Sunday, November 20, 2016

Revisiting Christ the King

Last Sunday of Pentecost – Christ the King (Year C)
Jeremiah 23.1-6; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. Now, admittedly, many of us today have a hard time with the concept of a king, for a variety of reasons. At one time, monarchial rule was certainly the norm, with virtually all nations being ruled by a king or equivalent. However, now there are only 26 monarchs in the world, ruling only about eight percent of the world’s population. So the notion of kingship has become the exception rather than the rule. And then there is the general perception of the nature of kingship. At one time, virtually all monarchs ruled with absolute authority. Again, that has changed. Today, most monarchs are mere figureheads with limited power. There are only five absolute monarchs in the world, ruling less than 0.2 percent of the world’s population. So again, this notion is definitely the exception. Given all of this, the concept of king, particularly an absolute, all-powerful monarch, is a thing of the past.

And certainly in our own nation, many have a negative impression of, even reaction to, the concept of king, thanks to little thing that happened 240 years ago called the Revolutionary War, where we specifically sought freedom from rule by a king. Although, after what seem to have become interminable election cycles and campaigns, with increased negativity and vitriol, maybe the idea of a hereditary monarch doesn’t sound so bad after all. Of course, I say this tongue in cheek. The point is, in our modern, supposedly more enlightened age, we recognize and value our independence, our free-will, and our right to choose our own leadership. So why would we seek to take a step backwards to purposefully and consciously recognize a king? Even if it is merely a metaphor for our relationship with Jesus Christ?

Some churches find the image of king so outdated or even offensive that instead of referring to the kingdom of God, they refer to the “kin-dom of God.” And they would not call today the Feast of Christ the King, but rather the Feast of the Reign of Christ. I do not disparage these churches for their linguistic choices. I merely point out that the image of king is a loaded one, making some uncomfortable.

Interestingly enough, the titles of "Christ" and "king" are not used together in the New Testament. In fact, “Christ the King” is actually a bit redundant, for "Christ" is in itself a royal title, meaning "the anointed” – a title that itself implied kingship. To be sure, scriptural writings about the nature of Christ, or the anticipated coming of a Messiah, use the language of kingship.

Our reading from Jeremiah promises a future, righteous king. In this promise, God likens himself, and the promised king, to a shepherd who will “gather the remnant of [God’s] flock out of all the lands . . . and will bring them back into their fold” where they will “be fruitful and multiply” (Jer 23.3). It is not insignificant that God likens himself and the promised king to a shepherd. Shepherds represent the disenfranchised in society. God is identifying with those who have been marginalized. As such, God and the promised king will care for not just those in the mainstream, but those on the margins, as well. This king will be a king for all people, regardless of their position or status. This promised king will bring safety and prosperity to all people, executing justice and bringing righteousness.

Our reading from Colossians specifically relates this promise to Christians, relating the promised king to Christ himself. Paul offers Christians the most important image of God – Christ, in whom was all the fullness of God. And while Christ is not called “king” in the passage, we are told that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1.13). And most importantly, Paul names what we gain through incorporation into this kingdom – “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” And by extension, the promise of new and eternal life.

And then our Gospel reading from Luke cinches the deal. The passage we heard this morning is Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, which we hear during Holy Week. Of all our readings, this portrays Christ in the least kingly of ways. The only thing that even remotely indicates kingship is the fact that the Roman authorities claim that they have executed the purported King of the Jews.

The entirety of Luke’s Gospel, from the birth narrative to the crucifixion, presents the most unlikely image of a king:

One who was no born in a palace, but in a manger.
One who does not wear a crown of gold and jewels, but a crown of thorns.
One who does not wear robes of velvet and ermine, but who is stripped naked.
One who is not showered with praise, but who was brutally beaten.
One who to whom leaders do not bow, but one whom they scoff.
One who is not guarded and protected by soldiers, but who is mocked by them.
One who is not surrounded by noble courtiers, but convicted criminals.
One who does not sit on a throne, but who hangs on a cross.
One who did not reign in glory, but who dies in defeat.

And here’s the rub. It is precisely because of the nature of this so-called defeat that Christ does now indeed reign in glory and victory. Through defeat in the form of his death – the death of an innocent man – death itself is defeated. Through this defeat in the form of his death, the power of sin has been defeated.

Jeremiah’s promise of a king who will rule with justice and righteousness is ironically fulfilled in an act of injustice and unrighteousness – in the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. It is in the cross that indeed justice and righteousness are made available to all humanity. It is the complete fulfillment of the promise of a God who likens himself to us, bridging the gap between him and us by becoming human in the form of Jesus. In the cross, the power of kingship, unlikely though it may seem in the moment, becomes accessible. For it is on the cross where he who is sinless takes on all our sins. Where through his death, the sinful become sinless. It is on the cross where he who is eternal takes on our mortality. Where through his death, mortality gives way to eternal life.

In response to exile and to the brokenness that the cross reveals, all three lessons show forth God’s intention to send a king who will set the world right. With Luke showing how that promise is brought to fulfillment in the most unlikely of ways.

While the concept of king may be antiquated, the notion of “Christ the King” is a relatively modern concept. Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925, in response to growing secularism. Christ the King is a title of Jesus Christ that refers to the concept of the Kingdom of God where the Christ is seated at the right hand of God as ruler of all creation. This is counter to the secular title of “King of the Jews” that the Roman authorities mockingly gave Jesus at his trial and crucifixion. In our own age of increasing secularism, this image of Christ the King perhaps has renewed meaning for us. Perhaps it must take on renewed meaning for us.

While the encyclical establishing the Feast of Christ the King was addressed to the Catholic Bishops, Pope Pius really wanted the Feast to have a particular impact on the laity. In his encyclical, Pope Pius wrote:

If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God. (Quas primas)

These words of Pope Pius neatly sum up just how Christ is King, and why our response is to revere him as such, even though antithetical to our modern lived experience. And what that response should be.

That “he must reign in our minds” as we go about our daily lives, analyzing and assessing what we experience and how we respond in light of his teachings. That “he must reign in our wills” as we consciously make his commandments a part of who we are and resolve to live accordingly. That “he must reign in our hearts” as we discern how to best live according to those teachings and to his example. That “he must reign in our bodies” as we have the courage to truly be the Body of Christ in the world. In this way, we subject ourselves to Christ completely and he truly becomes our King.

In uncertain times, such as we are living in as a nation, perhaps we need to rethink our views on kingship. Perhaps we need to rethink our relationship with Christ as our King – not dismissing it as an antiquated notion, but viewing it as a new way of being, a new way of living – not just within the church, but in all aspects of our lives.

No comments: