Christ the King Sunday
Gospel: Luke 23:33-43; First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6
This seems like an odd gospel for today. We’re almost gearing up for Christmas, the birth of Christ, and today we hear the story of his crucifixion. It feels like odd timing. But maybe it’s the perfect gospel for today.
“He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, the son of God!”
“If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!”
“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!
These three statements hearken back to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4) where the devil tempted Jesus with three questions, the last of which was to throw himself off the top of the temple and save himself. And then, in that story, since Jesus doesn’t give into the temptations, the devil leaves him “until an opportune time.” This surely seems like an opportune time. The humanity of Jesus must have been crying out to do it – to save himself, to get off of that cross and find glory another way, to show his kingship another way. But he didn’t.
Only through the cross do we find Christ the King. Jesus, triumphant, even in the midst of suffering and death, because it was only in his dying that God could raise him to resurrected life, making him king over death and life.
The image of Christ as king has been around for a long time, but the feast of Christ the King that we celebrate today was only instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI (a not-so-long time ago in the extent of church history). At that time in history, the world was recovering from World War I and many dictatorships were emerging,where one person claimed they had all power over others. In Italy, Mussolini had declared his dictatorship, Stalin was rising to power in Russia, and Hitler in Germany. Pope Pius XI wanted to help the people reclaim Christ as king, instead of some human ruler like these dictators. He set forth this feast day, Christ the King, in 1925 hoping to help the church see that it has the right to freedom and immunity from the state, that leaders and nations would see that they are bound to give respect to Christ, and that the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, and be reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies. (Quas Primas)
Essentially, if Christ is king, there can be no other, and we must serve him above all others. That is the intent of this day. We in the west don’t really like the “king” language. It makes us uncomfortable. And we don’t really know how to live into it since we don’t live under a monarchy. But it is worth us considering what it means for us to call Christ king, thus not giving that title to any other person or thing. It means that Christ is our dominating authority, instead of our family or friends or country or ourselves. That doesn’t mean we don’t also value those other things, but that Christ is the head. He alone is our guide and strength.
There are many different examples of kingship, and many different analogies. In the first reading, we heard Jeremiah talking about shepherds, which was one analogy for kings at that time. In Jeremiah, he began by saying, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the Lord.” He is referring to the kings of his day, kings who were not doing their job in caring for the people. They were worried more about their own well-being, pleasure, and status than the people they were called to lead. Jeremiah’s prophecy is calling out these kings, and declaring God’s judgement against them. As the bad kings have driven the people away, so God will do to them. And God will raise up good kings who will lead the people with justice and equity, one of which will be King David. Jeremiah reminds us that God is faithful and working for good things, even in the midst of bad leadership and injustice.
God’s faithfulness extends even from and through the cross. As we’ll sing in a bit in our hymn, Jesus is a different kind of king. He wasn’t the kind to rule with an army or displays of power. He didn’t sit above his subjects, but interacted with all people, bringing healing, life, and forgiveness, even from the cross.
I want to read to you a quote from theologian Robert Capon about this disorienting picture of Jesus as king and messiah – that he isn’t what we want or expect. He “presents a wonderful picture of our typical American Messiah, and it doesn’t look much like Jesus on the cross,” which is our image today for Christ as king.
The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman: “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way.” … [It’s as if we believe] Jesus — gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than‑human insides — bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven… [You think that’s funny? Don’t laugh.] The human race is, was and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. We don’t want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: He claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying.”[pp. 90-91; this book has been reprinted, along with two other books under the title The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology], Bold mine; original use of quote found here: http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke23x33.htm
It is a bit sobering to put our image of Superman Jesus in such vivid terms. It’s an image of Jesus that is problematic in many ways, and it gets us into trouble. Death and resurrection are central to Jesus’ story, to his messiahship and his kingship. Jesus didn’t hop off the cross. Jesus wasn’t invincible. Jesus didn’t come so life would be easy or safe or simple for us. In many ways, he said life would be just the opposite, as we heard in last Sunday’s gospel.
As king, Jesus does all kinds of things an earthly king would never dream of. He interacts with the low-lifes, heals people, calls out oppression and injustice, calls out the system in its failures, and ultimately dies on a cross, practicing forgiveness even there for his perpetrators. As our king, Jesus gives us a much different example of leadership to follow, one of service, love, grace, and mercy. As part of his kingdom, as his followers, we can trust in his goodness, his faithfulness, his forgiveness. If they extend even from the cross, surely they extend to all. That is good news worth sharing.