Sunday, November 22, 2009

Christ the King...

It's shorter than i had hoped for, but as the saying goes, the key to effective speaking is to say what you came to say and sit down.

John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

This is the Word of the Lord.

The church calendar marks this Sunday as Christ the King Sunday, or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. As church festivals go, this is a pretty recent one, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, either as a concession to Mussolini or as a response to growing nationalism and secularism, depending on whose account you read. Its statement is simple: Whatever our country, our rulers, our philosophies or ideologies or beliefs or mores, none of these can or should be the center of our focus, the foundation of our lives. Christ alone must hold that office, that place in our lives. Christ alone is King.

Here's something interesting, though: Jesus never called himself King! In fact, over and over in Scripture, we see Jesus removing himself from situation where the crowd wanted to make him king by force, and in our Gospel reading today, Jesus never says, “Why yes, I am a king, thanks for asking.” If anything, in this whole account of the trial before Pilate, the title of “king” is used in an ironic sense.

You see, however sympathetically we tend to view Pilate in these readings – poor guy, torn between the bloodthirsty Jewish mob and the obviously innocent Nazarene nobody – Pilate was, by all historical accounts, just as violent, cruel, greedy and self-serving as any other governor or ruler or king in the Empire. He crushed people under the weight of taxes. He killed whoever got in his way. You followed his rules or you rued the day you were born. After all, anyone who employs, in crucifixion, a form of execution in which breaking your legs is seen as a merciful act is not a sympathetic figure.

And the people of the time understood this because that's what kings, what Roman governors, what despots and rulers from time immemorial and the world over did. Kings rule by fear and by force. They make treaties when it serves their interests, and break them when those interests are no longer served. They fight wars to gain territory, and live in luxury at the expense of their subjects. Even David, the model of Godly leadership in the eyes of the Jewish people in first-century Palestine, allowed the power of his office to corrupt him, to change him. As much an example of Godly leadership as he may have been, he also personified, in many ways, all that was wrong about unlimited power in the hands of fallible human beings.

The picture of Christ as King before Pilate flies in the face of this. If Christ is King, he is Christ the King under arrest and being interrogated. He is Christ the King being held hostage, a royal political prisoner, if you will. He is Christ the King soon to be beaten and crucified, Christ the innocent victim.

He is Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world. Who needs no armies, no police force, no tax collectors, no guillotine or gallows pole to maintain His rule. Whose reign shall never end.

When we call him “King,” he asks us, as he asked Pilate, “Do you [say] this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Do we know Christ as King, or do we call him King because that's what we're supposed to say?

After all, what does it mean to call Christ our King in the United States of America in the twenty-first century? We're most likely to apply the title “King” to people like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson or Richard Petty – and two of them are dead and the other is hawking Goody powders. The closest thing we have to a monarchy we can understand, Great Britain, has had a queen on the throne for forty years, and the places where kings actually sit, like Saudi Arabia, are for the most part incomprehensible to us.

To be sure, calling Christ “King” means that he has access to all areas of our life, and is at the center of all we say and do. No thought is off limits, no action unconsecrated. If you've perfected this area of your life, please let me know how, because I am definitely a work in progress.

Calling Christ our “King” means that we are striving to look and act and think like citizens of the realm. Over against the picture of Pilate and Caesar and the kings of history stands the picture of Christ as King – not the warring despot, ruling with fear and an iron fist, but the shepherd who would leave ninety-nine sheep to find one lost, who would give his life in protection of his flock.

Calling Christ “King” means also that we are, in some ways, revolutionaries. The very act of praying “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” means that we are not at all happy with the state of the present world and we wish to see it change. This does most decidedly not mean praying for the President to die, as some Christians are doing, and no, I'm not kidding. Nor does it mean wagging our fingers at a person or group of people, demanding that they act in the way we think they should.

What it does mean is that we are constantly praying and working for change – whether that means supporting a ministry or action group with our time, talent, or resources, making contact with government officials to speak on behalf of an issue or group, or simply giving a homeless person a sack lunch. What it does mean is that we are not dependent on an administration or bureaucracy for our safety and survival, we are not hanging on the word of a politician or pundit or even a preacher for instructions on how to think, feel, and react.

Rather, we rely on the written Word of God and the active Holy Spirit for instruction, and on the Triune God for our safety and sustenance and purpose. We serve not because we must, not out of fear or obligation, but because this King has set us free from bondage to all the lesser political or theological or philosophical or even personal kings. Scripture tells us that who the Son has set free is free, indeed.

Pilate's response to Jesus, right after our passage this morning, is well-known: “What is truth?” Whether he spoke it sarcastically, or as a genuine question, we who follow Christ, who strive to make Him King, know the answer: Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The truth? That's what set us free.

Let us pray.

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