Sunday, November 26, 2006

Christ the King

Christ the King – Year B
Daniel 7:9-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:1-8; John 18:33-37
Sunday, November 26, 2006 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Here we are at the end of another year. Next Sunday is the beginning of Advent, of a new year, liturgically speaking. On this, the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we traditionally commemorate the feast of Christ the King. This feast is observed in “celebration of the all-embracing authority of Christ which shall lead [humankind] to seek the ‘peace of Christ’ in the ‘Kingdom of Christ’” (Cross, 332). In a way, this commemoration serves to remind us of who Christ is as we prepare for his coming, as well as what it means to live under his kingship.

The imagery of Christ the King is evidenced in various ways in the readings appointed for today. The Old Testament lesson from the Book of Daniel paints an apocalyptic image of a heavenly court, home to the Ancient One, to God, who sits in judgment over all of creation. And into his midst comes a human being – literally “son of man” – to whom is given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him.” There are a number of interpretations as to what this imagery would have meant to the Jewish readers of the time. But for Christian readers, it is hard not to view this “son of man,” one who will have everlasting dominion and whose kingship shall never be destroyed, as Christ. In so doing, we have a traditional image of Christ as king over all creation. Even more explicitly, the New Testament lesson from the apocalyptic book of Revelation, specifically proclaims Christ as “the ruler of the kings of the earth,” who “made us to be a kingdom,” and who is to be given “glory and dominion forever and ever.” This is the image we tend to have of Christ the King, the image we tend to commemorate on this day.

As I contemplate these images from our Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, particularly as they relate to our commemoration of this feast day, I am struck by an incredible sense of incongruity. This sense of incongruity occurs on several levels, which makes it all the more puzzling. First, how can we, as twenty-first century Americans, relate to the image of king and of kingdom? After all, this nation was founded 230 years ago in a revolution rebelling against the authority of a king and by renouncing our participation in and existence as a kingdom. Our whole system of governance is based on a fundamental belief that monarchical rule is contrary to our God-given right to self-determination and self-governance. This was reinforced during our most recent elections, in which Americans went to the polls and overturned 12 years of rule by the majority party – effectively issuing a proclamation that the direction the current government is leading our nation is not acceptable to the majority of the populace. Such events could never have occurred under a monarchy.

We see similar events unfolding in our own ecclesiastical structure, within the governance of the Episcopal Church, particularly as related to our relationship with and position within the Anglican Communion. Over the past few decades, we in the Episcopal Church have chosen to break with the generally held positions of a majority of our Anglican brothers and sisters on a variety of issues. In the context of kings and kingship, it is not a matter of whether one agrees or disagrees with the positions the Episcopal Church has taken. Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum of these potentially divisive issues, the fact remains that neither we as the Episcopal Church, those within the Episcopal Church seeking to disassociate themselves and realign with other provinces of the Anglican Communion, or those in other provinces of the Communion, would be in a position to exercise our own understandings of what it means to live the Gospel if we operated under a monarchical ecclesiastical structure. We do not have, and in fact, since the founding of the Anglican Church during the Reformation, have fervently avoided the creation of systems of governance that concentrate power within a single person such as a pope. Despite having a hierarchical structure, our system of governance does not concentrate absolute power in the person of the Presiding Bishop or even in our own diocesan bishops. While our governing officials have substantial influence, the reality is they are not the ultimate authorities. We have insisted on a system of governance far more democratic than monarchical.

It is in light of these incongruities that we are presented with the paradoxical vision of Christ as King in today’s Gospel lesson. On first reading, this lesson seems to paint a counter-intuitive picture of what it means for Jesus to be King. This is the story of a presumed king being treated in a quite un-king-like manner. In this story, a presumed king has been mocked by both the religious and political authorities, humiliated and mistreated by his opposition. Is this any way for a person, particularly a king, to be treated? And even more poignantly, how could someone who is supposedly a king submit to this type of treatment, to this humiliation, without putting up a fight? How could this person possibly be considered a king?

In fact, Pilate’s own disbelief is revealed as he starts his interrogation with the point-blank question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” This question, which is incredibly loaded from both the prevailing religious and secular perspectives, begins a dance around what it really means to be king. The religious authorities have referred the matter to the Roman authorities as the Temple officials recognize the danger to their own power base of having a person proclaimed as the Messiah running around the countryside. They want to be rid of this alleged Messiah, but have no means of doing so themselves. Therefore, they refer the matter to the Romans, who they know will not look kindly on such an allegation. “The prominence of the kingship motif underscores the intersection of religion and politics in the trial narrative. Political sedition fell under the jurisdiction of the Roman courts, and Pilate’s questioning about Jesus’ political claims points to the Roman awareness of the potential threat Jewish messianic hopes posed to their governance.” (O’Day, 816).

In response to these accusations, Jesus neither directly affirms nor denies Pilate’s assertion that Jesus is a king. Instead, Jesus describes the nature and function of his kingship, not a physical place over which he is the presumed king. In so doing, Jesus says that his kingdom is not from this world. The meaning of this statement can be somewhat confusing. Traditionally, “Translations have usually rendered Jesus’ dictum as ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ widely taken to mean that Jesus was a spiritual teacher offering individual salvation who had no interests and concerns in social and political matters.” (Gottwald, 24). The argument then follows that, as members of this kingdom, we have no need for or concern with the matters of the world. This interpretation is inconsistent with the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels “The better translation, ‘My rule is not derived from this world,’ honors the source of Jesus’ authority and mission in God but in no way excludes social and political matters as spheres in which his way of life is to be carried out. The teaching and conduct of Jesus touch and invade the social, economic, and political spheres of life again and again” (Gottwald, 24).

“Although Jesus is nominally on trial here, he is the one who testifies to the truth, and the world is judged by its response to his witness” (O’Day, 817). In this, he exercises his reign in a way very unlike that of any other king – certainly any king up that point, or any king to reign since. “Jesus poses a threat to the political and religious structures, but it is not because he aspires to office” (Hanson, 62). On the contrary, he is a threat because of what he inspires in others. The Romans were right to fear Jesus as a potential king. They feared that such claims would lead to a revolution that would overthrow Roman domination in the region. Pilate and the Temple authorities think that by putting Jesus to death, his kingship would end. They were wrong. The ultimate irony is that not only is Jesus on trial, but the world is also on trial for its life – we are on trial for our lives. And in that trial, Jesus, the Christ, must be condemned and executed so that the world may gain its life. In reality, this trial is just the beginning, a “prelude to his exaltation and final ‘enthronement’ on the cross” (O’Day, 827). The irony of this trial was that the condemnation and execution of Jesus did not stop the revolution feared by the political and religious authorities. Rather, it started a revolution that has been waged now for nearly 2,000 years.

But where have we gotten in the last 2,000 years? As a society, we have slowly and systematically disassociated ourselves from the notion of kingdom. We have developed the notion that kingdom is not a particularly viable form of governance, that we can be more effective, or at least happier, if we take matters into our own hands. We have developed the idea that it is our God-given right to determine our own destiny. We have developed a “lone-rangerism,” both individually and as a culture, in which deference to a king is no longer welcome, if not anathema. But, is humanity really better off for having tried to go it alone?

Biblical scholar Gail Ramshaw notes that in the midst of this on-going revolution, we find that “Speaking of Jesus as king . . . is the odd speech of metaphorical paradox. Yet the language can” and does “easily become literalized. Ecclesiastical art depicting Jesus in royal robes or triumphalistic hymns reminiscent of a coronation need to be juxtaposed to Jesus’ identification with the poor and to serious attention to the world’s injustices. That many contemporary Christians do not live in a kingdom and perhaps do not even respect that classic form of civil society makes the task of interpretation” of Christ the King “a considerable challenge” (Ramshaw, 254).

Despite this challenge, the image of Christ as King holds a lesson for all Christians, and maybe particularly for those of us living in a non-monarchical, democratic society, in a society that is founded upon “rugged individualism.” Ramshaw comments that “the idea of the community of believers realizing itself as God’s kingdom” can provide us with “a comfort in times of oppression and in inspiration for unified action within and outside the circle of faith” (Ramshaw, 255). This is a crucial function of the kingdom. Few of us in this room experience oppression, or at least, experience it on the level that was experienced by the lepers, widows, and orphans of ancient times. But there continues to be oppression in our day. It just has a different face. Today, it is the face of the homeless person, of the malnourished child, of the illegal immigrant seeking a better life, of the elderly person forced to choose between paying for food and paying for needed medication. The list goes on and on. Despite 2,000 years of revolution, and despite our best intentions, despite our attempts to move away from monarchical structures so that we can better act for our own good and the good of others, we have missed the mark. We have taken Jesus’ words “my kingdom is not of this world” too literally. His kingdom may not originate in this world, but it most certainly is of this world. His kingdom is here present among us. It is the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ. We are Christ’s kingdom.

“Especially in the sacramental life, the image of Christ’s kingship and the church’s kingdom are important. The baptized are sealed with holy oil as a sign that believers are anointed by the Spirit of God, as was Jesus, to reign in the kingdom of God” (Ramshaw, 255). We are not only Christ’s kingdom. We share in the reign of that kingdom by virtue of our baptisms. But it doesn’t work if we go it alone and try to treat it as a democracy, with each of us looking out for our own interests. Jesus tells Pilate, and he tells us, “for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” We cannot see the whole truth, not as Christ sees it. If we claim to belong to the truth, we must listen to Christ’s voice. We must have that guide to keep us on track with the goals of the Kingdom, lest we wander about aimlessly and ineffectively.

The truth is that we are part of a kingdom that is unlike any other kingdom. Kingdoms, democracies, and republics rise and fall. But the Kingdom of God will last forever. We must do our part to make that Kingdom function as God intends it to. That can only happen if we follow our King. The good news is that we have a King who is unlike any other king. We have a king who loves us enough to die for us. We have a king who feeds us, nurtures us, comforts us, and who can, if we let him, inspire us. Our response is that we must trust in our King, who calls us to listen to the truth; and to proclaim the truth, in word and deed, that his Kingdom is present, here and now.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Cross, F.L. and E.A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Hanson, K.C. Proclamation 4: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Lagerquist-Gottwald, Laura and Norman K. Gottwald. Proclamation 6: Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Series B Pentecost 3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

O’Day, Gail R. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection.” In Vol. IX of The New Interpreter’s Bible. Edited by Leander E. Keck, et al. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

Ramshaw, Gail. Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

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