Today is a special day here at St. Luke’s. Today we finally finish the season of Pentecost, which began way back in June. Because this is the last day of the church year, it is the culmination of the entire story of Jesus from his birth to his death, and it proclaims his position as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We call this day the Feast of Christ the King. But Jesus was never a king in the way we usually understand the word. In fact, we probably don’t have a strong positive reaction to the word, “King.” For one thing, we citizens of the United States have been very clear that we do not need or want an earthly king. We have fought numerous wars to establish our independence and to protect our freedoms. We have committed our men and women of the armed services to the defeat of dictators, potentates and tyrants who would use and abuse their own populace for self-interest and greed.
None of us is interested in kowtowing to an all-powerful human monarch, and yet we have our kings in America in varying degrees of worthiness. We’ve got our own political dynasties. We still talk about the time when Kennedy was president as Camelot. JFK with all his human weaknesses represented for many a sort of modern day King Arthur. Remember how we refer to Elvis? The basketball team in Sacramento is called the Kings. Then there is the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. We make kings out of athletes, musicians and politicians, but none of us would ever want to swear absolute allegiance to these flawed human beings.
What do we mean when we refer to Jesus as King? We call the cross which has an image of the risen Christ on it the Christus Rex, from the Latin, meaning Christ the King. It shows Jesus in his resurrected form with a crown upon his head. The Christus Rex proclaims that Jesus is King because he has gone through death and is gloriously alive in the Kingdom of Heaven. He still bears the nail holes, reminders of his suffering, but he wears the crown of triumph.
But that is not the usual view of kingship. Pilate was the Roman procurator, responsible for ruling the Jewish population of Judea from 26-36 A.D. He knew exactly what being a King meant. When he heard Jesus referred to as the King of the Judeans, the Jewish people living around Jerusalem, he knew he was hearing a threat to his power and influence. There can only be one temporal ruler, and Pilate was skilled enough to make sure that ruler would be him. He wielded power through intimidation and fear and force. He had soldiers at his command and wasn’t afraid to use them to accomplish his purposes. He held the power of life and death for the Jewish citizens under his control.
But he didn’t hold that power over Jesus. Jesus could not be intimidated or threatened by Pilate. He knew of a different kingdom, the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is not geographical or political or time-bound. It is the realm where God’s love, mercy and justice prevail. It exists when a person so loves and follows God that their final security and trust is in God alone. For that reason, the Kingdom is best seen in the life of Jesus. But it is also present in relationships between people where real love and compassion create connections that are true and lasting. Love is at the heart of God’s kingdom–a love that lasts forever, a love that not even death can destroy.
When we are baptized, it symbolizes a new allegiance for us. We have been transferred into God’s Kingdom. Our obedience is to another master—not to a tyrant or a flawed human being–but to Christ the Good Shepherd who promises to lead and guide us through this life and to carry us into the life that is to come. Jesus the King is the servant of all.
Instead of demanding from others, he gives himself freely and completely, even unto death. Instead of exalting himself, he lifts up the weak and vulnerable, the suffering and sorrowful. Instead of manipulating others for his own purposes, Jesus is a servant to the truth and in him we can honestly be ourselves. He reminds us that the first will be last and the last will be first. He went through death for our sake, and is the firstborn of the dead so that we might know eternal life.
For while we are alive, we exist in the now and the not yet. We can imagine and catch glimpses of what God’s kingdom is, but much of our world is in conflict with that reality. It is difficult to follow Christ’s example of compassion and forgiveness. It’s hard to give up our own desires in order to serve and care for others. We constantly strive and then fail to be true followers of Jesus.
The world is filled with figures who want to establish their own rule through violence, force, manipulation and lies. There are those who are hungry for power and influence and will stop at nothing to gain it. There are those whose followers are fighting and killing in order to destabilize and terrorize whole populations. Others tell untruths so that they can promote their own version of reality and gain political influence. There are many who would be king. Their rule will always be temporal and temporary. Every human ruler will die or be deposed.
When I walked the Camino through northern Spain this September, I visited a number of glorious cathedral churches. Often the altar was dwarfed by an elaborate set of carvings and sculptures that rose from the floor to nearly the ceiling and covered the entire space behind the chancel. Amazingly, every surface would be covered in real gold and other precious materials. There were always statues in the niches and the most important ones were directly in the center. I was surprised to find that a statue of a king or earthly ruler was often featured prominently. This was probably done to gain favor with the current ruler or because that king had been a patron of that particular congregation. Money, power and influence have certainly corrupted the church many times.
In response church leaders commissioned sculptures of Jesus sitting on a throne with all the trappings of an earthly king. This image of a large, imposing figure with a crown, scepter and fine robe is what some think of when they hear the phrase Christ the King. I don’t think Jesus ever had these competing images for earthly power in mind when he said, “My kingdom is not from this world.” His example as a servant king who offers himself on behalf of others is what has lasted throughout the centuries and calls us as his followers to listen to his voice.
The challenge is to answer the call in our own lives and our own generation. Where does our allegiance lie? Will we serve self or others? Will we follow Jesus or be led astray by other influences. Can we offer our own lives sacrificially for the good of others? What kingdom holds sway over us? It is our choice. We can make our lives count so that at the end it will be said of us, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
With faith, hope and love,