Christ the King
We’ve nearly made our way through another church year, but before we move into the season of Advent, we have one last bit of liturgical business to take care of: the Feast of Christ the King. The recognition of Christ the King as a Feast Day is not a particularly old tradition, at least not liturgically speaking; it only dates back to 1925. In the wake of the first world war, Pope Pius XI was concerned with the growing sense of post-war nationalism in Europe and he worried that this might lead to more conflict and pose a threat to the hope of peace lasting in Europe. Pius thought that the recognition of Christ’s Kingship, a King of both heaven and of earth, might help cultivate a political theology within the church, one that might counterbalance the type of nationalism that led to the first world war, a type of nationalism that prioritized allegiance to state and nation over the common calling of all European Christians to love one another. What an interesting idea! A liturgical project, complete with a new feast day, focused on strengthening the Church’s, and, hopefully in turn, society's commitment to God’s mission on Earth. A theme that would question the human inclination towards forming competing and warring factions, a theme intended to remind God’s people that the King of Kings did indeed have something to say about how nations might treat one another here on earth. Needless to say, this liturgical gesture, although certainly interesting, was not a triumph; the feast of Christ the King did not have the transforming effect that Pius had hoped for. The Western world would continue to struggle with nationalism, political projects (like the League of Nations, NATO, the UN and the European Union) would be formed to provide international systems of governance, organizations that sought to prioritize the common good over the interests of any one nation. In time, these political projects have all been confronted with the primal human inclination to act in favor of personal and national self-interest, especially when confronted with political or economic instability. This is our task this morning, our bookend to the liturgical year. We gather this morning to consider how the Kingship of Jesus Christ might inform our own disposition towards politics and government, towards our relationships with our neighbors and with other nations.
Royal imagery, especially here in America, bristles a bit against our own self-understanding; our nation was founded in part out of the rejection of an unjust monarchy. Early Americans, in their own complicated, flawed ways, fundamentally rejected a political system that placed the power to govern in the hands of an un-elected ruler, a person who received power through inheritance and not through the voice of the people. And historically speaking, when we might think of kings or queens, notable examples of fair and equitable governance rarely come to mind. Inherited absolute power does not seem to provide fertile ground for the cultivation of a just and equitable society, a society that might recognize the dignity and value of every human person.
There’s also a bit of biblical irony to the Feast of Christ the King. Historically, God had been reluctant to establish a monarchy in Israel. After Moses led God’s people to the doorstep of the promised land and then Joshua established the nation of Israel, the people did not coronate a King. Instead, in an act of very early representative government, twelve Judges were appointed to govern Israel. The judges collectively ruled the nation. This system of government was not without failure--how could it be--there were still instances of corruption and betrayal, acts of self-interest and greed. But the Judges were not immovable rulers; the Judges, when they failed, were removed and replaced. And interestingly, there is only one reported instance of a child succeeding their parent in the role of Judge. It seems as though there was a common sense aversion to dynastic systems of governance dictated by heredity. The implication seems to have been that governance was something that needed to be done in representative fashion, not in an inherited fashion. The tradition of Judges wouldn’t last. There were external threats to Israel: the Philistines to the south, the Ammonites to the east; these foreign powers had powerful Kings who wanted to go to war, to invade and to repossess Israel. The people of Israel felt this threat, and would eventually call for a King--a King that would protect them and project strength to enemies; that was the hope, at least. The book of Samuel recorded that, “[God’s] people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.” This seems to have been done with some element of reluctance; it certainly wasn’t the preferred option. But in typical, and unpredictable, fashion, God doesn’t call a King who was mighty in size or personality. He didn’t come from a wealthy or political family. He was the smallest son of a sheep herder, and he was the one who stood up to Goliath, the giant philistine soldier and defeated him with a sling and stone. King David was also a complicated ruler; in addition to establishing the Kingdom of Israel and restoring the nation, David also struggled with the dark site of unchecked power. He made plenty of unwise and unfortunate decisions, born out of self-interest. David was followed by a long line of Kings who, by the sixth century BCE, would lead Israel to its demise at the hands of the Babylonians. The prophet Jeremiah would write, 500 years after David’s death, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness." Israel attempted to install a monarchy that would be just and righteous, and it had failed. Jeremiah is suggesting that a day would come when a new type of King would be raised up; he would rule wisely, and would be just and righteous. He would come from the same humble and ordinary ancestral line as David and he would bring peace to God’s people.
In our Gospel reading this morning from Luke we pick up on this narrative; we find our King, not in comfort or in power, but at a place called the Skull. Golgatha. This is where we find the King of heaven and earth: not consolidating wealth and power, not peddling influence or building armies, but instead we find Jesus at the skull, a place where they executed criminals. If Jesus is a King, then his power and authority do not come from a royal blood line or a privileged birth but instead from being a humble servant and putting others first, from accepting death on the cross for a crime he didn’t commit, from being the incarnation of God’s love in the world. The succession of Jesus' royal dynasty is passed down to daughters and sons, but it’s not a dynasty of royal might but a dynasty of God’s love. In Jesus' kingdom, power is to be shared. Love is to be shared. Dignity is the inheritance of all. Jesus turned earthly monarchies, earthly power structures, upside down. The signs of Jesus' monarchy were not full coffers or towering border fences but a crown of thorns, wounded hands and feet, and a pierced side.
The Feast of Christ the King didn’t have the transforming effect on Europe that Pope Pius had hoped for. The second World War would break out shortly after the Pope’s death in 1939. The history of humanity has given us plenty of reasons to be weary of unjust kings and nationalism, to be weary of leaders who consolidate power and resources. Unfortunately, the Feast of Christ the King was not an antidote for ideologies that cultivate war. But it has provided the Church with a lasting opportunity to consider where we place our faith, what are those essential things that guide how we relate to our government, to other nations, and to our neighbors. Our own history as God’s people reminds us that being a just leader, or maybe a just King, in the kingdom of God looks a lot like being a servant. And we bestow the title of King on Jesus in all of its irony, because he was the manifestation of God’s humility, service and love; God’s hope that a great suffering servant might bring reconciliation to govern the earth.
Having honest and trustworthy leaders, chosen in a representative fashion, is critically important to the establishment of a fair and functioning society and our calling in the Christian faith is to be dual citizens, citizens of both heaven and earth. God calls us to be engaged in creating peace here on earth and to always remember that we are also citizens of heaven, and that our identity is formed by the faith, hope, and love that we find in Jesus. The collect appointed for today asks God to, “Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.” That’s our hope in Jesus, in Christ the King; that the grace of God would free all people from those things that separate us from God and from one another, that God’s love would restore and unite us into one people: citizens of both heaven and earth. Amen.