Today is a Holy Day called the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday before Advent, when we traditionally celebrate Christ’s eternal kingship. It’s a Holy Day that can have connotations of triumphalism, glory, even imperialism. As a result of these connotations, some Christians are uncomfortable with this feast, since Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are profoundly not about majesty or worldly triumph. They are about humility, about servanthood, about healing and serving the poor, the lowly, the sinners, and the outcasts. Jesus is constantly having to remind his disciples and other followers of his role as a servant, not the long-expected warrior Messiah they desperately wanted him to be.
But it’s a mistake, I think, to reject Christ the King Sunday because we are uncomfortable with the language and imagery it uses. In fact, Pope Pius XI instituted this Feast Day explicitly to challenge nationalism and the growing secularism he perceived back in 1925. And while Pius may have partly been hoping to emphasize Christ’s kingship in order to emphasize the power of the Roman Catholic Church, Christians have continued to find value and power in it beyond any conception of the church’s glory, and many Protestant churches went on to adopt the Feast of Christ the King in the 70’s.
The value and the power of Christ the King Sunday is that it shines a light on the paradoxical nature of Christ’s kingship, reminding us, too, to reject earthly power, national power, ethnic power, and choose instead Jesus’ power of love and solidarity with those who have no power. Today’s gospel reading emphasizes a kingdom that is not of this world, that is so not of this world that the king himself suffers torture and death, and his followers do not raise arms against his captors. Other gospel texts for Christ the King Sunday are Luke 23 and Matthew 25. In the Matthew text, Jesus actually speaks of his own eventual glorification: “When the Son of Man comes in glory,” he begins, “he will separate the righteous from the unrighteous…” But his message swiftly veers away from his followers’ expectations, as he explains how he will make that distinction. Those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison—those are the ones who served Christ. Those who abhorred the stranger and the lowly, it is as if they did so to Christ himself. This is the most explicit identification of Christ with the poor and outcast. And Jesus’ humility shines through; even as he speaks of coming in glory, he also leaves no doubt in his listeners’ minds that he could not care less how he is treated; it is the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, the unwelcomed stranger to whom all service is due. We serve Christ by serving the poor.
The other Christ the King text, in Luke 23, is stark. Here, Jesus is hanging on the cross, praying for God to forgive those who crucified him, when one of the criminals that he’s been crucified with begins to taunt him. “Are you not the Messiah?” he asks. “Save yourself and save us!” It is a challenge reminiscent of Satan’s taunt in the desert, when he takes Jesus up above the temple, and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, and the angels will save you.” In both scenes, above the temple and on the cross, the belief that underlies the taunting is that the Messiah, the Son of God, should not be helpless and suffering. Like the kings and emperors of the world, Christ should be defended, powerful, held apart from the rest of us.
So, back to today’s text, where Pontius Pilate himself, representative of the greatest world power of the time, the emperor of Rome, questions Jesus concerning the nature of his kingship. I tend to think of Pilate as a sort of world-weary politician, doing what he felt he had to do to keep the peace—and thus his job—but he also seems to be genuinely interested in Jesus. Unlike the Herod who tried to kill Jesus as an infant, afraid of being unseated by the true “king of the Jews,” Pilate seems not to be threatened by Jesus; he even argues for setting Jesus free at Passover. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asks. He’s not asking on his own behalf, he implies; as a non-Jew, why should he care whether Jesus truly is the king of Jews? Jesus replies, “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 [priests]. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
What is this kingdom that is not of this world? First of all, it is a kingdom of non-violence. If he were a worldly king, Jesus says, his followers would take up arms and fight to break him free. In Jesus’ kingdom, however, the king does not wage war or condone violence; rather, the king himself suffers violence. Though we may recognize how difficult this principle of non-violence is, we may not fully appreciate just how new it was when Jesus spoke these words. Many of us were raised to revere the non-violent resistance of Martin Luther King or of Gandhi, but imagine a world in which no such figures existed, and no such principle was revered. That was the world Jesus came into.
As when he is tempted by Satan, and as when he is taunted on the cross, Jesus refuses the worldly equation of kingship with the power to hurt and oppress. Everything has led to this moment: Jesus’ welcoming of the children his disciples tried to send away; his preaching that the first will be last and the last, first; his insistence on washing his disciples’ feet and on servanthood to those whose greatest wish is to serve him. Jesus’ words and deeds are completely aligned. If you wonder whether he really means what he says about the first being last in the kingdom of God, or turning the other cheek to someone who strikes you, here is the answer: Jesus means every word. He demonstrates it with his very life. With his very death.
So what does Jesus’ kingdom or reign look like? How does it translate into ideas and images we can understand, we 21st-century Americans, who are so used to our country being the greatest power in the world, we who obsess over our own safety and security, often to the neglect of others’ well-being? First, Jesus’ kingdom means accepting insecurity in the service of those whom we serve in his name. It means never being absolutely safe. It means being cast out of our comfort zones by our love for God and his creation. I think of Aslan, the Christ-figure and lion in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles, who warns people, saying, “I am not a tame lion.” Lewis thought we’d had enough of Christ the lamb, and we needed to come to terms with Christ the lion, the untamed, the dangerous, the one who lives to disturb our sense of comfort. When we understand Jesus solely as the lamb of God, it’s easy for us to assert ourselves, to ignore Christ’s precepts to love without trying to control everything. Jesus the lion, however, reminds us how little we really control, that we are at the mercy of a God we can never hope to understand.
There’s a wonderful and disturbing hymn about the “peace of God” that details the peace the disciples knew: one by one, each was imprisoned and killed trying to live out what Jesus had taught them. The peace of God, this hymn makes clear, is not the peace of a night of deep sleep, or the peace of the absence of war. It is the peace of knowing that, despite sleepless nights, despite wars and rumors of wars, we are held in the eternal and welcoming hand of God. It is the peace of Jesus, who tells us not to fear those who can kill the body, but only to fear those who can harm the soul. It is the peace of knowing that, whatever the world may do to us, our souls belong to God alone.
In the face of desperate need in our own cities and towns, and the need for safety and homes for those fleeing war and chaos, the reign of Christ the King looks like welcome, like arms open wide, like doctors volunteering their time to treat refugees, like churches opening their doors for the homeless. It looks like Christians standing up to reject the politics and priorities of fear, choosing instead to serve Christ regardless of the cost. It looks like gentleness to those who have had far too little gentleness in their lives, and like unconditional love to those who have known only judgment and rejection. It looks, in Jesus’ words, like feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, welcoming the stranger.
Our benediction today is inspired by the words of the poet and theologian Janet Morley, who wrote: “May the God who shakes heaven and earth; whom death could not contain; who lives to disturb and heal us, bless you with power.” The power Morley speaks of is the paradoxical power to accept powerlessness. It is the power of Christ, and the apostles who followed him, to walk the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice and sorrow and service; the power to proclaim both the reign and the love of God to all nations and all people, and to live out what we proclaim. Amen.