Christ the King
Prayer of the Day: O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy. We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory. Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The celebration of Christ the King on the last Sunday of the church year is a relatively new addition to the liturgical calendar. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to what he characterized as growing secularism. The old monarchies governing Europe had been dissolved by this time and had given way to the modern nation state. The church’s political power and social status were substantially diminished under these new regimes as the state increasingly asserted its autonomy and independence from religious influence. There was more at stake, however, than the church’s loss of political muscle. The new secular environment had become a breeding ground for dangerous and dehumanizing ideologies elevating loyalty to the nation state and its rulers over all other claims. As Pope Pius saw it, this new nationalism amounted to idolatry, constituting a threat both to the Christian faith and to human worth and dignity. Sadly, the horrific events that unfolded in the following decades proved him right. The celebration of Christ the King serves to remind us that, while the church throughout the world lives under many different governments all asserting their claims to the loyalty of her members, yet there is for the church only one King. A nation is only a group of people joined together by culture, ethnicity and force of humanly designed covenants. The church is a living Body joined as one by Christ, its Head. When loyalty to the Body of Christ conflicts with our allegiance to flag or country, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Acts 5:29.
It would be a mistake to make our celebration of Jesus’ Kingship a rallying cry for the church to retake the status and power she has lost over the last couple of centuries. As I have said before, in our efforts to restore and rebuild the powerful and influential church of old, we may find ourselves at odds with the Spirit seeking a weak and fragmented body speaking truth to power from the margins of society. Ecumenical efforts to express the church’s unity through its institutions might actually be impeding the oneness and catholicity Jesus would have us find in the faithfulness of our witness. Although denominational mission strategies seem fixated on growth and getting bigger, it may very well be that Christ seeks a church small enough to recognize that her continued existence depends wholly upon him and that her members desperately need one another.
We also need to beware of the long held but deeply distorted views of Christ’s return as a violent monarch whose kingdom comes through overwhelming coercive force. Such images have frequently found expression throughout history in our art and hymnody. Modern prophets of violent divine conquest such as Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey and Harold Camping still find a ready audience. The NRA’s sacred mantra that the “only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is deeply ingrained in our culture. But the King in whom we place our hope and the hope of all creation is not a bigger than life version of John Wayne and he does not come riding into town in order to settle accounts by way of a shoot out. Our King meets the powers of evil with peacemaking, forgiveness and suffering love that finally will exhaust the powers of evil. Jesus’ victory has already been achieved on the cross. Love has already won. The church knows this (or at least it should). The rest of creation will just have to get used to it. That will take some time, but our King has all eternity to work with.
Jeremiah pulls no punches here. He faults Judah’s kings, her “shepherds,” for recklessly leading the nation into a ruinous war with Babylon that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of a substantial number of Jews and the scattering of the remainder of the people into distant lands. His criticism of these rulers, however, goes far beyond the obvious failure of their geopolitical policies. By referring to them as “shepherds,” Jeremiah is reminding his hearers that kingship in Israel was never intended to be a position of privilege. At the coronation of a Judean king, the people prayed:
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
Psalm 72:1-4. The king was to be the agent of God’s justice and compassion in Israel. The wellbeing of the people, particularly the most vulnerable members of society, was to be the king’s chief concern. King Zedekiah’s decision to release Judah’s slaves in accord with the provisions of the Torah in the face of imminent military invasion and his calculated revocation of that ruling when the threat seemed to recede demonstrates just how callus and dismissive the rulers of Jeremiah’s time had become to the responsibilities of kingship. See post from October 27th. In response, God declares through the mouth of Jeremiah that he himself will take kingship into his own hands. God will gather the remnants of Judah from all the nations to which they have fled or been carried away in exile. God will lead them back to their land and shepherd them with justice and compassion. It seems here as though God were saying, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”
But then in verse 5 the Lord declares through his prophet that he will raise up a “righteous Branch” for David who will deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. This seems contrary to the previous declaration in which God appears to have given up altogether on the line of David and human kingship. It is possible that this oracle comes from an earlier period in Jeremiah’s career when he may still have hoped for a righteous king to emerge from David’s line. The passage might also be from a subsequent editor who held such a hope. However that might be, the canonical testimony is that kingship over God’s people is rooted in God’s reign over all of creation. That reign is characterized by care for the land, compassion for God’s people and faithfulness to God’s covenant. That no human ruler has ever come close to exercising such a gentle and peaceful reign suggests that the good life God intends for creation cannot be implemented by political means.
It has been said that “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” Carl von Clausewitz, On War. The converse is also true, namely, that politics is war by other means. It is after all through political arrangements, international treaties and multi-national commercial agreements that the dominance of the wealthier nations over the vast majority of poverty stricken peoples is maintained. The political structures that enforce grinding poverty, starvation and oppression are no less violent than terrorist attacks. Economic sanctions inflicting hunger and poverty on populations having little or no control over the governments these sanctions were intended to punish are acts of violence as devastating as any bombing raid. Most often, differences between the “military” and the “political” solution to a conflict are merely definitional. Violence is always the common denominator.
It is not for nothing, therefore, that Jesus refused to take hold of the levers of political power when they were handed to him on a silver platter by the devil. It is not for nothing that Jesus taught his disciples that the use of violence, whether offensively or defensively, is not an option for them. It is not for nothing that Jesus would not allow his disciples to use violence to defend him from crucifixion and that he also refused to invoke violent divine intervention against his enemies. It is not for nothing that God responded to the murder of his only begotten Son not with vengeance, but by raising him up and offering him to us again. Absolute renunciation of violence is not just the fringe position of a few Christians at the margins of orthodoxy. It stands at the heart of the New Testament witness to Jesus. If Jesus is our king, we can have no truck with violence whether on the battlefield or in the halls of congress.
See my post from October 27th on which this psalm was one of the appointed lessons. Incidentally, this psalm was also the text for my sermon on that day. I will only add here that verse 9 emphasizes God’s emphatic commitment to “make all wars cease to the end of the earth.”
For an excellent introduction to this epistle, see the Summary Article by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament on enterthebible.org. Of particular interest in this reading are verses 15-20. These passages are believed by most scholars to consist of an ancient Christian hymn to Christ that was incorporated into the letter by the author. As such, they demonstrate that from very early on the church understood Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to be an event of cosmic proportions with ramifications for the whole creation. The opening stanza of the hymn proclaims Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Vs. 15. Yet he is also “the head of the body, the church…” vs. 18. Consequently, the church is the concrete expression of the presence of God in and for the world. This is a remarkable claim made for a teacher from an obscure town who was ultimately rejected by the leaders of his people, deserted by all of his followers and put to a cruel, shameful death by a Roman governor.
The cosmic scope of Jesus’ ministry is reflected in the claim that through him God “reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.” Vs. 20. The resurrection of Jesus is therefore not merely the hope of individual believers. It is the destiny of all creation of which the church is but the first fruits. This bold assertion refutes the limited, non-biblical notion of salvation as a rescue operation to save as many souls as possible from a sinking ship. Clearly, God is determined to save the entire ship! That is what makes the gospel good news not only for disciples of Jesus, but for all creation.
The temptation, of course, is to “spiritualize” this passage. Paul does not wish for us to view our “inheritance of the saints in light” as a future event. These riches belong to us even now and should shape the way we live our lives and the way we handle our wealth. If the world remains unreconciled to God; if we are a people without a heavenly Father who promises to provide for all our needs; if the world is a place of ever diminishing resources-then the only sensible thing to do is grab as much of the pie as you can now before it disappears altogether. This is the survivalist mentality. If the reign of God has any meaning to such people, it is in the distant future, after death, in the sweet by and by. That is all well and good. But I have to live now.
Paul’s point, however, is that the inheritance of the saints in light is now. The fullness of God is present now in the community of faith, a community that is called to live now under the jurisdiction of God’s reign of abundance and peace. How else will the creation learn that reconciliation has been accomplished? How else will the world know that there is an alternative to our death spiral of endless consumer greed for more stuff and ruthless commercial exploitation of the earth to feed it? Unless the Body of Christ practices confidence in God’s reconciling power and the generosity it inspires, how will the world ever understand what human life is supposed to look like? How will people come to believe that the future of creation is resurrection rather than apocalyptic demise unless they see the reality of resurrection faith lived out by Jesus’ disciples?
This passage seems to put to bed once and for all any claim Jesus might have to kingship. His death is one reserved for insurrectionists, terrorists and those guilty of the most heinous crimes. Pilate inscribes over the cross the title “King of the Jews” so that everyone will understand that before you go claiming to be a king, you had better make sure you really are one. In Mark and Matthew Jesus is mocked by all who pass by. In Luke’s gospel, however, a crowd of people including many women accompany Jesus to the cross with weeping and lamentation. Luke 23:27. The Jewish leaders mock and deride Jesus, but the crowds merely stand by silently witnessing the crucifixion. Vs. 35. Though all of the gospels report that Jesus was crucified along with two other criminals, only Luke relates the story of the criminal who sought recognition in Jesus’ coming kingdom. He alone seems to recognize Jesus’ kingship, a subject of mockery for the Roman soldiers and the Jewish leaders. Though sympathetic, it is not at all clear that the crowds recognize Jesus as anything more than a righteous teacher suffering an undeserved fate.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion turns our notion of kingship on its head. It is clear now that the reign of God is taking a very different form than we might have expected. Jesus is certainly not a king under any existing model of kingship. He has no army, nor royal court, no power to compel obedience. His might-and the might of God as well-consist in just this: that Jesus is able to continue loving his enemies in the face of the most virulent hatred. Just as he refused to accept his disciples’ efforts to defend him with the sword or to invoke divine power in his own defense in the Garden of Gethsemane, so now he will not rain down curses at his enemies from the cross. His only words are words of forgiveness. God will not be sucked into the vortex of retribution. That is God’s power. “For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” “Lead on, O King Eternal,” Lutheran Book of Worship, # 495.
What exactly did Jesus mean when he told the bandit crucified with him on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise?” According to the understanding of death in the Hebrew Scriptures, the end of life is the end of everything; body soul, spirit and whatever else might constitute a human person. Sheol, the abode of the dead, was not viewed as a continuation of life after death. Rather, it was a sort of universal grave yard of unknowing. In the much later apocalyptic writings like Daniel, we find a growing belief in the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, the dead are truly and completely dead. If they are raised to life again, it is only because God exercises his prerogative to breathe life back into the lifeless dust all flesh is destined to become.
By the dawn of the first century when Jesus’ ministry took place, Jewish beliefs about death and the afterlife were diverse and complex. The Sadducees, as we saw last week, rejected altogether the resurrection of the dead or any form of human existence after death. The Pharisees, by contrast acknowledged the resurrection of the dead. Some of them at some point also believed in a paradise for the souls of the righteous awaiting the resurrection. According to at least one commentator I have read, this post-biblical understanding of paradise was behind Jesus’ promise to the bandit crucified with him. Caird, G.B. The Gospel of Saint Luke, The pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. G.B. Caird, 1963, Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 253.
I don’t buy it. The scriptures use a host of metaphors and images when speaking about death and resurrection (how else can you speak of such things?). It is dangerous to draw metaphysical conclusions from parabolic speech. The Greek word translated “paradise” in this passage merely means “garden.” It was employed by the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures to describe the Garden of Eden. As such, it was also used as a metaphor for the restored creation under the reign of God. Jesus’ promise, then, was that the crucified criminal would share in the reign of God which was breaking through even now under the sign of the cross. There is no attempt here to explicate the metaphysical implications of all this (assuming there are such).