In today’s Gospel Story for the Feast of Christ the King (John 18:33-37) Jesus asks Pilate, “Do you say this on your own, or have others told you of me?” Many of us are content to stay with what others have told us about Jesus and don’t get to the point where we can speak of ourselves. For many it is enough to know about Jesus, and there is no need to know Jesus directly. Second hand knowledge is good enough. It is enough to look at a map of New York City, so there is no need to go there and walk the streets and neighborhoods and meet the people. Some folks don’t get to realize the difference.
It is also a lot safer to be satisfied with what others in our particular group tell us about Jesus, to limit ourselves to the doctrines and ideas, the questions and answers. If we got to know him directly ourselves, he might ask us to do things we don’t want to do, like love our neighbor as ourselves, or not do to others what we don’t want others to do to us. We might come to see our everyday life from a different perspective, perhaps as the gradual unveiling of our role in God’s kingdom here and now. That could be work.
It is a lot safer to concentrate on what the church leadership tells people to do, to be so focused on being a “good catholic”, on having the approval of others, that we never let ourselves get to where everything in our tradition points us – a real and living relationship with Jesus. The church announces this relationship and points us towards it. The church does not make this relationship happen, nor is it a condition for this relationship, nor can it control access to this relationship. This relationship is a journey we have to make of ourselves, at times even in spite of “leadership”. No one can make it for us. Many have made this journey ahead of us, and we can learn a lot from them. But it is our journey, and rarely is it easy.
In the Story Jesus says, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over”. Jesus’ kingdom is not like the Roman Empire – maintaining an army to keep people in line by force, threat, and punishment. It would seem though, that some groups who claim to be Jesus’ followers have adopted the style of the Empire and do keep their folks in line with their own version of an army and making use of threats and punishments, using sacraments and worship as weapons against those who might disagree with anything the system wants. They fight to keep Jesus from being handed over to folks whose lifestyle is not acceptable, whose ideas are not completely in line with established norms, or who dare to talk about forbidden topics. A question, though, does Jesus really need anybody to defend him from his own people, the people he himself creates and loves? Who is defending what here?
Folks who seek to know Jesus of themselves, to get beyond what various groups say about him, might come to see all this, and then their life becomes difficult. What to do about their experience of the great disconnect between what Jesus said and what is going on in his name today? They might come to realize that Jesus does not offer absolute certainty about anything, or the safety of knowing they are right. Instead he seems to offer the excitement of questioning, of wondering, of doubting, of realizing that they might be wrong. He offers mystery and trust – the mystery of coming to know him and the trust that doing what they feel called to do, taking whatever course of action they feel is the right one, and for them the way to go, and Jesus is making all things right. While there is certainty and safety in accepting totally the rules of a given group, there is fear and uncertainty in going where one feels Jesus is calling them. In its own way the cross becomes real.
These days in the church making one’s journey to Jesus seems especially difficult. “Leadership” has been coming down hard on any it suspects of independent thinking, of espousing the wrong ideas, or not knuckling under, all of which are seen as much more serious crimes than abusing children or covering up such abuse. “Leadership” acts this way of course in the name of Jesus. Folks who form their own thoughts on matters the system deems closed and their discussion prohibited are denied the sacraments, no matter what their age is. With impunity the system imposes pain and suffering on folks trying to live decent lives, but who do not conform to the system. The methods used by some of these organizations resemble those of totalitarian movements throughout history, even though these groups claim to follow One whose kingdom is not of this word.
These days it can be dangerous to be on one’s own journey to Jesus. A person on such a journey will be alone and probably afraid, wondering what they are to do, knowing that simply withdrawing back into the safety of the groupthink is not an option. Yet they will have ample opportunity to live in faith and hope, maybe even leading to love in the deepest and most practical sense of the word – living for others.
“Do you say this on your own, or have others told you about me?”
“My kingdom is not of this world.”
Just sayin . . .