When I say the word “king,” what words come to mind? Perhaps these words would be on your list: ruler, power, authoritative, supreme, distant, dictator, or my personal favorite, Elvis. Kings are something of a foreign experience to us, since we are a country that was founded on getting rid of kings. Our presidents are the closest things we have to kings, but the modern presidency is not really like a kingship. Yes, the president is a ruler, but the president is elected and is balanced in power by the Congress and Supreme Court. Yes, the president has power, but a president can also be impeached or not reelected. So when we think of kings, we may have to think back to a king who did have some influence over our lives – King Henry VIII. If you remember, King Henry was the king who wanted to divorce his wife so that he could remarry. When the Pope refused the King’s request, King Henry not only divorced his wife anyway, he also started a revolution that led to the Anglican Church – our mother Church as Episcopalians. If that is not power, I do not know what is!
Today, the Church celebrates Christ the King Sunday. You would think on such a day, we would be hearing a text that glorifies Jesus, or that marks Jesus’ victory – such as the triumphal Palm Sunday lesson or an Easter or Ascension text. Instead, we get the story of Jesus on trial with Pilate. Jesus does not really look victorious in this passage – he has been humiliated, beaten, and is now being mocked by Pilate. This is not exactly the image of Christ we may have had for Christ the King Sunday. In fact, between Jesus and Pilate, Pilate plays the more stereotypical role of king. Pilate uses power and authority for selfish ends with no concern for building community. He hoards power and lords his power over people even to the point of destroying them, on a cross or otherwise. Meanwhile, Jesus empowers others and uses his authority to wash the feet of those he leads. He spends his life on them, and he gives his life to bring life. Pilate’s rule brings about terror, even in the midst of calm. Meanwhile, Jesus’ rule brings peace, even in the midst of terror. Pilate’s followers imitate him by using violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nations. Jesus’ followers put away the sword in order to invite and unify people. Pilate’s authority originates from the will of Caesar and is always tenuous. Meanwhile, Jesus’ authority originates from doing the will of God, and is eternal.[i]
So if Jesus as a king is so different from any kings that we know, why do we label and celebrate Christ the King? Christ the King Sunday is not that ancient of a concept in Church history. In 1925, in the face of growing nationalism and secularism following World War I, Pope Pius XI established the feast of Christ the King. The feast was meant to be a way of declaring where allegiances should be – not to a country, but to God. Our allegiance should be to Jesus – our only ruler and power. In a time of national pride, the Church boldly proclaimed, “We have no king but Jesus.” Proclaiming Jesus as King is a fascinating reappropriation of the title “King.” When the Church invites us to proclaim Christ as King, not only does the Church ask us to put Christ above any earthly ruler, the Church also asks us to redefine the concept of a king. Jesus is a king who lays down his life for the sake of others; who endures humiliation and death for the salvation of people; who humbly cares for the poor, oppressed, imprisoned, and suffering. This image does not sound anything like the image we have of a king; and yet, this is what we proclaim today. Our king could have easily overtaken Pilate and even Caesar for that matter – but our king humbles himself to the point of death on a cross – because our King’s rule is both here and in the age to come. This kind of king – who can save us from our sins through his death on a cross – is the only kind of king we really need.
In some ways, celebrating Christ the King this Sunday is most appropriate. We are at the end of our liturgical year. In this liturgical year, we journeyed toward and celebrated Christ’s birth; walked through the years of his ministry, teaching and healing; journeyed through his passion and death; and celebrated his resurrection, ascension, and gift of the Spirit. Ending the liturgical year by declaring Christ as King is the way that the Church summarizes the whole of Jesus’ life. This Jesus, who was born in lowly manger, who lived a humble carpenter’s childhood, who cared for and tended the least of these, who taught the disciples how to live a different kind of life, who made the ultimate sacrifice for us, and who rose victorious from the grave – this Jesus is the Christ we call “King.” This humble, humbled, humbling Christ is the only ruler we call King.
So what does Christ being King mean for our lives today? If Christ is King, then we are Christ’s people. Those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus are, as the psalmist says, the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. “Christ has made of us a people with his kingship. And that kingship is unique, unlike any earthly kingship that is bound by geographic borders… All are welcome, especially the chronically unwelcome ones.”[ii] When we say that we are Christ’s people, we do not imply that we elected Jesus or that we hired Jesus as CEO. We belong to Christ as his subjects – sharing the Eucharistic meal, sharing our lives, serving Christ as one, and resting our hopes in Christ. Being the people of Christ impacts how we treat one another in this place, how we treat others outside of this place, and how we treat ourselves.
At the end of another Church year, having lived through another cycle of hearing the stories of Jesus’ life, of being taught again through his miracles and parables, we come together to proclaim the truth of Christ’s kingship. After another year of living our own lives – burying our loved ones, baptizing our children, celebrating marriage, mourning broken relationships, welcoming new families and ministries, struggling and thriving – we bring all of our own experiences to the climax of this day as well. We lay down all of this past year at the feet of the crucified, enthroned Christ, and we give thanks.[iii] We are blessed to be a people ruled by a king who rules with love and mercy. Being so blessed, we extend that kingly love and mercy to each other, to our neighbors, and to ourselves. Amen.
[i] Jaime Clark-Soles, as found on http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching_print.aspx?commentary_id=1490 on November 23, 2012.
[ii] Mary W. Anderson, “Royal Treatment,” Christian Century, vol. 120, no. 23, November 15, 2003, 18.
[iii] Anderson, 18.