, our true King and our Lord, to whom all might, majesty, power and dominion — and all freedom, peace and love — be now and evermore ascribed, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.