PROPER 29 / LAST AFTER PENTECOST — 21 November 2010
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, and 11:00
Jeremiah 23:1-6 | Canticle 16 | Colossians 1:11-20 | Luke 23:33-43
There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
This Sunday, the Last Sunday after Pentecost or, more elegantly, Proper 29, is also known and celebrated as The Sunday of Christ the King, or as some prefer to put it, The Sunday of the Reign of Christ. (A distinction without a difference, it seems to me; but, oh well.) This is a celebration that we, and a whole lot of churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, adopted and adapted from the Roman Catholics back that generation ago when we all enriched our selections of Sunday Scripture readings by expanding to a three-year rotation, in which we all generally read the same scriptures every Sunday. This has been a Good Thing, I think.
The celebration of Christ the King Sunday is itself fairly new. It began in the Roman Church in 1925, at the direction of Pope Pius XI, as a way of countering a perceived increasing secularism in the world (the 1920s were not a particularly pious decade, except perhaps in Dayton, Tennessee) by focusing on the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, to whom we owe our true and ultimate allegiance and loyalty. (This was right after Benito Mussolini had seized the dictatorship in Italy, a wolf in the sheep’s clothing of the Italian constitutional monarchy, so we can see why the Pope had some motivation to do something about who we really believe to be our King!) Originally Christ the King was celebrated on the last Sunday in October, which coincidentally was the same Sunday that the Lutherans were celebrating Reformation Sunday. Or maybe not coincidentally. But in 1969 Pope Paul VI shifted the celebration to the last Sunday of the church’s year, just before the beginning of a new year with the season of Advent, and that seems to be working pretty well for all of us. Especially the Lutherans, presumably.
But this leaves unanswered the question of what exactly do we mean in this context by “King,” and how are we to understand Jesus Christ to be our King? In fact, we in the United States, and a lot of other people in the world (including in the British Commonwealth) aren’t real big on kings. Well, at the moment we have William and Kate, but that’s supermarket tabloid fodder, not political theory. One of the few nations that still has a really serious king is Swaziland, and that is not working out for the Swazis. In this country we decided 234 years ago that we don’t do kings. So what does “Christ the King” mean for us? (I think we can pass on “Christ the President” or “Christ the CEO.” Even “Chairman Jesus” didn’t hang on too long!)
Well, what does the New Testament say about Jesus Christ as King? Not very much, as a matter of fact. There are a couple of references to Christ as King in the Book of Revelation — “King of kings and Lord of lords” — but one has to be a little careful about the imagery in Revelation. In the Gospels, when the issue of kingship is brought up to Jesus, he pretty much ducks it.
For Jesus’ own take on “kingship,” let’s look at a passage I consider over-neglected in the history of the Church: Jesus tells his disciples, “The kings of the nations are lords over them, and their great ones have power over them; but it is not that way among you.” [Luke 22:25-26] But the reason for this is not because Jesus is reserving this kind of lordship for himself, but precisely because this is not how Jesus is with us: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45] Jesus says, “I am among you as one who serves.” [Luke 22:27]
The only real references in the Gospels to Jesus as “the King of the Jews” are, first of all and very briefly, in the nativity narrative in Matthew, where the astrologers from Babylonia (or Persia or wherever) find a peasant baby in the village of Bethlehem, who then has to flee the jealous wrath of the this-worldly King Herod. And then much more extensively, in the passion narratives in the four Gospels, beginning with the entry into Jerusalem but leading to the accounts of Jesus’ trials, suffering and death by crucifixion. So today, in the Gospel reading for this Christ the King Sunday, we see our King, reigning from his throne. Over his head, his royal title is written—not engraved in marble, not beautifully inscribed on parchment, but doubtless scrawled in charcoal on a scrap of old board: “King of the Jews.” Not exactly what we usually mean by “king.” Jesus is King only as one who by worldly standards is utterly powerless.
We seem to have a thing about power. The solution to all our problems is the possession and application of power. It’s no surprise that the kings of the Gentiles or their modern equivalents buy into this notion. The tragedy is that so does the Church. The Kingdom of God will be advanced if we can just make people behave themselves the way we think they should. We saw this reflected a few weeks ago here in Iowa, where, whatever you may think about who should be able to marry who, there are folks who not too covertly in the name of God want to control the issue by the imposition of political power; and 54% of the Iowa electorate were suckered into this. In the Anglican Communion, we are currently in dispute over a document called the Anglican Covenant, which is a thinly-veiled attempt by some churches in the Communion to exercise power over other churches. (If you know what I’m talking about, then you know what I’m talking about; if you don’t, consider yourself fortunate, although you will probably find out soon enough.) We all know a lot of folks — maybe including ourselves sometimes — who feel alienated from God because God does not exercise the divine power to fix their problems. And often enough these are very real problems. I have to say that, despite the fact that we say or sing it at every Eucharist, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Power and Might” does present some issues about what we understand about power and how we expect God to exercise it.
But it is on the cross that we see true kingship, true authority, true power. The scene on Golgotha, “The Skull,” is not just a temporary setback to God’s true power, not just a moment of irony to highlight God’s true power, but is the very thing itself. This is the supremacy of Christ: not being better than somebody else’s expression of religious faith, not exercising control of public policy, not compelling the outward forms of virtuous behavior or orthodox belief, but disclosing the Rule of God, which is always and eternally the rule of self-giving, life-giving love.