this week’s readings are here.
The last Sunday of the liturgical year is Christ the King Sunday or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. It’s rather odd in some ways because we are looking forward to Advent and Christmas. It’s odd because this week’s gospel takes us back to Good Friday when we heard all of John’s passion narrative, from which these few verses come. It’s odd too because language of “kingship” and the scene of Jesus’ appearance before Pilate calls to mind all manner of political imagery that we’ve been bombarded with this election season.
Even though an image of Christus Rex (Christ the King) hangs from the ceiling of our chancel, the notion of Christ as King is probably uncomfortable for most of us. It’s not just that the idea of “king” is alien to our culture; it’s that religiously it’s not an image that resonates with us.
The gospel reading points to the complexity of the image, and the way in which Jesus himself (and the gospel writer) deconstructed and reconstructed it. In the synoptics, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replies, “You say so.” His response seems to be an acceptance of the title. Jesus’ reply in John is directed differently, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” In other words (perhaps), “why are you asking this?”
In the end, Jesus is crucified with the inscription, “King of the Jews.” Whatever it meant originally, for us we are invited to see his kingship here, on the cross. It’s another explicit rejection of other notions of kingship whether implicit ( perhaps like that intended by Pilate) or explicit.
In fact, in John’s gospel, Jesus has rejected the title of king once before, in chapter 6. After feeding the five thousand, John comments “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself (6:15).”
In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Thy kingdom come.” The words are familiar but do we know for what we are praying? Are we praying for a Christ who will be a powerful king and ruler, intervening on our behalf in our political struggles? Are we praying for a Christ who as king will offer us bread and circus? Or are we praying for the king who died on Calvary, whose kingdom offers an alternative to every human political system, draws its citizenship from the whole world, and embraces its enemies with love?