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!