I got out my 1928 Prayer Book recently and found this Sunday listed under The Sunday Next Before Advent. In the 1920’s, while the Episcopal Church was celebrating The Sunday Next Before Advent, the Roman Catholic Church created Christ the King Sunday. Actually they celebrated it first in October, with an eye to countering the Lutherans’ Reformation Sunday. The Catholics said, in effect, “Go ahead and honor Luther on this day; we’ll honor Christ, who is our King.” Later they moved it to the last Sunday before Advent, and then the Episcopalians picked it up from there – even though our current Book of Common Prayer doesn’t label it as such. It’s just labeled Proper 29. Christ the King Sunday now is the culmination of our Sundays after Pentecost, the season that starts after Trinity Sunday, which follows Pentecost Sunday, which follows Easter Season. Complicated? That’s OK. There’s no quiz at the end of the sermon.
So. We’ve heard the stories of Jesus’ ministry in the world he called home. We listened as he called his disciples to follow him, as he challenged his hearers to a new life, as he proclaimed the promise of a new world. We’ve been able to see, in our mind’s eye, the mighty acts by which he announced that God’s power has come among us: the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear good news.
But as the old year wanes and the new year starts, the church shifts its attention. The celebration of the birth of Christ looms on the horizon, and Advent will call us to be still and prepare to confront the joy and promise of that good news. And every year now, before we leave behind the stories of Jesus’ ministry, we pause to celebrate his reign among us. This is the day: the day when we remember and proclaim that Christ is indeed King and Lord.
That’s pretty dangerous, when you think about it. King and Lord are terms easily distorted. We have to be careful as we use those terms to celebrate the truth about Jesus.
The problem is what kings and lords usually do is rule. King and Lord are words that have to do with power, power over others, power to make things happen. Words like these might make us think of another world, one of fantasy, romances, fairy tales when knights rode off to adventure, slew dragons, and swore allegiance to kings and lords who held the power of life and death over them.
But Jesus certainly has very little to do with kings and lords like those. In fact, the only encounter he ever had with that kind of kingly power cost him his life.
It happened in Jerusalem, a few days after he had ridden into the city to the shouts and cheers of the people. You know the story. They think Jesus is the king they are waiting for, and they greet him with the chant that is traditional for greeting royalty: Blessed is he comes in the name of the Lord! Ironic, isn’t it? Today we use that statement very differently. Now it is we who come in the name of that Lord.
But the powers that control Jerusalem do not take those cheers lightly. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, confronts this “king” who rode into the city on a donkey. With all the scorn he can muster, he asks Jesus, [sneer] “Are you the king of the Jews?” Of course it isn’t really a serious question. The only Jewish king Pilate will allow is a puppet whose authority depends on the Empire’s permission. Certainly a country carpenter with a gift of attracting attention is no threat to the might of the Empire!
“My kingship,” responds Jesus, “is not of this world.”
Pilate must have been delighted to hear those words, because the only power which interested Pilate and the Roman Empire was very much of this world. They had no use for any other kind of power or king. No wonder we hear that Pilate would have let Jesus go. If Jesus’ kingship is not of this world, he’s no threat to Pilate, to Rome, or to anyone.
But Pilate makes a big mistake. He misunderstands Jesus. He thinks Jesus is saying, ‘My kingship has nothing to do with this world.” But Pilate is wrong.
If Pilate had listened more carefully, he might have caught what Jesus meant: “My kingship is not from the world.” He wasn’t talking about where his authority is exercised, but where it comes from.
Pilate knows where Rome’s power lies. It depends upon a mighty war machine that took aim at one people after another, imposing Roman rule and Roman taxes, sweeping away whatever stood in its way.
Jesus, on the other hand, had no such power and they both knew it. No loyal troops waited outside to guarantee Jesus’ safety; no legions of angels were poised to save him from the cross. Nothing on earth, nothing from earth, could save Jesus from Pilate.
The only power Jesus has is God’s power; the only authority behind Jesus’ words is the authority of God; and yet that power is the power of life over death; it is the power of justice over the cruelty and barbarism of the cross. He has no earthly power at all; instead he speaks in God’s name, he heals and forgives and judges in God’s name. His authority – his Kingship – is not derived from any power on earth, but from the infinite depths of God’s powerful love.
God’s love is not derived from this world; but it most certainly matters to this world. Pilate misjudged Jesus. His kingship really did challenge Rome – and continues to challenge every empire which presumes to wield power in its own name. Christ the King continues to challenge every person who would lord it over others. Those who are in love with such power are in direct conflict with Jesus and his kingship.
Every domination of some human beings over others depends upon the selfish use of power. When men consider themselves more important or capable than women, power is making itself felt. And vice versa. When people of one race insist that they have the right to set limits on what people of another race may be or do, they are making themselves lords. When one nation claims the right to make decisions for other nations, it is imitating the Roman Empire of old. These are the ways of the world; this is how worldly power behaves when it gets the chance.
How different Jesus’ way is. What kind of king deliberately rides into a city seated on a donkey, that most unkingly creature? What kind of lord acts like the lowliest household servant, kneeling before his friends to wash their feet after a day in the dusty city streets? Jesus was certainly right: his kingship does not come from the world we know and live in. What kind of lord serves rather than dominates?
Jesus’ kingship is acted out in ministry and service; he is the king who embraces the sick, lifts up the crippled, touches a leper, befriends a Samaritan, notices the forgotten. Such kingship has absolutely nothing to do with wielding power; instead, it is the kingship of love. And that makes all the difference.
Jesus and Pilate are both right: such a king does not belong to the world. But such a king has everything to do with the world; because such a king challenges our world to be and to become something it has never been: a home fit for the children of God.
Only a planet on which the compassion and justice of Christ the King are commonplace is a setting worthy of creatures who bear God’s image and likeness. A human race degraded and abused by power is a scandal and affront to the God of life. A world filled with pain caused by human pride and might is an offense to the One who shows a better way. Witness, for example, our immigration system that detains immigrants in maximum security facilities such as the one in Tacoma – a private facility operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons – prison – where we would expect that people are sent following a fair trial, not where we expect to see families who come here with the expectation of safety, of at least adequate food and shelter separated and held without a fair, speedy hearing…
Until the kingship of this Jesus who is moved not by earthly power but by God’s love, until the kingship of the Jesus comes home to us, we will not be all that God means us to be. Our humanity will be stunted, deformed, and debased, because we were created to live under God’s reign, not under the pretensions of those who would lord over others.
Generations of the people of God have known something of that reign of love, even as they have suffered under the domination of human lords and masters. They have never lost their hope that one day we human beings will learn to follow, will choose to follow, a king who prefers donkeys to chariots or tanks.
Long before Jesus appeared among us, the prophet Daniel looked towards a time when God would reign. He dreamed his dream at a moment when the people of God were bent low under the yoke of oppression, and knew all too well the degree to which some human beings can abuse others. But Daniel foresaw that those powers fade and die, while God’s reign is forever. “His dominion is an everlasting dominion,” says Daniel, “which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
Pilate, a man who wielded power from this world, thought he understood Jesus; he believed it was safe to ignore him. He even thought Jesus could be destroyed. But Pilate was wrong. Pilate and his power are dust and ashes; the reign of Christ the King is based on God’s love, and that love is indeed forever. Amen