Quas Primas: In the First 11/25/18 (Proper 29B; Reign of Christ)

TEXTS: REVELATION 1:4-8; JOHN 18:33-38
NOVEMBER 25, 2018

It is the 1920s. World War I has ended, and Lenin has led Russia to a new era of Marxist Communism. Benito Mussolini has led Italy to Italian Fascism. The Great War has ended, but war and uprising have not. The world watches anxiously as new powers begin to take root and to exert power over the people of defeated lands. As part of these new regimes, religious freedom is being stamped out at every turn.

And so in 1925 Pope Pius XI looks around and responds by issuing an encyclical called “Quas Primas,” or, “In the First.” Among other things, his encyclical institutes a new church holy day: the Solemnity of Christ the King. The Pope hopes that the holiday will lead to a realization that the Church has the right to freedom and immunity from the state (Quas Primas, 32). Moreover, the Pope hopes that the new holy day will strengthen and encourage the faithful as they are reminded that Christ must be first among all earthly powers, desires, or goals: Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies (Quas Primas, 33).

Today, on Christ the King Sunday – or Reign of Christ Sunday – we are invited to ask ourselves: What is in the first in our hearts, and in our lives? To what ruler or rulers do we most frequently bow down?

In today’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus standing before Pilate. The priest Annas and his son-in-law the High Priest Caiaphas have decided that things have gone too far with this Jesus character. His preaching and healing are drawing too much attention. He is threatening their power and control as the religious leaders of the Jewish people. Moreover, his behavior and the crowds that follow him are attracting too much attention; eventually the secular authorities of Rome are going to notice. Then things will be very bad for all the Jews.

So Annas and Caiaphas determine that the only way to stop him now is to have him killed. However, as we know, Jews are prohibited from exacting capital punishment. So they convince Judas to betray Jesus, have him arrested in the Garden, and have him taken to Pilate, hoping to provoke Pilate into killing Jesus for them.

“What charge do you bring against this man?” demands Pilate, who doesn’t want anything to do with this religious squabble. Annas and Caiaphas claim that the problem isn’t a religious one; it’s that Jesus is committing treason: he is going around saying he’s king of the Jews. Such treason would surely call down the wrath of Caesar, who is the king of all.

What Annas and Caiaphas are actually worried about, however, is that Jesus will draw too many people towards him and away from them, undermining their authority and power. We might suppose that, in this instance anyway, power and the desire for safety are first in the hearts of Annas and Caiaphas.

“Hands bound behind him, his lip split and his cheek puffy from where one of the high priest’s officials had whacked him (cf. John 18:22), Jesus [looks] nothing like a king. Meanwhile he is being interrogated by a man who [does] possess…the outer trappings of worldly power and might.” [1]

But when Pilate demands that Jesus himself answer the charge against him, Jesus no longer seems like a victim. Suddenly he seems much more like someone who has power and authority of his own.

In his commentary on this passage, Leonard Vander Zee notes that Jesus’ response is almost regal. He does not seem bullied or afraid; rather, he seems quite in control of the situation. So when Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews,” Jesus replies with his own question: “Is that your own idea or theirs?” This is, Vander Zee says, a very shrewd move on Jesus’ part:

Jesus is pointing out that if the question came from Pilate it would be something like this: Are you claiming to be some kind of king challenging the authority of Rome? The answer is clearly, No. But if it was a Jewish question, it would be something like this: Are you the messianic king of Israel? To that the answer would be, Yes. So Jesus, like a skillful attorney, wants to know who’s asking the question and what it means?

Pilate is put on the spot, and he doesn’t like it. He nearly spits his disgust with the Jewish leaders who wouldn’t even enter his house; “I am not a Jew am I? It’s your own people who have handed you over. It’s all part of their political-religious garbage with self-proclaimed messiahs who were nothing but dangerous terrorists. Now let’s get down to brass tacks. What have you done?”…

So, now Jesus knows where Pilate’s coming from. Pilate needs a lesson in the politics of God’s kingdom. “OK”, says Jesus, “You want to know who I am and what I’m all about, I’ll tell you. Call me a King, I’ll accept that, but then you must understand it by my terms and my definitions, or you won’t understand it at all.” [2]

The truth is, Jesus is not a king the world would ever recognize. “This is a king who speaks to the lowly and the rejected. This is a king who serves rather than being served. This is a king who enters the holy city, not triumphantly on a horse, but seated on a donkey (John 12:14).” [3]

Furthermore, this is a king who refuses to use violence or coercive power of any sort. Indeed, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Simon Peter drew his sword to fight them off and Jesus told him to put his sword away. He refused to resort to violence, or to let his disciples do so. Thus it is that Jesus can say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” (John 18:36)

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber has said:

When Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, maybe it’s not like that thing where he’s like, do what you will with me because I might seem weak and pathetic here but in heaven I’m like basically ceasar. No. I think he was like, my kingdom is not of this world because his power is not centered in our endless cycle of violence. No. He’s not a defender, a protector, a soldier, a cop, a secretary of state. He’s a savior. A savior who knows that more violence will never save us from our addiction to violence. [4]

It is this very Savior to whom we turn again and again. That’s what this holiday – holy day – is all about. It’s a reminder that Christ is Quam Prima – in the first.

When Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth,” he doesn’t recognize that the truth is standing right in front of him.

Truth is, as Revelation tells us, simply this: the God who is, and who was, and who is to come. This is the God who is: the God who is with us now, here, in the midst of this crazy world and our crazy lives. This is the God who was: the God who arrived two thousand years ago as a baby, a refugee, a powerless peasant from an occupied territory; the God who was in the very beginning, before creation dawned. This is the God who is to come: the God whose Advent we will begin to await anew next week; the God who will come again, and again, and again. This is the God who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end of our lives.

Sometimes – often, even – I wish God would just come and clean up our mess. I long for a king who is on our side and who will make wars cease and justice reign now, not in some far-off time in a fairy-tale dream. I want a God who will smite all my enemies and crush the tyrants and humiliate the oppressors of the world. But that’s not the God we need, nor the God we have. Instead, we have a Savior who is busy creating, not destroying; loving, not hating; forgiving, not punishing.

And maybe that’s just the kind of Saving God we need after all, the Savior who is Quam Primas, “in the first,” in our hearts.

Thanks be to God.


[1] Scott Hoezee, “Reflection on John 18:33-37,” 16 Nov. 2015.

[2] Leonard Vander Zee, “Commentary on John 18:33-37,” Center for Excellence in Preaching, 19 Nov. 2018.

[3] Lucy Lind Hogan, “Commentary on John 18:33-37,” working preacher 2018.

[4] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Fall on Your Knees: a Sermon for Christ the King Sunday,” 1 December 2015 (emphasis original).

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