In Between: Christ, the King
How many of you know what Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday is? If, by chance, you do know what it is, is it anybody’s favorite Sunday on the church calendar? I didn’t think so! Often, Christ the King Sunday gets a bit neglected, because most years, it falls on Thanksgiving Sunday, which isn’t technically even part of the liturgical calendar, but usually takes precedence for Christians in the United States. If we have to choose between Thanksgiving as a focus in worship and Christ, the King, we usually choose Thanksgiving! I’m not complaining – we don’t do enough of thanks-giving. But I am glad for these occasional years where the calendar falls just so and there is a Sunday left between Thanksgiving and the start of Advent, and Christ the King can stands on its own. It is the last Sunday of the year, in terms of the church calendar, and next Sunday we begin anew, with a new church year on the First Sunday of Advent.
Actually, Christ the King Sunday is a relatively new addition to the Christian calendar. In 1925, Pope Pius XI announced a new feast day, the Feast of Christ the King. He said that he felt that the rise of atheistic communism and secularism were a direct result of people turning away from Jesus’ sovereignty, and of people denying the authority of Jesus and the Church. He saw it as a move away from Divine Order in favor of human order, which he called disorder. So, this Reign of Christ Sunday is about reclaiming Jesus’ place of authority in our lives. Throughout the scriptures, we hear God called our King, hear Jesus described this way. We have plenty of hymns in our hymnals that use this language for the divine. But what does that mean for us?
I think it is a particularly interesting and challenging question in our American context. After all, as a nation, we rebelled against having a king. No longer wanting to be under the absolute authority of a monarchy, but desiring instead to participate in a democracy, was a primary component of our founding. We fought wars over it, this right not to be ruled by a king. Sure, maybe lately, with the stylish, young, and admirable William and Catherine marrying last year, people are suddenly a little more intrigued by the idea of royalty. But mostly, we seem, as a society, to be more into Disney princesses and their costumes than in submitting to the authority of a king.
Still, we all have to submit to forms of authority, right? Even if we don’t have a king, governments still exert authority over us. We pay taxes, right? We follow laws, or are punished or fined for our failure to follow. And we have authority figures in many other places too. We have bosses – or bishops! We have teachers and principals. We have parents and grandparents. All these people might be in positions of power over us, at least in some matters, able to tell us what to do. They have power. They have authority. We can push the boundaries of that authority – can and do. We can reject it, but usually not without major consequences.
So when we talk about Jesus as a King – what does that mean to us? How do we, independent people, private, prizing our individualism and autonomy, let someone be our king? What does that mean, exactly? Let’s take a look at our text:
Although next week we suddenly find ourselves thinking about the coming Christ child, a tiny baby at the center of everything, today we are inserted in our text right into the trial of Jesus, just before his crucifixion. Jesus has been arrested, and the religious leaders have brought him to see Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who ruled over occupied Judea. They seek to use his authority to have Jesus executed. Pilate questions them, and asks what crime Jesus has committed, but they’re vague in their answers, saying only that they wouldn’t have brought him if he wasn’t a criminal. So Pilate goes back to speak to Jesus. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks. Pilate cuts to the chase. He only really cares if someone is trying to start a revolutionary movement that would usurp his authority, or at least threaten his regime and cause trouble, warfare, in the region he’s responsible for. He and Jesus have an intriguing exchange, where you sense that every question and statement is layered with multiple meanings. “Why do you ask?” Jesus responds. He essentially wants to know if this is Pilate’s own question, or if someone put him up to it. Pilate responds with his own question. “Am I a Jew? Your own people handed you over. What have you done?” Pilate gives off the aura that he can hardly be troubled by this internal strife of this small sect of people over whom he has power.
Jesus answers, “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. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” In other words, Jesus lets Pilate know that he isn’t out to start a revolution – at least, not a revolution that would result in Pilate losing his power. Not a military coup. In fact, just before this scene, Jesus stopped his disciples from fighting the guards who arrested him. Not a violent political overthrow – that’s not what Jesus’ kingdom is about, not how Jesus gets his power. But Pilate picks up on the way Jesus responds – Jesus has admitted that he does have a kingdom, and Pilate zeros in on that. “So you are a king?” Jesus answers carefully, making sure to say nothing he doesn’t mean, while aware that he and Pilate are talking about two different things, even if they are both talking about kings and kingdoms. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Jesus is the king of truth. The authority of truth.
Jesus is trying to convey the idea to Pilate that whatever idea of king Pilate has in his mind, whatever the people are saying about Jesus, they’ve got the wrong picture – the wrong understanding of king altogether. Jesus is something different than what people are saying or thinking about him. Jesus is unwilling, even when it is about to cost him his life, to let Pilate define him, or to let the crowds define him, or let accusers define him. “Are you the king of the Jews,” Pilate asks? “You might say so,” Jesus seems to be saying, “but the kingdom I’m bringing is a completely different one than you’re expecting, and I’m ruling with a different kind of authority.”
That’s what I think we need to be sure of on this Sunday: What kingdom are we a part of? Who is our king? And, toughest of all: Do we accept this king as the authority of our lives?
What kind of kingdom? All the time Jesus is talking about God’s kingdom – all the parables, all the lessons, they all point to the kingdom of God. We can rightly assume that Jesus is some kind of king. But in everything that Jesus does, in everything he teaches, in the ways he lives, in all these things, Jesus is painting the picture of a kingdom that isn’t one people would recognize. We talked about this last Sunday: Jesus speaks of a kingdom where first is last and last is first, where those who are humbled are exalted, and the exalted are humbled. He talks about an order of society where the poor are the blessed, where the humble see God, where the peacemakers inherit the earth. He talks about a kingdom where typical dividing lines of race and gender and class and place of origin don’t matter as much as how one treats the other. He talks about a kingdom where one is meant to love even enemies. He talks about God as a Ruler of this kingdom who cares for and loves even – especially – the least member of the kingdom. He talks about a God as Ruler who will search for us at all costs, and considers us of extreme value. And for Jesus to be king of this kingdom, he dons a crown of thorns, submits to death on a cross, and asks us to follow, giving up the lives we know in order to claim the abundant lives God promises. When we celebrate the Christ, the King, we’re meant to remind ourselves of just what kind of kingdom we’re signing up to be part of. Jesus tells Pilate “My kingdom is not from this world.” I think our immediate response is to understand Jesus as saying that his kingdom is instead from heaven – it is otherworldly, godly, not earthly. But I think Jesus is saying that his kingdom isn’t part of the world we know – it isn’t part of the typical structure we recognize – it isn’t something that fits nicely into the world we experience. Instead, the kingdom that Jesus brings is one that transforms the world we know.
What kind of king? It is about putting the emphasis in the right place. This Sunday is perhaps not about the fact that Jesus is King, but about the fact that Jesus is King. Do you hear the difference? This Sunday is not about the fact that one characteristic of Jesus is his Kingship, his divine royal status, one characteristic among many others. Instead, this Sunday celebrates the fact that it is Christ who is supposed to be placed as King, or highest authority, in our lives. We spent the last several weeks talking about what is enough in our lives, and especially thinking about our money and our stuff. Sometimes we act as though it is our desire and drive for more that is actually the authority in our lives – when we let the want of more make our decisions. Addictions can become the authority in our lives. Personal success. Other people. Anything we make more important than God, than following Jesus, has become our true King. Who is your king, really?
Toughest of all: Do we accept the authority, the kingship, the reign of Christ in our lives? Is Jesus the ultimate authority in your life? How? In what ways does Jesus have authority over you? Jesus won’t force your obedience. Jesus doesn’t coerce us. Remember, this king is powerful in weakness, strong in humility. But just like with Pilate, Jesus always turns the questions back to us. Is Jesus king? Is Jesus your king? If not, then who or what? Who will you follow?