Christ the King Sunday
It would probably be more appropriate to call this gloriously named Sunday “Christ the Shepherd Sunday” rather that Christ the King Sunday. The Old Testament lesson for today certainly suggests that impression, staying with the shepherd metaphor in vivid and dramatic language, focusing on God as the Great Shepherd, a description and promise eventually leading to a human shepherd, David. But then David became a king evolving into the best-known and best-loved king of ancient Israel. His name became a symbol of a great king – great but not saintly – not with his many wives, his dysfunctional children, and constant, unending wars.
The New Testament lesson, by contrast, paints a picture of a glorified Christ raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God “in the heavenly places.” While the word “king” doesn’t enter in this narrative, the language of the passage is filled with power beyond that of kings and emperors. Paul’s own epistles don’t use the name of “king” which is found only in 1 Timothy, but Timothy was likely written much later than the time of Paul. Of course the book of Revelation is filled with kingly images, as is to be expected because that is apocalyptic writing. It’s nearly impossible for those of us steeped in the glorious melodies of Handel’s Messiah to think of Revelation without hearing the triumphant words from the 24th Psalm: Lift up your heads, O gates / Lift them high, O everlasting doors, / And the King of glory shall come in. / Who is the King of glory? / The Lord strong and mighty, / The Lord mighty in battle.
However the Gospels don’t use that rather militaristic triumphalism. So how did this image of Christ as the King come about?
We first encounter the title “king” in Mathew’s lovely story of the Magi’s visit to the infant Jesus. The wise visitors, accustomed to the great potentates of the East, come looking for a child born to be “king of the Jews.” But Herod, a once great man, but now a troubled one, is already the king of the Jews by order of the occupying Roman government. He had done a great deal of good for Israel, but now he is old. Well, I guess just being old isn’t so bad. But now he isn’t just old, but by this time he has killed his wife and his children so that he can hang on to the throne. When he hears of the purpose of the Magi’s visit, he is terrified. Who is this child born to be king? Gosh – king. The image he leaves with us of what a king ought to be is a rather miserable one, isn’t it?
In Matthew’s gospel, a child is called king of the Jews, and no one in his immediate family seems very surprised while the Magi are recounting ancient prophecies. The myth of David’s succession runs strong through the ages of Hebrew history and hope. Yet the same title will be used thirty-three years later, written on a tablet with a vicious ironic intention , a tablet nailed at the top of the cross where the child, now a grown man, is hanging between two thieves. In the starkest language, we have the story of the greatest tragedy, one we can barely wrap our minds around.
What did the grown Jesus, the wise teacher and most appealing prophet, do with the title “king”? He used it in his parables. In his stories we don’t have triumphant kings glorious in battle. Instead we are given examples of kings who make difficult decisions based on justice; kings who give banquets where everyone is invited, and finally we are presented with this magisterial image of a king who bestows apocalyptic justice in the 25th chapter of Mathew.
This parable, called the Great Judgment, is so familiar to all those who understand what it means to serve. This is a tough parable, without sentimentality, without evasions. We hear no trumpet calls and no triumphalism. Here humility reigns.
All the teachings of Jesus find a culmination in this parable. The one who taught us that “the last shall be first” presents the king as bringing to his right hand, which is a position of honor, those who have lived a life that honored others above their own selfish needs. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The king invites into the heavenly realm those who paid attention to the poor by giving them clothes to wear and food to eat. This king opens his kingdom to those who saw human injustice and took the time to visit the ones who were imprisoned unjustly. This king praises those who welcomed the stranger and the migrant by offering them hospitality and shelter. And they did it all, not knowing that in the process of feeding, clothing, and welcoming, they were responding to the Giver of all good things – Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
This is a radically different image of a king for those who were listening to Jesus in the first century – and for those of us today as well. Of course our world today is not a political utopia, to say the least, So many people know what It is to live under the leadership of persons who promote greed and selfishness instead of compassion and humility. This Jesus ate with the poor and with outcasts. He honored women while elevating the worth of little children. This Jesus, this king, does not appear holding a sword but instead hangs on a bloodied cross.
Christ the King Sunday. It sounds royal; we think of jeweled crowns, gold ermine robes, opulent thrones. Celebrating Christ the king brings to mind the sound of trumpets and extravagant hymns, splendid processions. The contrast with the life of Jesus is jarring and troubling. However it becomes easier to accept when we realize that this Sunday is a very late addition to the church’s liturgical calendar. Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925. Just 98 years ago.
One of my favorite authors is Dorothy Sayers, who is characterized as a brilliant Anglican writer and theologian. At the moment my bedtime reading is one of her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. I just realized that Dorothy Sayers was born in 1925 – the same year that the Pope instituted Christ the King Sunday. Is there a coincidence here? Or an intention? In the mid-40’s she wrote a series of radio plays entitled The Man Born to Be King. In one of the plays when the Magi visit Mary and Joseph and the baby to offer gifts of great value, Mary wonders about what it all means. One of them tells her: “I speak for a sorrowful people – for the ignorant and the poor. We rise up to labor and lie down to sleep and night is only a pause between one burden and another. Fear is our daily companion – the fear of want, the fear of war, the fear of cruel death and of still more cruel life. But all this we could bear if we knew that we did not suffer in vain; that God was beside us in the struggle, sharing the miseries of His own world.”
The Son of Man, as Jesus referred to himself, proved through his own death that he is beside us in the struggle, sharing our suffering and our miseries. At a time of Covid, of unrest that we see on the news all over the world, of hospitals being bombed, of shootings and kidnappings, we can take comfort and hope, for Jesus, who rules like a shepherd with love, who looks at each of us with love, is the kind of humble king we can also love and trust.