A Paradox: “Christ the King”
We mainline Christians live our liturgical lives through a cycle in which, we participate in the narrative of the salvation history of God. Today’s feast (Christ the King) is observed not only in the Episcopal Church, but in the Roman, Lutheran, as well as the Russian Orthodox Churches. In 1969, Pope Paul VI gave it a new date, the last Sunday after Pentecost, which is the last Sunday of the church year. The church year begins with Advent, which is a time of anticipation and waiting for the coming of Christ. After Advent, we commemorate Christmas, the Incarnation of Christ the celebration of when God in flesh arrived among us, as an infant in a humble manger. The next season of Epiphany commemorates the revelation of Christ to Gentiles through the Maggi (the Wise Men who visited him).
Lent is the next season after the Epiphany season, and is a period of preparation and repentance that mirrors Jesus’ journey in the desert after his baptism and before his ministry began. The story reaches its peak during Holy Week and Easter, in which Jesus passion, death, resurrection, and ascension took place. The “long green season” happens after the Day of Pentecost, the birth of the church when the Holy Spirit descended on those first followers, and the time we live in now, anticipating Christ’s return. Finally, we celebrate the “Feast of Christ the King,” which is the fulfillment of the promises of the return of Christ in power, but I believe we need to explore a little closer, what that kind of power looks like.
This particular feast is paradoxical both in observance and theological perspective. For example, it is not easy to understand how a monarch (as we know them today) can be someone who was nurtured in poverty, lived in humble service to others, and then faced betrayal, beatings, and crucifixion. Something doesn’t add up does it? Jesus’ kingship is not characteristic of the royal trappings of gold crowns, thrones, power, pomp and circumstance, but by the humble accoutrements of manger, destitution, servant hood, vulnerability, and an shameful death. We commemorate the Feast of Christ the King, set against the backdrop of Jesus’ trial before Pilate.
Jesus’ Trial before PIlate
In today’s Gospel reading, Pilate was questioning the young rabbi Jesus about the accusations waged against him by his opponents. It is interesting to note that the challenges to Jesus kingship, took place in Jerusalem in the shadows of a neighboring Roman puppet king, named Herod Antipas. Jesus, the popular with the people, righteous, and life-giving king would, as a result of this trial, come face to face with the corrupt, power-wielding, politically astute so called, King of the Jews, Herod.
But first, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus responded, ”Is this your question or did someone else tell you this?“ Pilate responded to a question with another question, ”I’m not one of your people am I, what wrong have you done?“ Then Jesus responded and listen closely, “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.” And there it is, the key to the kingdom (no pun intended).
Jesus’ rule and reign is not based on the wielding of power or force, or the use of political coercion like Herod to influence the people. Jesus’ rule and reign is built on the truth of his mission, manifested in the nature of God’s love. “Christ as King” is a new kind of pronouncement, without royal trumpets blaring, but announced by his own voice and actions, declaring God’s Kingdom is not one of force, power, and dominion, but one based on vulnerability, love, and self-sacrifice. It now all makes sense, when we consider Jesus’ meek birth in a manger, his life of poverty and preference to the poor, his service to the outcast and down-trodden, his ultimate vulnerability to power, all of which, led to his death on the cross.
“Christ the King” is a different kind of king as we know it. The God who created all, whom the seas obey, by whom the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind have sight, and the ostracized find justice, is the King of vulnerability, who identifies with those whom he came to save. You see, true love, God’s love, finds its power not in manipulation or coercion. God’s love finds its power in vulnerability and freedom of choice, because no one can strong-arm someone to love them and still call it love.
“My Jesus is no Wimp”
Now you may think, Eric that humble Jesus all sounds well and good, but I want a powerful King Jesus, who will come in at the right time, wield a sword of power, come with clouds, horses, tanks, and jets and turn this world back to God. Really? This Jesus we call Lord, this Jesus we claim as the ruler of our lives is not a king of worldly power, but one of humility and freedom, and his return will bring about a world order, which we may not find living up to our standard. Are we sure this is the king we desire?
The whole notion of a king who rules over a people is an absurd notion for we Americansisle who have a democratically elected government. Even most Brits with their Constitutional Monarchy where the Queen reigns and Parliament actually rules would have a hard time with life under a sovereign, dictatorial, all-powerful ruler. So how do we deal with this idea of “Christ as King?”
Jesus’ authority is wielded over us by his authority, which comes from how he attracts, swoons, and calls us to willingly align our lives with the purposes of God: mercy, grace, justice, peace, and Self-giving love. When we choose to accept the King Jesus, who was born in a manger, lived in poverty and offered preference to the poor, who served the outcast and down-trodden, who was ultimately vulnerable to the power of the world, and who was obedient unto death on the cross, we are choosing to live under Christ’s sovereign rule of love. Then and only then are we living in the Kingdom of God and yet, we remain exiled in a culture that resists that kind of kingdom.
Small Realms of God’s Kingdom and the Kingdom to come
The kingdom over which, Christ is king is not merely a futuristic, apocalyptic, cloud-covered returning event some time and some place out there. God’s Kingdom is a present reality existing right now. Theologian Bruce Metzger asserts, “the Kingdom of God is not merely promised, but announced as a divine activity that demand(s) repentance (a turning from ways not of the kingdom) and that could be entered into by participating in its divine nature.”(2) In other words, to follow this king, we must enter into that kingdom every day of our lives, and the beauty of God’s kingdom is the fact that we have the option to make the choice, to live into that reality today, right here, and right now or to reject it.
So then, who or what reigns and rules your life? In who or what do you find the ultimate truth? How or where do you find peace and promise? For some of us, that kingdom is not a possibility, because we submit to the powers of consumerism, and we hand over the power in our lives to self-fulfillment. For some of us, that kingdom is not a possibility, because we seek a false image of Christ the King, as the one who favors a select few and disregards those on the outskirts of so-called acceptability. For some of us, that kingdom is not a possibility, because we seek a kingship of Christ where my particular agenda, or political leanings, or worldview includes a King that fits my desire.
I had a friend one time tell me, “Eric, that meek and mild Jesus you talk about just doesn’t seem real for a world like this one. I mean I like that buff, powerful Jesus who turned over tables, went “toe to toe” with demons, and rebuked his disciples when they acted foolishly.” I had to laugh a little, because although correct about those moments in Jesus’ ministry, my friend seemed to miss the whole point. The King of Kings life, which although included moments of anger, spiritual warfare, and discipline, was an example to us of how we are to realign of our hearts with God’s heart, and to make it a real possibility right now. What is your image of Christ the King?
The “Christus Rex” found on your bulletin cover and the one displayed in many Episcopal churches, depicts the paradox of Jesus’ kingship. Jesus is adorned in royal raiment and crown and yet, he is nailed to the cross. When we think of the return of Christ the King, we envision him adorned in clouds with power and sword ready to bring vengeance and destruction to those who rejected him, but that is not ”Christ the King.” When Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world,” he meant that he rules and reigns over all of creation, not by the ways we expect, by using earthly power and force. Jesus’ divine power comes from the vulnerability of love, manifested in his words from the cross, “ forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”
If Christ is truly King over our lives, we will, like our King, renounce self-serving power, and we will embrace grace, mercy, love, vulnerability, and justice. Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” The Master Jesus is calling us into his court, which exists in its fullness and in reality right here and right now that is, if we are willing to live into it. So, the question is, “Are we really listening for his voice?”
2 The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Metzger, Bruce M. (editor), Oxford University Press, 1993, Oxford, p. 408