Welcome to Christ the King Sunday! This is the last Sunday of the church’s year – the first Sunday in Advent, next week, is also our New Year. And as a year draws to an end, and the cycle begins again, our readings and our liturgy remind us of the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. Our worship today is full of images of power, authority, glory… kingship.
Some churches have moved away from the vocabulary of king and kingdom, in talking about Jesus. Maybe in part for reasons of gender equity – “king” is a masculine term and we increasingly feel the need to envision God’s power and authority in less-gendered ways. Also in part because, well, some nations still have kings, or had kings in the recent past; and they want to clearly differentiate Jesus’ rule from their real-world political system. The alternative I’ve seen most is “commonwealth” – the commonwealth of God, the commonwealth of Christ.
I am basically on board with the reasons for making that change. But I haven’t made it myself, not even in my private prayer. It just feels a little clunky to me. And, I confess, I like the language and imagery of kingship. It has a kind of fairytale, storybook resonance for me – and, I suspect, for most of us. It’s over 200 years since our country had a king; kings are primarily the stuff of story and symbol for us anyway. The images and associations with kingship that this Sunday stirs up for me probably owe much more to Grimm, Andrew Lang, and Disney than to any actual political system.
As I thought about it this week, I realized that there’s probably a fair amount of J.R.R. Tolkien’s character Aragorn, Strider, in my image of Jesus the King – which is only fair since there’s certainly a fair amount of Jesus in Tolkien’s construction of Aragorn. Aragorn the undercover king, the scruffy, wise, courageous wanderer – All that is gold does not glitter, and all that. Aragorn who only claims his crown and shows forth his inner authority when the story is almost over, when he’s earned his position through struggle and loss.
So in one way or another, I’m comfortable with the image of Christ the King because of the associations I bring to it. Jesus the King is noble, brave, kind, wise, powerful, possibly disguised, possibly glorious. Well and good. But. But there’s a problem with my storybook image of kingship. The problem is – it misses the point. It misses the deep, intentional, holy irony of naming Jesus as a King.
Look again at this Gospel. Look closely this time – notice the details. Look at Pilate, Pontius Pilate. The Roman governor of Judea. His hair is neatly cut and combed. He’s clean-shaven. His clothing is simple but sumptuous – finely-woven cloth bleached bright white, edged with gold. The room in which they stand, a meeting room at the Roman headquarters, is probably simply furnished, not lavish – a desk and chair of finely-carved exotic woods – materials for writing letters and decrees – guards in the doorway, clad in the fierce beauty of Roman armor, shield on one arm, short sword at hip, spear in hand. Somewhere, perhaps on a pole beside the door, a gold standard bearing the letters that served as shorthand for the dominion of Rome: SPQR. Simple physical signs that stand for overwhelming military and political power.
Pilate is not a king. He’s a provincial governor in a rather backward and underdeveloped province of a sprawling and fractious empire. Rome was supposed to be a republic – a democracy, founded on the Greek principles of democratic rule, as is our own nation. But as Rome’s power had grown and spread, so too had the power of her rulers. Who remembers reading Julius Caesar, in high school English Lit? Julius was a statesman and general who was assassinated in 44 BC by a group of Roman senators who feared the way he was gathering power to himself and turning Rome’s democracy into tyranny. But killing Julius didn’t save Roman democracy. Augustus Caesar, Julius’ heir, avenged his killers and restored the appearance of the Roman republic, while slowly establishing total lifelong rule for himself, turning Rome into a de facto monarchy. Augustus was the first Roman emperor to be worshiped as a god throughout the Empire. That cult of the Emperor – the idea that the Roman ruler was a god who must be honored by all subjects of Rome – was one of the reasons early Christians were persecuted: they wouldn’t make sacrifices at temples of the emperor.
Pilate was born during Augustus’ reign, and at the time of this scene, he’s serving under the Emperor Tiberius. His parents, perhaps, had witnessed the decline of the Roman republic, and the rise of the Roman imperium. Pilate was a perceptive man; I’m sure he saw the risks of concentrating so much power, authority, and devotion in one person. Pilate was a smart and pragmatic man; I’m sure he honored his emperor and kept his head down.
That’s the image of kingship Pilate brings into the room: the King as god, emperor, untouchable tyrant. Kingship that grows and spreads like a cancer, distorting and devouring what it grows upon.
And what about Jesus? Look at him: he’s not clean-shaven or tidy. He’s a mess, dirty and bloody from being roughed up by the guards. His clothes weren’t that nice to begin with, dusty and smelly from being worn week in and week out, and they’re torn and filthy now. His hands are bound. He’s not a king, either – at least, not in any of the ways Pilate means.
What image of kingship does Jesus carry? Remember the prophet Samuel’s warning to the people Israel, when they were asking God for a king: Kings take. They take your sons as guards and warriors. They take your daughters as servants and cooks and concubines. They take your wealth to arm their troops, decorate their palaces. They take the best of your crops and your flock and your land. You will become no better than slaves to the power, ambition, and greed of the King you want so badly. But the people want a King. So Samuel anoints the general Saul as the first King of Israel. But Saul displeases God and God sends Samuel to call David, the shepherd boy, as the next King.
Our Old Testament lesson today brings us some of David’s last words, his hopeful confidence that his house, his kingship, will endure forever: “Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.” David, raised up by God as a faithful king under God’s authority, falls into the mindset of human power. It’s about stability, prosperity, fame, posterity, and God is the power that secures all that, guaranteeing favor and victory to the chosen ruler.
In fact… all has not gone well during David’s kingship, and all does not go well after his death. His son Solomon is mostly a faithful king, though his weakness for foreign women leads him astray. After Solomon, the Israelite kingship begins a rapid decline into kings who look more and more like Samuel’s brutally frank description. King Ahab, for example, has a man falsely accused and executed because he fancies his vineyard as a vegetable garden. Israel is conquered, several times over. Puppet kings are put in place, then fall, several times over. For a brief sweet century, as the Greek empire was declining, Israel was an independent kingdom again. But then Rome stormed onto the scene, conquering Judea in 63 BC, and the criminally insane tyrant Herod the Great became the king in Judea, under Roman control. Both Herod the Great, still king when Jesus was born, and Herod Antipas, king when Jesus was killed, were vassal kings – holding power only because Rome gave it to them, and expected to serve the interests of their Roman patrons.
That’s the image of kingship Jesus brings into the room, as a Jew, a member of God’s people Israel. The story of Israel’s kingship was a story of hubris, war, greed, and loss. Kingship failed for Israel, in many ways. Over and over.
Pilate asks Jesus, Are you a king? I’ve been told that you’re the King of the Jews. And Jesus answers, with bitter irony, If I were a king, don’t you think I’d have some followers fighting for me, instead of standing before you, bound and utterly alone? All those associations, all those meanings of kingship – power, greed, violence, hubris, authority, glory – they’re thick in the air between these two men. I think Pilate fully intends the irony of his question. I think Jesus fully hears it, and responds accordingly. Yeah. Nice kingdom I’ve got here. Aren’t you impressed with my army? Oops, where did they go? They were right here…
To get a different lens on this conversation, try it out this way: So, I hear that you’re “president.” Yeah? Who told you that? Well, are you? Yeah, I’m definitely president. See all my secret service personnel around me? They look pretty tough, huh?…
Of course there’s another concept of kingship in the room, but it’s so different that it almost can’t be given the same name. It’s the image of kingship that lives in the part of Jesus that is God and not man. It’s the idea of kingship that carries him to this bitter hour, and beyond, to his death under that sign Pilate had made – the sign that says, Jesus Christ, King of the Jews. It’s the image of a king without army, palace, or crown. The image of a king who invites instead of subjecting. Who rules through persuasion, love, grace, instead of rule of law or rule of force. Who frees instead of binding. Who gives instead of taking. It is nonsensical, by the terms of human power. And it is the kingship of Jesus.
The idea of a king who lays down his life for the sake of his subjects is just as nonsensical as a shepherd willing to die for his sheep. They’re just sheep. Yet that’s the kingship of Jesus.
I’d forgotten, before taking up work on this week’s sermon, how recent this feast day is. The observance of Christ the King Sunday, on the last Sunday before Advent, was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. The Pope was responding to rampant nationalism in Europe – which had both contributed to, and flowed out of, World War I. He was calling Christians to deeper and wider loyalties. In our mother church, the Church of England, priest and scholar Percy Dearmer – known to us as the source of several of our hymns – wrote an essay on patriotism in 1915 that expressed concerns similar to the Pope’s: “A Christian cannot turn to the State for his ethics, or take diplomats as his spiritual directors; the only patriotism which he can respect is that which bows before the God of truth and righteousness….Loyalty to the kingdoms of the world may indeed become treason to the Kingdom of God.”
So the feast of Christ the King was born from Christian leaders’ keen sense of the difference between the kingship of Christ and the kings of this world – be they kings, presidents, or prime ministers. Those leaders saw Christians falling into nationalistic ideologies that too readily identified human power with divine, and too easily connected our nation’s prosperity with God’s favor, our nation’s interests with God’s righteousness. They wanted to remind us that God’s rule is very different from human rule – and that our first loyalty is to a kingdom not of this earth.
And yet over the decades and centuries, in the prayers and hymns we use this day, in the images of Christ the King in stained glass and mosaic ceilings, we’ve depicted Jesus like an earthly king. We tend to muddle up the things this feast was intended to distinguish. We talk about Christ’s glory and power and authority as if he were the kind of king he never was and never wanted to be – the kind of king with a throne, and a crown, and an army. And a lot of the time, in American public life, in American churches, Jesus is described as if he were that kind of king, that kind of God. A forceful, authoritative, my-way-or-the-highway type. When that vision of Jesus has been appropriated to serve the interests of human power, the results have been devastating.
In looking at the Jesus I’ve come to know though the Gospels, through study, through my own walk, the Jesus I hope to keep knowing more deeply… I see a Jesus who sought to change human systems, not by decree or force, but through radical nonviolence. I see a Jesus who sought to change human minds, not through argumentation or pontification, but through asking questions that break open old habits of thought and let the light shine in. I see a Jesus who sought to change human hearts, not with manipulation or fear, but by living a life of radiant generosity and grace.
All of those things are hard. But none of them are impossible. Even for us ordinary Christians.
I still like my storybook image of kingship. But its limitations are becoming clearer to me. There are probably people here today who are put off by the image of Jesus on the throne, in all his power and glory. There are probably people here today who would be put off by it, if they really thought it through. The good news is, that image is just an image – an attempt to use the symbols and language of human power as a way to represent and honor divine power. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and there’s a lot of beauty in those images, poetic or visual. But we need to remember that that’s not actually the kind of power Jesus had, nor, I believe, the kind of power he wanted.
The God we know in Christ doesn’t want us as dolls or puppets or subjects. The God we know in Christ wants us as friends. As family. So, in honoring the Feast of Christ the King, we can appreciate all those images of Christ enthroned, crowned with many crowns, resplendent in glory, majesty and power. But maybe it will do our hearts good to hold those images alongside some others, just as true if not more so: Christ the street preacher. Christ the drifter. Christ the freeloader. Christ the refugee. Christ the condemned criminal. And maybe it will do our hearts some good to ponder what it means to think, pray, and live as the friends and family of a king like that.