Today, the last Sunday of our liturgical year, is Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. It’s a recent addition to the church’s calendar, authorized by Pope Pius XI in 1925, only eight years after the end of World War I. It was a time when the church was on the defensive from the forces of modernity and secularism and coincided with the rise of Fascism in Italy. Whatever political or theological statement was originally intended, The Reign of Christ invites us to pause and reflect on all of the themes that emerge as we make our way from Advent, through Lent and Easter, and now as the season after Pentecost draws to an end. We are asked to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus, to proclaim our faith in him, to confess that he is King of King and Lord of Lords. Continue reading
Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday in our liturgical year, and it’s commonly called “Christ the King.” To be honest, I’m not a big fan of that name, and not just because of the twitter debate this past week on whether it’s an appropriate observance in the Episcopal Church. No, my discomfort is deeper, with the history, imagery and temptations of the observance. It’s a relatively recent practice. Pope Pius XI introduced it in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, just a few years after the end of World War I. He was concerned with the rise of secularism and the corresponding decline in the political power of the Roman Catholic Church, and thought that a robust celebration of Christ the King would combat those evils. Protestants came to embrace it as well, and even though the Episcopal Church has not adopted the name for this Sunday, the propers–the scripture readings and the collect focus on Christ’s kingship.
Discomfort with the observance is not just related to its provenance. It’s a bit jarring, in our ostensibly democratic society, to talk about kingship at all. And at a time when we are sensitive around issues of hierarchy, authority, and gender, to appeal to Christ the King is problematic.
Of course, as our readings point out, all of them, Jewish and Christian scripture are replete with imagery of kingship, especially as used of God. In the Psalm, for example, God is depicted as a king seated upon a throne, and the language here suggests an analogy between the rule of God and the rule of Israel’s king, an analogy that has persisted among Christians down through the centuries. At the center of the Psalmist’s vision is an image of the king ruling in splendor and majesty, on a throne.
Similar images dominate the readings from Daniel and Revelation. Both of them, as I mentioned last week, are apocalyptic texts, and in these excerpts we are treated to images of the world as the authors imagine they might become or will be, or even perhaps are, if we see the world as it really is, ruled and governed by a righteous and just God. Although we don’t see those themes in any of these three texts, the notion that God’s reign is a reign of peace and justice is self-evident. All of these images are meant to emphasize the fact that Christ’s kingship, though accompanied and understood with imagery from human experience of kingship, is of a totally different order. Christ’s kingship has no beginning or end; it will not fail or falter
Whatever the imagery that might come to mind when we think of kings and kingship—whether we imagine the British Royal Family, or perhaps Louis XIV, the Sun King and the resplendence and opulence of Versailles Palace, the reality of human kingship is rather different than its display. For that, the small portion of John’s gospel that was read will do quite well. For that is how kingship has played out in human history, in oppression, injustice, and violence.
As Procurator or governor, Pilate was the most powerful person in this little corner of the world. He had come to Jerusalem, as he did every year during the Passover to be present during a time filled with tension. The Jewish community was remembering and celebrating God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from an evil and oppressive ruler, and given that they were living under an equally evil and oppressive tyranny, tensions always ran high. That explains, at least in part, the charge that was brought against Jesus—King of the Jews. It was not simply a mistake, or an effort by his Jewish opponents to get the Romans to do their work for them. It was, quite frankly, accurate. Jesus did pose a political threat to the Roman Empire. By preaching the coming of God’s reign, Jesus presented a direct challenge to Roman power, and to the local leadership who both benefited from, and helped to exert that power.
We see that confrontation front and center here. When Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews? Jesus, and we suspect that Pilate is not asking the question honestly. He does not know, or care who Jesus is. In fact, he seems most interested in finding some way to avoid responsibility for what is taking place. And Jesus seems willing to help Pilate avoid what is to come. As the Gospel of John tells the story, Pilate will make every effort to avoid condemning Jesus to death. He moves back and forth between Jesus and the other players in the drama—the crowd that according to John seeks Jesus’ death. He offers to free Jesus, but the crowd will have none of it. Then he stages a mock ritual of coronation with the purple robe and the crown of thorns.
Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus puts the question back on him, asking him his motives for the charge. But Pilate will have none of it, and so Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world—cosmos, to use the Greek word. And here, our western, 21stcentury conceptions get in the way of understanding what’s at stake. For when we hear Jesus saying, “My kingdom is not of this world,” we are inclined to think of the contrast between spiritual and material realms, or perhaps between political and religious, projecting our notions of completely separate spheres of human experience and human power back on to the first century.
But when Jesus says, “my kingdom is not of this cosmos” he is using a term that in the Gospel of John is introduced in the very first chapter, and recurs throughout. The world, the cosmos, is inveterately opposed to God: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10). At every turn, the world rejected Jesus, yet throughout the gospel Jesus again and again expresses his desire and intent to save the world.
For example, John 3:17: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And John 12:47: “I came not to judge the world but to save the world.”
But Jesus’ efforts came to naught. As we see in this passage, his apparent attempt to sway Pilate away from the predetermined course of events was a failure. Pilate was enmeshed in the world, he saw things only in terms of power and self-protection and in the end, condemned Jesus to death.
This gospel story presents us with a grave temptation. It is likely that we see the confrontation between Pilate and Jesus as a historical event, with a clear winner and loser, and with no implications for our own lives, except that it resulted in the crucifixion.
In a very profound way this confrontation between Jesus and Pilate presents us with a dilemma that faces us in our present lives and circumstances. We are blind to the ways in which we live in and share the values of the world into which Jesus comes and to which Jesus offers a clear alternative. To what extent do we place our trust in the might and wealth of empire? To what extent do we offer our allegiance to secular power? To what extent do we bow down in homage and worship of the kings of this world?
To put it that way is to obfuscate because we live in a purported democracy not a monarchy. But in so many ways, on so many levels of our society, the rules of raw power and dog-eat-dog contests determines winners and losers.
Christ the King Sunday is a problem because it allows us to elide the distinction between the reign of Christ and the kingdom of this world. Our king may not wear purple or a carry a crown, or even sit on a throne, but imperial power still holds sway and may be more brutal today than at any time in recent history.
When we think of the kingship of Christ, our attention and focus should be, not on images of Christ ruling in majesty, but rather images of Jesus in the dock, facing the oppressive power of an unjust and evil regime. When we think of the kingship of Christ, we should think of Christ, not elevated or seated on a throne in majesty, but hanging on a cross, dying at the hands of oppressive, imperial power.
When we think of the kingdom of Christ, we should think not of the kingdoms and empires of this world, fighting unjust and meaningless wars that claim millions of innocent victims. We should think instead of Christ the victim, suffering at the hands of an imperial power, suffering with and for, those innocent victims. And if we want to live under Christ’s reign, live in Christ’s reign, we should take our place beside those innocent victims, and work for justice and peace. For that is the nature of Christ’s reign, a reign not of this world, not of hate, or violence, injustice or oppression, but a reign of love, justice, and peace. May Christ’s reign come soon!
We are at the end of the liturgical year, the end of our reading of the Gospel of Matthew. I find myself reflecting not just on where we’ve come with this gospel but how my reading and preaching of it have been shaped by the challenging times in which we live. Matthew’s underlying theme of an embattled, perhaps persecuted Christian community called to ethical purity and discipleship is an appealing vision for those of us who seek to live out a Christianity shaped by Jesus’ teachings, ministry, and death, rather than the so-called Christianity based on greed, white supremacy, and nationalism that seems ascendant in our day. Continue reading
Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, and for many years it has been known as Christ the King. More recently, the politically correct liturgical police have renamed it “The Reign of Christ” because the imagery and idea of Christ the King has become increasingly problematic in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It offends our notions of democracy and egalitarianism; it smacks of violence and militarism; it seems to encourage gender stereotypes. For all of those reasons, and for others, including the image of a crowned Jesus robed in splendor, seated on a throne, judging between the good and evil; for all of these reasons I find the commemoration of Christ the King problematic. Continue reading
This Sunday’s texts are available here.
Canadian sculptor Tim Schmaltz has incited controversy with his bronze statue “Jesus the Homeless.” The image gained notoriety when it was rejected by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto. The latter image was installed at the Jesuit School of Theology in Toronto and another cast was purchased and installed at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, NC. The statue depicts a homeless man sleeping on a park bench. His facial features are partially obscured by the blanket that covers him but the marks of crucifixion on his hands and feet clearly identify him as Jesus. After the statue appeared in Davidson, the police were called by a woman who thought it was a real homeless person and others complained that it demeaned the neighborhood. One woman was quoted as saying, “Jesus is not a vagrant; Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help.” (A story on Huffington Post with images of the statue is here).
This Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, is Christ the King Sunday, a day when we are encouraged to reflect on the reign of Christ. Often, such reflection takes the form of images of Christ ruling in majesty or coming in triumph. Today’s gospel from Matthew 25, points in a very different direction. We read the familiar parable of sheep, goats, and judgment. For all its familiarity, it continues to challenge us at the core of our existence and at the core of our faith. The king divides sheep and the goats on the basis of how they responded to the deepest human needs: to the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the naked and the prisoner. But when told of their respective fates and the basis for the judgment, sheep and goats answered alike, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked?”
The Kingship of Christ, the Reign of Christ, is not primarily about recognizing Christ in majesty and triumph. It is about being Christ—in the weakest, lowliest, and most vulnerable of humans; in feeding and clothing, ministering to and being with the stranger, the sick, the friendless. In acts like these, the reign of God is announced and made present. The reign of Christ is proclaimed in a homeless Jesus.
We are at one of those places in the year where our liturgical and secular calendars diverge significantly. That divergence is particularly striking this year because Advent begins a week later than usual. Instead of the first Sunday in Advent occurring Thanksgiving weekend, we have another full week of ordinary time ahead of us. Meanwhile, it’s Christmas in the stores and on the commercials on TV; it has been since what, Halloween? And our national frenzy of the holidays with our rituals of overeating, Black Friday, conspicuous consumption, and football, is well underway.
For some reason completely inexplicable to me, the last Sunday of the liturgical year is Christ the King Sunday. It encourages us to reflect on Christ’s kingship in the middle, or usually the very beginning of the holiday season. Christ the King is a difficult theme for us to reflect on because the very idea of kingship is alien or archaic. We have trouble imagining what kingship might mean in our context, even if we sing the hymns with gusto. So the incongruities abound—the very image of kingship in a representative democracy, the out-of-synch calendar. And to top it all off, our lectionary returns us to the story we heard months ago, on Good Friday, the story of Jesus’ passion according to John.
Our gospel allows us to focus for a day on an episode of the story that probably typically gets short shrift. On Good Friday and in the season of Lent, our attention is directed at the overerall arc of the story, the inexorable move towards Golgotha and the crucifixion. Often details get ignored by our single-minded focus on the drama of cross and resurrection. So the opportunity to pause and reflect on a particular incident like this may help us look at the story in a slightly different perspective, to see it with new eyes.
Even so, the choice of this particular episode for our reflection on Christ the King Sunday may seem somewhat odd. Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Typically, Jesus’ response is another question: “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?” It’s a question about Jesus’ identity and as such it calls to mind another question about Jesus’ identity asked in the gospels. In Mark, as Jesus and his disciples walk near Caesarea Philippi, in a region dominated by Roman imperial power and imagery, Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” Then he asked, “But who do you say that I am?” These questions were the occasion for Peter’s brash confession, “You are the Christ.”
Now, in a direct confrontation with the agent of imperial power, the question of Jesus’ identity is raised again. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus, and we, suspect that Pilate is not asking the question honestly. He does not know, or care who Jesus is. In fact, he seems most interested in finding some way to avoid responsibility for what is taking place. And Jesus seems willing to help Pilate avoid what is to come. As the gospel of John tells the story, Pilate will make every effort to avoid condemning Jesus to death. He moves back and forth between Jesus and the other players in the drama—the crowd that according to John seeks Jesus’ death. He offers to free Jesus, but the crowd will have none of it. Then he stages a mock ritual of coronation with the purple robe and the crown of thorns.
He asks Jesus again about his identity, “Where do you come from?” When Jesus doesn’t answer, Pilate tells him that he has power to release him and power to crucify him. Jesus points out that whatever power Pilate has derives not from Rome, but ultimately from God. Finally, Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd and declares, “Here is your King!” Jesus is then crucified under the inscription, King of the Jews, and Pilate leaves the inscription on the cross after Jesus’ body is removed.
So in the space of a few hours Pilate moves from asking “Are you the King of the Jews?” to declaring to the crowd, “Here is your king!”
Here is our King! Before considering what all this might mean, I would like to draw on one other episode from John’s gospel. Back in chapter 6, which we read this summer, Jesus feeds the 5000 and then offers a lengthy discourse on the meaning of that sign. Immediately after the feeding, John says, “When Jesus realized they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
Here is your king! These are the words Pilate used when presenting Jesus to the crowd. The crowd responded, “Crucify him!” And then, “we have no king but Caesar! Pilate’s declaration, the exchange between Pilate and Jesus, the purple robe, the crown of thorns, the crowd’s response, all of it presents us with the imagery and symbolic power of kingship. And as we read and reflect, we are invited to wonder about what Christ’s kingship for us in the twenty-first century. And what is our response when we see the image of Jesus in purple robe and crown of thorns, about to be crushed by Roman imperial power? What is our response when Pilate says to us, “Here is your King?”
The exchange between Pilate and Jesus is about kingship. Jesus responds to Pilate, “my kingdom is not from this world.” It’s easy for us to side with Jesus, to confess him as King and to realize that his kingship was something quite different than either the Roman or the Jewish leadership understood by the term. We get that. We may not have any trouble proclaiming our allegiance to Jesus’ kingship, even if we do not fully understand what that might mean and even as we may not really want to live as if our primary, our only allegiance is to Christ’s kingship.
The problem for us is not proclaiming Christ’s kingship. Rather the problem is living as if we believed that Christ is King, that our allegiance to him transcends every other allegiance or commitment or connection. The problem for us is that although we pray the words, “Thy Kingdom come” we don’t really mean it.
The problem is that we suffer from the same malady that plagued Pilate. Throughout his dealings with Jesus in this gospel, Pilate reveals himself as deeply cynical. One can’t read any of his statements as coming from his heart, being sincere. He is always looking for ways to negotiate through the situation in order to preserve his power and avoid difficult decisions. He mocks Jesus and the crowd when he presents Jesus to them and says, “Here is your King!”
It is that temptation that confronts us today, every day. The temptation to confess with our lips, but deny with our lives that Christ is King. We are surrounded by such cynicism—the manipulation of images, our feelings, our values for financial or political gain. It is hard for us not to succumb. But in that image of a scorned and mocked Christ clad in Rome’s imperial purple with a crown of thorns, in that image Pilate was using for his own purposes, to rile the crowd, to deflect his responsibility, in that image there was one who was pure, one who was sincere. It was Jesus Christ, who went from there to the cross, died and was raised, Jesus Christ our King who demands our allegiance, our truth, our all.
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?
Next Sunday is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, known as Christ the King. Next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, begins a new lectionary cycle. Advent will begin with a focus on the coming of Jesus Christ—both his first coming and his second. Today’s lessons also focus on Christ’s second coming and our lessons emphasize Christ reigning in majesty and his reigning as a judge. This gospel reading is not only our last for this year. It is also the last substantive teaching that Jesus gives his disciples before his crucifixion. So, for Matthew, apart from a few commandments Jesus gives his disciples—the institution of the Eucharist and the Great Commission—this story is Jesus’ last words to his disciples.
So it’s an important story, not simply because it’s a favorite of those who see the Gospel message as primarily one of outreach to the needy. It’s important for Matthew, too. It’s an apocalyptic vision. Jesus is describing what the Parousia—the coming of the Son of Man will be like. First, he uses royal imagery. He will come in glory and sit on his heavenly throne. But immediately, that imagery is combined with another image, that of the shepherd. He will separate the people like a shepherd separates his flocks, the sheep from the goats.
This image may draw us back to the reading from Ezekiel, where another visionary sees God coming like a shepherd, judging between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, rescuing them from wherever they have been scattered, feeding them, binding up the injured. We might find it odd that these two images—the shepherd and the king—are linked together in the biblical tradition. As the reading from Ezekiel makes clear, one reason for that linkage is the tradition that the founder of the Davidic monarchy—King David, was a shepherd. But for Christians, when shepherd imagery is used of Jesus, it is almost always used to emphasize Jesus’ care for us and his intimate love for us.
Yet here in Ezekiel, the shepherd is a judge who culls his flocks, separating the fat from the lean sheep. So too in the gospel, the Shepherd King is a Judge who divides the sheep from the goats. In the Ezekiel passage the contrast between the care and tender concern the shepherd shows for the lean sheep and the harsh words with which he judges the fat.
The same is true in the gospel. The king judges harshly, unequivocally between the sheep and the goats. Christ appears to us here as a shepherd-king, but there are two other important images of Christ in the gospel. One is the obvious one. When the king says, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me, identifies the presence of Christ in the naked, the prisoner, the hungry, the sick. The third image is less obvious. The text begins with a reference to the Son of Man. In Matthew, when Jesus uses that title of himself, it almost always is in reference to his crucifixion. Christ the King is also the Crucified One and the least of these.
We are called to hold these three images together, we might think of them as three facets of a prism that together refract the light. If we ignore one of them, the other two become less brilliant. Emphasizing one over the other is a common temptation for Christians, but the gospel itself warns against it. We might prefer one image over the other. Some might want to encounter Christ only in the face of the poor and hungry; others only in an image of the Crucifixion. There are even those who can conceive of Christ only as the judge who comes on a cloud of thunder and reigns in majesty.
Each image taken by itself will lead to a distortion of our faith. Those who focus only on the crucifixion will see Jesus only as the one who offers forgiveness for our sins. Those who focus on Christ in Majesty will think only about the second coming and making sure that they are on his right side. Those who focus only on outreach to others turn the Christian message into a social service agency.
The judge separates sheep from goats, those who reached out to the needy and those who didn’t. The surprising thing here is that all are surprised. Neither group knew that Christ was present in the naked, the stranger or the prisoner. So for those whom the King welcomed into the kingdom, their actions in reaching out to the needy were not a conscious response to Jesus’ teachings or the result of acting out of duty or in order to gain their salvation. Their actions were an unconscious, unknowing part of who they were as Jesus’ disciples.
Each year as Christ the King Sunday approaches my mind turns to the marvelous mosaics in the churches of Ravenna, Italy, created in the sixth century on behalf of Byzantine emperors. There are two that are especially appropriate on this occasion. The first is from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd: