Christ the King Sunday. Not a particularly popular holiday. We don’t get time off work to celebrate. We don’t have parades. We don’t give gifts or send cards. In fact, most people are more likely to say: “Huh?” And I am talking about church people.
So when I say the word, “king,” what do you think of? Some of us may think of the rather foolish kings of the fairy tales:
Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three….?
Or the king who appeared in parade with no clothes because the weavers and his advisors told him that the clothes were beautiful? Or maybe the image that comes to mind is King Arthur and his knights of the round table – an honorable man, called by the wizard because of his great character and love. Or, to stay in the British Isles, maybe you think of Henry the VIII, who is famous first for his six wives, and as a side story, for creating the Church of England, with himself as the head. It was he who ensconced the “divine right of kings” into the British philosophy of governance.
Let’s talk a little bit more about this concept of the divine right of kings. Just what is it and where did it come from? Wikipedia: The divine right of kings, …is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other estate of the realm. It implies that only God can judge an unjust king and that any attempt to depose, dethrone or restrict his powers runs contrary to the will of God and may constitute a sacrilegious act. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_right_of_kings
Where did the concept of the divine right of kings come from? It is an ancient concept. Go back to ancient myths of Egypt, Greece, Rome. They all have the thread of the king being selected and empowered by God, even in some cases kings actually become gods. The Christian story goes back at least to Samuel anointing the kings of Israel, first Saul, then David. And the anointing is so powerful that even David would not raise his hand against Saul because he was “the Lord’s anointed.” By the middle ages, the church assigned infallibility to the power of the Pope as God’s ruler, descending from Peter, given authority through Jesus. It didn’t take Henry VIII long to make the parallel between the spiritual power given to the Pope and the worldly power given to kings, like himself.
For us as Americans, this sounds prickly, unfair, unjust, and well…, just plain wrong! Most U.S. citizens have not been too keen on kings since the days of George III! Our country was built on the belief that all humans are created equal, and have rights not even a king can take away. And in this post-election season, the people are girding their hearts to make their voices heard and to protect their rights if the elected leaders threaten to limit them. We are a nation of “power to the people.”
So today, we celebrate Christ the King! Church people must be crazy to celebrate this! We do not celebrate giving up our rights! But the Bible talks a lot about Jesus as King. How can we possibly understand that, or live into it?
Perhaps, “Christ the King” is an unfortunate choice of words. Using the term “king” to describe Jesus threatens to miss the whole point of the gospel. We tend to understand it in the obvious sense. Jesus is King, instead of whatever current king might reign. And when this was written, they indeed knew about kings and suffered under them. But the gospel isn’t about trading the evil, harsh, Roman rulers for a Son of God’s rule, with all the same rights and privileges of kings. No. That would wreak havoc on Jesus’ life and teachings.
Christ is King, not in the sense of bringing a new dictator to power, even an unimaginably generous dictator! So when we come to the apocalyptic Bible readings at the end of the church year – today – we get confused. The surface reading of these texts sound revolutionary, like Jesus will come and wipe out former kings and install himself as king. We will finally have a king who is on our side! Who will take revenge on the evil despots we have experienced in our lives. Who will return justice and fairness to us. Who will tell us, “We are the best, the winners, the ones on his side.”
This is what the disciples wanted and what the Jews expected, and – let’s be honest – what we want or expect.
But Jesus is not king like this. How starkly apparent this is in the church’s choice of this morning’s gospel reading. Jesus is proclaimed king, King of the Jews, as he is tortured and crucified. Yet, it seems that the gospel is telling us in this story that even now, at this point of his crucifixion, Jesus is king. Clearly a different kind of king! A dying king. And a welcoming king.
What is the last act of Jesus’ human life? To welcome into the kingdom – right now, today – a criminal, probably a murderer. Not one of the disciples. Not someone who was a follower, a preacher, one who dedicated his life to Jesus’ way. Nope. A criminal! Sounds like an inauspicious start. But it wasn’t the start. The kingdom of God had been welcoming folks like him forever.
That is because the kingdom of God, of which Jesus is king, is not a replacement for oppressive kingdoms, but a realm within, under, through the earthly power structures which continue to exist. Jesus is king of a whole new realm, actually, a whole new culture, society, way of living. Not one based on power, but one based on love and mercy. And that kingdom, as he said over and over and over again, is here now. Right now! Here! In Jerusalem 2000 years ago. In England when Henry VIII was around. In the United States – whether led by a Bush or a Clinton, an Obama or a Trump. The same realm is here.
What does this mean? Well, I think it means that God is present, powerfully present, right here. All we have to do is ask God to remember us, and we are surrounded by the loving arms of God. Actually, God is already holding us, but it sure is nice to have Jesus say it out loud, like he did for the criminal. We don’t have to do anything – right or wrong – to be embraced in God’s love. We are embraced now, as we face life-threatening challenges. We are embraced now, whether our side wins or loses. We are embraced now, whether this church building stands or falls, whether we meet our budget or not. The kingdom, the final presence of God, is unswayed by comings or goings, fallings or risings, winners or losers. The final presence of God is everything. The Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
That’s why we have Christ the King Sunday on the last day of the worship calendar — today. So that we have the opportunity to remember that the criminal on the cross entered Paradise, that Jesus went through to life along with him. And what happened to the other criminal? Was he rejected because he fell in with the crowds who were taunting Jesus? The story, I think, intentionally silent on this point. Perhaps because it would be too hard to comprehend. But given what we know about Jesus’ life and teachings, given that he had already forgiven those who were crucifying him (v. 34), given what we know about the upside down kingdom Jesus taught, how do you think Jesus responded to the other criminal? …It would not be in Jesus’ character to judge a miserable, dying man.
In heralding the coming kingdom of God, Jesus was not advocating regime change. Rather, Jesus was announcing the advent of an entirely different way of being in relationship with each other and with God. I know it is here when I see people of widely varying opinions sit together in this sanctuary and love each other. I know it is here when the children are included and known just like adults. I know it is here when I hear the ancient words and see the light at Night Prayer. No more divisions, only life. Consider for a moment – where are you seeing the kingdom of God among us? …
In the end, Christ is king – the way of Jesus’ kingdom will be the way of the world, the way all humans, all God’s creatures – even the trees of the field and the very foundation rocks which hold, us will live. And “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and the serpent will get food from the dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (Isaiah 65:25).
Christ is King. May it be so in our deepest souls. May it be so on this corner of 55th and Belmont. May it be so in Portland, Oregon. May the realm of God’s presence be known in the United States, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in troubled European nations, in the simple villages of Africa, in the crowded urban cities of South America. May the realm of God take root and give life. We trust today, that it will be so, that it is so – now!
Thanks be to Jesus, who lives and reigns with God the Creator and the Holy Spirit of life, one God, now and forever. Amen.