Christ the King
Jesus offers us kingship of a different kind.
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. This is the last Sunday in the liturgical year, before we start the Church’s new year with Advent. You would think on this last Sunday of the liturgical year, after having marked the birth of the Christ Child, journeyed through Epiphany, waded through Lent and Holy Week, celebrated Eastertide, and learned through Christ’s ministry during the season of Pentecost, that this very last Sunday would be some sort of culminating day – where we celebrate what the life in Christ is really about. So what is our gospel lesson today? A story of Christ on the cross, being ridiculed and humiliated. Not exactly the happiest way to end the year, and certainly not the text most of us would choose to summarize a cycle celebrating Christ or even the way we might prepare ourselves for entering into Advent.
I have been thinking about Christ as King all week. Not being able to shake that grim image of a bloodied, battered, berated king hanging on a cross, I began to think about what else we know about kings in Scripture. The people of God never really had a king until they reached the Promised Land. They saw the neighboring countries with their armies and their admirable kings, and they wanted one for themselves. That was their first mistake. God granted them a king to rule over them, but inevitably, the kings, like any humans, were flawed – some more than others. Hence, there are four books in the Hebrew Scriptures about the kings who ruled and the judges who tried to correct their behavior. Most of the kings were corrupted by power, money, and greed. Many abused the people. Even the most revered king, King David, was a bit of a mess. He was the one who coveted Bathsheba, slept with her, and then killed her husband when he got her pregnant and realized he would not be able to get away with it.
Having been through a horrible patch of awful kings, the prophets predicted the coming of a Messiah – the king of kings and Lord of lords[i]. This king would be triumphant and would make the people of Israel dominant at last. You can imagine that with such a great promise, the people of Israel are not too pleased with the man who finally claimed be the Messiah. Nothing about Jesus says “king.” He is nonviolent, hangs out with sinners of all sorts, and travels with a sorry band of misfits. Even his grand entrance into Jerusalem where he is heralded as a king is not so grand – he rides in on a donkey, for goodness sake! This could not possibly be the king that Yahweh had promised them.
And yet, this is exactly the king that God sends. The Lord, who never wanted God’s people to have an earthly king anyway, makes a king that represents everything that is kingly: a man who loves the poor and cares for the sick, a man who sees through the pretenses of the temple and calls for authenticity, a man who loves deeply and forgives infinitely. So why are the people of God not excited about this king? Why can they not love this countercultural king as much as the king they think they need?
When I was in college, one of the first Political Science classes I took was called Political Theory. When we started reading the first book, I knew I was in trouble. We read John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. In the book, he presents the best way to get to a just political system. He imagines gathering a random, diverse group of people who are blind about what their lot in life will be. They have no guarantees about whether they will be old or young, rich or poor, male or female, member of a minority group or not. In the midst of this blindness, the people gathered are required to make up a set of rules to govern society. Rawls’ basic argument is that if those people were truly blind about what their lot in life would be, they would be more likely to come up with a system of governance that is the fairest for all – since no one would want to take a chance on being the one victimized by an unfair system. Though I appreciated what Rawls was saying, I was immediately annoyed at his argument. How could we ever recreate a system of justice from scratch, and truly blind anyone enough to create such a system? Since that seemed impossible, the whole premise was frustrating to me. Needless to say, my focus in Political Science was not Political Theory!
That being said, many years later, I think I may finally understand what Rawls was trying to communicate. Our political system, or even this earthly life in general, is governed by a set of human-made standards that do not look out for the poor, that create injustices, and that benefit very few. This is why so many of us get frustrated when we talk about justice or trying to make a difference – we see the system of injustice that fights against us and we can end up feeling helpless. This is the very injustice that our king – Jesus – comes to fight. In fact, I am now curious to know whether John Rawls and Jesus were perhaps acquainted. Though he professed to be an atheist, early in his life Rawls considered becoming an Episcopal priest. Perhaps this world that we can only achieve through blindness is the same world that Jesus could see through God’s eyes.
In Rawls’ argument, when the blinded people make the rules, and then have their blindfolds removed, some are relieved to be well-off and others are dismayed to see themselves in poverty or at a disadvantage. But all have some sense of acceptance because the rules they made do not make rich-life as advantageous and do not make poor-life as horrible. This is the kind of fairness Jesus invites us into. Jesus shows us a world where a humiliated man can look at his persecutors and forgive them. Jesus shows a world where a man is willing to suffer for the salvation of others. Jesus shows us a world where even a criminal can see truth in the last hour, can admit his guilt, and turn to Christ for leniency.
This is why we celebrate Christ as King today: not because he is victorious in putting us in control over others, but because he invites us into that life that evens the playing field – the life of the kingdom of God. There are certainly going to be days when we just wish that Jesus would mount a mighty horse and triumph over evil. But most days we realize that what we really need is a king who enables us to create a world of fairness here and now – a world that is much more similar to the kingdom of God than the kingdom of humankind.
So why do we honor this not-so-kingly king today on the last day of the liturgical year? I think the very best reason we close one year and prepare to start another with today’s gospel lesson is so that as we can more humbly approach the Christ Child. If we can imagine ourselves gathered around that manger on that most holy of nights, not eager for vindication, but instead humbled by the path we will all walk with this king, then we enter into Advent with more reverence, less arrogance, and a healthy dose of gratitude. This king – Christ the King – is the most sobering, challenging, merciful, joyous, steadying king for which we could hope. He is not the king we always want, but he is certainly the king we always need. Today we celebrate the wise gift by God of a true King – a king who makes us all better versions of ourselves. Amen.
[i] Revelation 19.16.