The Basilica of Sant’ Apollonare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, is one of the most unforgettable churches I have had the pleasure of visiting in my lifetime. It is known for its massive and intricate mosaic work along the nave of the building which features scenes from the gospels depicting the life and works of Jesus. Along these walls, you may find an image of Jesus feeding the disciples here, the raising of Lazarus there, Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount in yet another corner of the church. In each image, the colored stones have been painstakingly placed to produce a familiar image of the one we call “Christ,” “Messiah,” or “the Anointed One.” But there’s something you may notice about how Jesus is depicted in each of these scenes. You might say that these familiar mosaic stories feature a very unfamiliar Christ. The Jesus in all of these images is young, clean-shaven, dressed humbly, and looks for the most part kind of wimpy. The Jesus found here is a very human figure—looking at these mosaics, we are reminded that Jesus was a man—a man who felt sympathy for the hungry, who experienced grief over the death of a friend, and whose very human conviction compels him to preach to Galilean peasants.
But if you look up from these images into the nave—the main part—of the basilica sanctuary, you are confronted with an enormous depiction of a very different Jesus. Here, Christ is shown in expensive robes, with a full beard and a wide-eyed, serious stare. He sits upon a throne of fire—probably a reference to the Daniel passage we read earlier—and is surrounded by attending angels. With his right hand he makes the symbol of wisdom, knowledge, or teaching. This image is known as the Christos Pantokrator. Pantokrator is a Greek word that’s often translated as “Almighty,” but it literally means “one who holds all things.” So Christos Pantokrator—“Christ, the holder of all things.” This Christ is one that we are often more familiar with from church—the Jesus of Authority, the all-powerful Word (Logos) of God. He seems a far cry from the Jesus of the other mosaics, with their worldly focus and their very human savior. There’s something else that is important about this Pantokrator image, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The Basilica uses these magnificent pieces of art to convey a message that has seen echoes throughout history in cathedrals and on billboards, from the words of brilliant baroque chamber choirs to cheesy Christian pop song lyrics: Jesus is Lord.
But wait…did we miss something? When did the Jesus who healed the sick and proclaimed freedom for the oppressed become the Jesus of the creeds—the one who sits at the right hand of God, the one whom the Nicene creed says will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, whose reign will have no end? In other words, when did we go from the clean-shaven to the bearded Jesus?
And what does it mean when we say that this Jesus who spent his time with prostitutes and tax collectors, who cast out demons and cared for the poor (and who remained poor himself)—what does it mean to say that this Jesus is Lord? What does it mean to say that Jesus reigns? And where is this reign of God? What does it look like?
In this week’s Gospel passage, we find Pontius Pilate asking the very same question.
By the time of the first century, Roman emperors (also called Caesars) were thought to be gods. While on earth, they were called “Son of God,” and upon their death, it was believed that they rose up into the sky and took their seat at the right hand of god. People greeted one another on the street by saying, “Caesar is Lord,” and at the time of Christ, “one of [Caesar’s] popular propaganda slogans was ‘there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved than that of Caesar.’”  Does this sound familiar yet? As the Roman Empire grew, Rome even sent out regular announcements of Caesar’s victories in battle as they brought about the “Pax Romana,” or “Roman Peace” by the sword, moving from land to land, colonizing countries—like Israel—and forcing them to pay tribute to the Empire. These royal announcements were known as euangelia. In Greek, euangelia is where we get the term “Good News,” or “Gospel.” Cities that bowed to Caesar as their Lord and their God were known as ekklesias, where we get the English word “church.” So in the first century, for someone to say “Jesus is Lord” was to directly defy the authority of Caesar. To claim “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Caesar is not. To call the Gospel of Jesus Christ “Good News” is to invalidate what the Empire considered “Good News.” People who did not bow to Caesar, well, they were the ones who were crucified. Anyone who did not give in to the dominant empire was considered a threat to the reign of Caesar—especially one who was called “King.”
So Pilate has reason for serious concern when this “King of the Jews” is brought before him. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks. And Jesus responds, “My kingdom, my reign, is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my reign is not from here, does not derive its power from earthly political authority.” The kingship, the reign, of Christ mocks the established order of the Empire of Caesar.
Pilate asks Jesus a second time: “So you are a king, then?” And Jesus responds, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world: to bear witness to the Truth.”
So what does it mean to be a part of the Reign of God? What does it mean to call Jesus “Lord”? It means (at least) two things:
1) We—the Church, the Body of Christ—are to be a people “set apart,” as the Hebrew Bible says. Christian author and activist Shane Claiborne calls the Church the “peculiar people of God.” We echo the conviction of Jesus when we proclaim, “My kingdom is not from this world.” The Church is supposed to be different. Here we stand at the intersection between an election cycle winding down and the consumer-based Christmas season beginning to take off. This past election season, I have seen so many people who claim to be Christians (on the left and the right) advocating one politician over the other as if either a Republican or a Democratic candidate could actually be chosen by God to lead the United States—in reality, this is the folly of a nation that worships Caesar—neither one of our candidates was or ever will be Christ the King. We are called to be set apart. A peculiar people who say, “Our reign is not from this world.” To refuse to lend voice and value to political campaigns and the toxic political speech of our age is to deny Caesar his power. Our reign is not from this world. Money and rampant consumerism—the driving desire to buy and have more “stuff”—may also be a Caesar that keeps us tied down to this world. I saw a poster image on Facebook the other day that said “Black Friday: Because only in America do people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.” I always encourage people not to take part in Black Friday activities, preferring instead to observe Buy Nothing Day, in which some people participate on Black Friday to avoid the competitive buying unleashed each year by retail stores across the country. While our culture says more, more, more, we hear the voice of Jesus in the Gospels saying “Less. Less. Our reign is not from this world. Consider the lilies of the field that neither work their lives away nor spin, yet God clothes them in beauty. Consider the birds of the air, who don’t store up food for themselves in barns, and yet God feeds them. If someone takes your outer garment, give them your underwear, too! Give to all who ask of you. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek.” The Way of Christ the King is not the way of more, but the subtle way of enough. Go to Wal-Mart any time during the Christmas season and see how many of these teachings are broken by shoppers clamoring to get a good deal. Our reign is not from this world.
2) The second thing that it means to proclaim that Jesus is Lord is that we—like Christ, whom we confess as King—are to bear witness to the Truth in this world. It is not enough to stand at a distance and judge what we perceive to be against the Kingdom of God or the teachings of Jesus. We are to be active witnesses giving testimony to Truth in this world that confesses the Lordship of Caesar. We have seen the consequences of Jesus’s reign: the sick were healed, the lepers cleansed, and the dead were raised. Unfortunately, to live under the reign of a different King will also get you crucified. That is the very real consequence of the reign of God breaking into this world. It is the same today as it was for Jesus: when the reign of God comes, the established order—in our case, the greed, consumerism, pride, and violence of our culture that we ourselves are guilty of participating in—the established order views this reign of God as a threat. And that’s how people end up on crosses. But we cannot refuse to engage our culture in dialogue. Instead of participating in Black Friday sales, why not instead spend the day in fasting and prayer for our culture that places higher value on “things” than on people and relationships? Instead of picking a political candidate and claiming that “This is the Son of God,” why don’t we observe election day as some of my friends in the Church did: with both Democrats and Republicans joining in the Eucharist meal to recognize that regardless of the outcome of the election, we nevertheless remain a peculiar people set apart by God, and that we do not place our hope in partisan politics but in the very resurrected Son of Man? Our reign is not from this world.
This leads us back to that mosaic of Christos Pantokrator. In the image of the Christ who holds all things, who is surrounded and worshiped by angels and who sits on a throne of fire to judge the nations—if you look closely, you’ll find that the throne of this Jesus rests firmly not upon the clouds or the stars of the heavens, but upon the green earth itself, bursting forth with flowers. It is important to make the distinction that while we proclaim, “Our reign is not from this world,” our living in and bringing about the Kingdom of God is very much in this world, just as we are promised in Scripture that Christ will return to establish the Reign of God on earth. We better get comfy here, because we ain’t leavin’. The change comes with us.
As we rush headlong into the Advent season, let us remember that. The Reign of God is not of this world, but its reality is very much in this world. It is found among those peculiar people who go against the grain of our culture, who testify to the truth. People like Jesus—who lived in poverty, was crucified by society, and yet who remains the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We confess this truth, and the Christos Pantokrator, the “Christ who holds all things,” will continue to hold us, as well.