Christ the King
As church festivals go, Christ the King Sunday is a rather young one. It does not date from the Middle Ages, but was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925, the same year in which Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy. At the same time, nationalist and fascist groups in a number of countries had begun elevating the nation-state to a semi-divine status, attempt to supplant discipleship as the aim and drive of Christian people.
To honor Christ as king then was an act of defiance, a way of re-orienting people, pointing them again toward Christ as the true source of power. No matter how intimidating human leaders became, no matter what earthly powers they amassed or expected, Christ would have the last and best word, always. Now, 91 years later, I can’t think of a better assurance for the contemporary church than this: no matter how many other powers try to claim our attention and our allegiance, no matter what else happens in our world, our nation, our churches, or our homes, Christ is King.
It’s a bit challenging for us to get our heads around this metaphor because, for the most part, we no longer encounter kings and queens ruling, except on “Game of Thrones,” and I can’t think of a single one of those characters I’d ever want as my monarch! There are, however, other extremely powerful individuals in our world who might not have the title of king or queen but who wield total control in their particular spheres of influence. But Jesus talks about the kingdom of God a lot, and the image for today is Christ the King, so let’s work with that concept of ultimate power, no matter what we call it.
What do modern people who have a severe case of distrust for governmental leaders do with this image of Christ as king and ourselves as subjects of that kingdom? In particular, how do we interpret it in light of the fact that King Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading, gets crucified by the government with the consent of the religious elite? How do we make sense of a king who forgives the very people who have secured his death? Why is our king hanging on a cross instead of up at the capitol, ripping up unjust laws and enacting some good ones? Why isn’t he on Wall Street, throwing around a few tables? Why is there still corruption and sickness and sadness and death? Isn’t the king supposed to change all the bad stuff into good stuff for us? If Jesus is the ultimate ruler, then why is he executed like a common criminal, while granting salvation to the criminal on the cross next to him?
We have some assumptions about kings and kingly behavior, don’t we? We are looking for King Jesus in the places where we think he ought to be—much as the three wise men did when they came seeking the new ruler proclaimed by the star. But he wasn’t in King Herod’s castle, was he? He was born in a barn, and soon after became a refugee—hardly a promising start for a ruler. It did set the tone for the rest of his earthly life, however, because where was Jesus typically found in the Gospels? Here’ a hint: not in the synagogue or palaces. No. Jesus spent his time talking and listening to beggars and fishermen, touching people with horrible diseases and social stigmas, eating and drinking with crooks and rejects. He didn’t hobnob with the influential crowd—as far as we know, he never met Caesar nor dined with the High Priest. He never ran for office. He blessed children and defended people with bad reputations—whether deserved or not. He didn’t have a grand home—he didn’t have a home at all. He was an itinerant preacher, critiquing the religious and political elite of his time. Everywhere he went he spoke of God’s kingdom.
Jesus said that in the kingdom of God, those who were poor were blessed, peacemakers were precious, and those who were weeping would find laughter. In Jesus’ kingdom, the lame could walk, the blind could see, and the guilty were forgiven. In Jesus’ kingdom, people of different religions drank from the same well, and no one was excluded from table fellowship. In Jesus’ kingdom, the king did not wait for his wayward subjects to return home, but instead, went out seeking any who were lost or alone. In the kingdom of the Prince of Peace, the primary rule was the law of love.
And we, as citizens of this Kingdom of God, are called to go and do likewise. Not just to pray for justice and mercy, but to enact it. Oh, I wish we could say with conviction that we in the church always follows our leader, but we all know it isn’t true, any more than it was true in 1925, when this Christ the King Sunday began. The truth is that the church and its institutions have proven themselves repeatedly to be bastions of sexism and racism. We have by turned our heads, pretending that “whitelash” could not possibly exist. The truth is that all too often, the church plays it safe for the sake of numbers, budgets, members, power, and simply “being nice.” The truth is that the church is much too silent about the truth of the Gospel—the truth that God loves all people. Period. End of story.
Today the church, in order to continue being the church, has to remember that we are the subjects and representatives of Christ’s kingdom. We are called to be a living, breathing, active force for everything that is good and decent in the world. And that means we have to tell the truth. We have to tell the truth about ourselves, individually and collectively. We have to apologize for not standing up for the very people Jesus sought out to save. We have to look to the left and the right and notice who is getting hanged on a tree and say STOP IT!
Teju Cole wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine last week that included this assessment: “Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else.” To think that the church needs to remain neutral so as not to offend is to abandon our self-sacrificing King Jesus and the world that God so loves. As citizens of God’s kingdom, we have to be braver in our speech, bolder in our proclamation. When the situation demands it, we need to be ready to say out loud, “Your God is not my God. I will not bow down to your God if your God supports your rejection of refugees and immigrants, your refusal to see the worth of every single human being, your insistence that women should not be in ministry, or any leadership role for that matter. If your God endorses your judgment of LGBTQ people, and your exertion of power over anyone who is not like you then your God is not my God! I worship Christ the King, the crucified God who stands with and for the weak and vulnerable, not against them, who wanted the children to come to him, who embraced the accused.”
The salvation we trust in is not just about Jesus’ death. It is salvation that the criminal on the cross next to Jesus received, felt, and knew before his own death or Jesus’ death. Salvation for that criminal was in finding someone who saw his suffering, who was willing to stand in that suffering with him, who spoke up against his suffering in the form of empire, evil, and totalitarianism. And that someone was Jesus. The criminal died knowing that someone was with him in his suffering. Whether or not he knew that Jesus was the Messiah, the King, he knew Jesus’ death was a death that spoke volumes against the powers trying to shut down justice and shut up the cries of the oppressed.
King Jesus is nothing like what we expect, and maybe not really the king we want. What he was, what he is, is the Complete and Total Embodiment of Grace. Our King has always cherished us, always called us by name, always fed us with his own royal body and blood at the cost of his own life. It is my prayer that as we reflect on this extravagant and unusual ruler, we find our lives overflowing with gratitude and joy. May that gratitude show itself in our eagerly tending to those with whom Jesus identified, those whom Jesus lived and died for. Let us persist daily in trying to become more like the King we adore.
~Pastor Susan Schneider