Christ the King Sunday
22 November 2009
Happy Christ the King Sunday!That doesn’t have a great ring to it, does it?
Okay. How about this:Happy Reign of Christ Sunday!
No? What about: Happy last Sunday of the Christian year?
None of these sounds quite right. We are not all that accustomed to celebrating this Sunday as any kind of special day. We are getting ourselves ready for Thanksgiving, and then Advent, and then, finally, Christmas. It is just much easier to simply say, “Happy Holidays.”
But this morning is, in the context of the Christian calendar, a pretty big deal. Our Christian year ends now, and next week we circle back around to the beginning, with the first Sunday of Advent. This last Sunday is a sort of zenith – the whole Christian year moves towards this day, a reminder that Christ’s lordship over the whole world draws us forward; his reign is the goal of human history, the fulfillment of our hopes and of our purpose.[i]
It’s possible that all of that sounds largely irrelevant to your life. Lordship? Kingship? Christ’s reign? We have more immediate, more pressing, and more mundane things to worry about these days, don’t we? Not to the mention that, as Americans, we rejected the whole notion of a king a couple of centuries ago. The word “king” sounds archaic. It is all out of keeping with how we see our reality. We prefer our autonomy. We prefer our democracy. We do not intend to submit to some authority other than our own selves.
We are like the woman in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. When King Arthur introduces himself to her as her king, she responds, “I didn’t know we had a king… I thought we were an autonomous collective.” Then a man explains to King Arthur how the people in their collective take turns being the executive officer, and how that officer’s decisions have to be ratified by a majority in special bi-weekly meetings. It sounds quite like a Baptist church!
But King Arthur pronounces again, “I am your king!” To which the woman responds, “Well I didn’t vote for you!”
We didn’t vote for one either, did we? We do not want a king. We do not think we need a king. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do. We want to build our own lives, and we want to protect whatever power we’ve got.
Jesus is a threat to all that. He has always been a threat. The religious leaders of his day were well aware of the threat he posed, and they intended to do something about it. In their desperation, they colluded with their oppressors, the Romans. Pontius Pilate was, by historical accounts, a harsh, mean-spirited ruler who scorned his subjects. But when power is threatened, unlikely alliances are born. So the Jewish leaders, and the Roman who ruled them, cooperated in the squashing what they both thought was a subversion of their authority. And though he never intended to become the king they thought he was trying to be, they were right about this – he was a threat.
In today’s Gospel story, we are brought into the headquarters of political power. The religious leaders themselves did not enter those headquarters, so as not to be ritually defiled. They were the ones who made sure he was arrested and tried, but they did not want their own hands to get dirty in the process. And isn’t this often the way we use power against others? – cleanly, invisibly, at a distance.
Pilate now stands alone with Jesus, in the inner sanctuary of political power. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks. Here is where religion and politics come together in the trial of Jesus. The Romans knew that the Jewish messianic hopes posed a threat to their governance of Judea. If Jesus is claiming a throne among Jews, then he could be planning a rebellion against Roman rule. Pilate’s question is about sedition, it’s about insurrection. There is fear of revolution when he asks his question: “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answers the question with a question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Can Pilate act out of his own inner authority, or only as a politician, responding to the whims of public opinion? Jesus’ question shows who is really on trial here, and who is really the judge.
“I am not a Jew, am I?” Pilate responds, dripping with contempt for the people he governs. And yet this trial will show that he is just like the people he disdains, rejecting and resisting the real revolution that Jesus means to bring. Pilate pushes further, asking Jesus, “What have you done?”
“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus replies. But Pilate does not grasp that Jesus does not operate from the same framework that he does. Pilate does not understand that Jesus isn’t trying to seize a throne or claim political power. Pilate cannot think beyond traditional power structures or conventional understanding. “So you are a king?” he demands.
“You say that I am a king,” Jesus replies. And this is the way it has always been, isn’t it? No matter who a person really is, we try to put them into our own categories of understanding. No matter who Jesus really was, or really is, we try to fit him into our own little understandings. He is so much more than out little categories and conventions, but we insist. Insist on making him smaller. Insist on fitting him to what we can understand, and manage. Insist on shackling him to our own perceptions of power, of religion, of ourselves, and of the world.
This is not what he came for. He did not come to fit into what we think we know. He did not come to prop up our power or our perceptions or our religion or even our understanding of God. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world,” he says, “to testify to the truth.”
He came to show us the truth of God’s heart and God’s being. In him, God was present, unveiled, undistorted.[ii] God’s love for us, God’s longing for us, God’s unfailing mercy towards us – these things have always been true. There is more, too. There are depths of mystery that we cannot begin to comprehend. Words are not high enough, not deep enough, not big enough to contain God’s truth. That truth had to be poured into a life. “I am the truth,” Jesus once said. It is not our doctrines about him that are the truth, He is the truth.
The truth in that life smashed traditional concepts of religion and power. It subverted understandings and institutions. It compelled individuals to lay aside their own plans and follow. And it finally bore its highest witness by laying itself down for others. That truth was lifted up on a cross, snuffed out and sealed in a tomb. But even death could not swallow up the truth. It burst forth.
We still struggle to make sense of that. We mostly fail. Our minds and our words, our doctrines and our understandings, are simply not big enough to hold all that truth, in all its mystery and complexity and vastness and beauty.
The only thing that can hold ultimate truth is another life – yours, mine. God’s truth came to us not as a proposition, but as a person. We respond to it, then, personally. We reach for it not with intellectual understanding, but by living it, by trying to put our trust in it, in him. By abiding in him. We let His being become our being, too. We let him in.
To proclaim Christ as King is to acknowledge that the Truth reigns, in our world and in our own lives. It is to say that whatever the political machinations, whatever the cultural whims and societal trends and economic fluctuations, whatever power seems to prevail at the moment, Christ, who is the Truth, will ultimately subvert anything that does not move towards peace, mercy, liberation, embrace, compassion. To say that Christ is King, to say that Jesus is the Truth, is to say that, in the end, God’s ways of love and mercy and goodness will prevail. To say that Christ is King is to say that we want the Truth of God’s love to have final say over everything in our own lives too. Where there is hatred in our world or in our hearts, love will win. Where there is chaos or fear or conflict – in our world or in our hearts - peace will prevail. Where there is despair, or cynicism, or grief – hope will have the last word. Where there is bondage, there will be liberation. Where there is greed, generosity will emerge. Where there is pain, compassion will blossom. Jesus came to testify to a reality beyond what we see. When we say that Christ is King, what we mean is that in the end, that reality will take hold. And in the meantime, we will participate in that reality, even when it does not look so real.
He stands now as he did then, in the inner sanctuary of our power, our lives, saying still: “Here is what I came for: to testify to the truth.” Every day we have a choice. Will we live as if that truth is what is real?
He came to testify to the truth, and now we must decide. The radical truth he came to show us was only love and grace. It shames all our powers – political, economic, military, intellectual, religious, moral. It subverts our conventions, questions our claims, threatens our status quo, challenges our autonomy and our self-centeredness. It awakens hope. It inaugurates a new reality. It makes possible what seemed impossible. All it asks is that we give ourselves to it, give ourselves to the truth of God’s self-giving love. Can we listen to such a voice as his? Belong to his truth? Live our lives by its absurd calculations of love?
He is the one asking the questions now. Our living is our answer.
[i] Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II, cited in A. Adam, The Liturgical Year [New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1981], 179, noted in Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B [Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press, 1993], 474.
[ii] Paul Tillich. The New Being. http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=375&C=21