So You Are a King?
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Welcome to Christ the King Sunday. Frankly, of all the images we’re given of Jesus, this one might be the most seemingly absurd. It might even beat the blonde-haired, blue-eyed “senior portrait” that hung for years in my grandmother’s living room. How did we get from a homeless Middle Eastern rabbi to a king complete with crown and throne? What do we gain by dressing him up in such fairytale garb? Perhaps this is a celebration we’ve outgrown, that we don’t do Jesus any favors by consigning him to “once upon a time.”
It’s a fair argument, except that today’s celebration isn’t some treasured old chestnut of the church. It’s not even a century old. The church didn’t start celebrating Christ the King Sunday until Pope Pius XI established it in 1925. Episcopalians only adopted it within the last several decades. And for once, this wasn’t about us baptizing our own hunger for power. With one world war already fought and another on the way, with the slow rise of fascism and the kings of this earth demanding exclusive loyalty, Pius took a stand by asserting Christ as King above all. Knowing the attractions of retaliation and violence when nations rise up against each other, he called us to our ultimate citizenship – which is not to country – but to a kingdom of every tribe and language and people and nation where a Lamb is seated on the throne.
I’m not saying this is an easy sell. I doubt even Jesus’ most celebrated ancestor, King David, would have recognized Jesus as a proper king. We’re given David’s last official words in today’s first reading, complete with the arrogance we’d expect from someone who was told repeatedly that he was “the favorite of the Strong One of Israel.” Regardless, he starts out alright: “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.”
Setting aside David’s self-serving portrayal of his own legacy, this image says something about how God’s kingdom can work in this world – and the roles we can play. The power might not come from here, but it’s certainly felt here – in the form of warmth or light or in being washed clean. And as Jesus will later remind us, this kind of sun and rain falls on the just and the unjust. They cause new life to grow wherever they fall, and they cannot be confined to any one place or time or country. We can’t command the sun to shine just on us, or to make the rain fall here and not somewhere else. And yet, as strong as these forces are, sun and rain alone don’t make things grow. They need the right seeds, the right soil, and sometimes at least, the right human choices along the way to make things flourish. So it is in Christ’s kingdom. God might create the right conditions for us, but God won’t force us to grow. Some decisions are up to us, whether we want them to be or not.
David’s next images are undoubtedly harsher, but they hold some truth too. He compares the “ungodly” or unjust rulers to thorns. Personally, I think the comparison holds up. In the name of protection or “law and order”, thorns can end up choking life rather than preserving it. And unlike sturdier stuff like iron, thorns aren’t strengthened or purified by fire. Tests merely reveal their weakness. So it is with many of our earthly kings – and many of us. What we do as individuals or as a country in the name of protection or defense can sometimes do more harm than good. Out of fear of things that might test us, we are tempted to build walls that isolate us from others – when challenges can be exactly what we need to build and reveal our strength.
So where does this leave us? What do we do with a kingdom that isn’t defined by force and that doesn’t need to be defended with violence? And what does it mean for how we think about our country or homeland, to whom we also have loyalty? Pilate has a hard time with this in today’s Gospel as well. He doesn’t know what to do with Jesus. What kind of king rejects violence, even when threatened, and testifies to the truth, even at the cost of his own life? When we’re honest, we don’t know what to do this kind of king either. We want someone who will keep us safe – even if it means employing violence (especially when we don’t have to see it). We want someone who’ll promise to fix the intractable problems of our day, even when we know we’re asking too much of them – and too little of ourselves. And when our leaders inevitably fail to live up to the promises we’ve forced them to make, we want someone to blame – a target for our fear and our anger. A king works well in this capacity – whether it’s our earthly kings or the King of kings and Lord of lords. They keep us from looking at ourselves.
Where did we get this image of Christ as King, if it’s so misguided? I’m not sure it is, but we’ll get to that. I suppose we can blame Revelation for it, at least in part. It’s here in our second reading that we’re given the image of Jesus as the “ruler of the kings of the earth;” it’s in this book where the throne and crown imagery start to go into overdrive. It seems like a big leap from the convicted criminal in today’s Gospel to Christ as ruler of all. Here’s how I understand it:
If the crucifixion embodies the worst of what we can do to each other – and I think it does, if it’s the perfect expression of how the kingdoms of this world work when driven by fear – and I think it is, then the resurrection is God’s response to that. And if the risen Christ is the faithful witness to what God wants for us – namely, freedom from the powers of sin and death and fear, freedom to love and serve others beyond the interests of country, then he’s the perfect one to embody that hope and lead the charge. It makes sense for us to be loyal to that kind of kingdom and, yes, to call him our king.
For all its difficulties, the image of Christ as King can give us hope that now is not all there is, that the way things are is not as it’s meant to be, that there’s still something to work for and grow into; that despite all appearances, the arc of the universe really is bent toward justice. Christ as King can help us imagine a power that falls like the sun or rain – on the just and the unjust – a power that transcends oceans and cultures and national boundaries. His example is what motivates us to stand up for other people’s children – and their right to live free from violence and fear - when, otherwise, we’d only consider our own safety. His kingdom might not be from here, but it can be felt and experienced here – whenever we offer our ultimate citizenship to the One who commands love and compassion from us. This isn’t about enshrining the past or baptizing the present or committing ourselves to a fairytale; it’s about giving us a future worth living toward and a God who can be trusted to lead us there.
In the silence that follows, I invite you to consider what citizenship in the kingdom of God demands of us – in how we treat each other, in who needs our welcome, and in how we respond to anyone who claims that something else should come first. In the Name of the One who calls us to a love and loyalty beyond tribe or language or people or nation – Amen.