O Christ, What Can it Mean for Us to Claim You as Our King?


Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you anointed your beloved Son to be priest and sovereign forever. Grant that all the people of the earth, now divided by the power of sin, may be united by the glorious and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“My kingdom is not from this world.” John 18:36.

Referring to Jesus as king is problematic on a number of fronts. For starters, we Americans are not overly fond of kings. We threw our last one out over two centuries ago and made it clear then that we are done with kings-except, of course, for the famous king who lets us “have it our way.” The American Revolution started a global trend that virtually ended monarchy worldwide. Such kings as remain are little more than figureheads. They are called upon to cut ribbons for new highways, christen ships and throw dinners for visiting heads of state. But the role of governing has been taken over by presidents, premiers, parliaments and legislatures elected and answerable to the people. Even ruthless dictators claim that they represent the interests and will of the people and use that excuse for all manner of atrocities. Every leader these days must at least pay lip service to our strongly held conviction that government draws its authority from the consent of the governed.

Not so, kings. A king is not the least bit interested in approval ratings, polls or what the press might have to say. Kings do not rule at the pleasure of the people. They reign by divine right. Understand, however, that kings are not dictators exercising power arbitrarily for their own selfish ends. They are themselves governed by a higher law-or so the scriptures tell us:

“Give the king your justice, O God,
   and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
   and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
   and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
   give deliverance to the needy,
   and crush the oppressor.


“For he delivers the needy when they call,
   the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
   and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
   and precious is their blood in his sight.”  Psalm 72:1-4; 12-14.

The office of monarch is conferred upon one appointed by God to ensure justice, protect the interests of the most vulnerable and punish injustice and oppression. This divine authority conferred upon kings must never be used for selfish and unjust ends-as both David and Ahab learned. See II Samuel 11-12; I Kings 21:1-19. As God’s vicegerent, the king is entrusted with the responsibility of enacting God’s will for justice, peace and the wellbeing of all people. Though not answerable to the public, the king is directly responsible to God in a way that ordinary individuals are not. Thus, the crown is as much a weighty burden as it is a privilege. Few there are who wear it well. The temptations coming with royal power and the difficulties of wielding it wisely are many. Martin Luther is said to have remarked that a good prince is a rare bird. Great literature from antiquity to the present day is filled with stories of mighty kings brought low by their fatal character flaws. The responsibilities of monarchy, it seems, are more than any human person can bear.  

That is true for Jesus no less than for the rest of us. Earlier on in John’s gospel, Jesus thwarted the effort of an adoring crowd to crown him king. John 6:15. According to Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus was offered global kingship by none other than the devil. Putting aside the fact that it comes from the devil, that does not seem like a bad proposition on the face of it. What might the world be like today had the vast power of all the world’s kingdoms been placed in the hands of Jesus? Actually, no different at all. No kingdom that is “of this world,” even one ruled by Jesus, is capable of enacting God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.”  That is because God will not rule God’s precious creation by coercive means. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord-but not out of fear and not by compulsion. Jesus will overcome the world, but not by military conquest, political maneuvering or the manipulative power of populist charisma. He will rule through love, winning one heart at a time, changing one mind at a time and transforming one life at a time for as long as it takes to turn us away from our self destructive trajectory and toward God’s gentle reign.

So we are left with the question posed by one of our hymns: “O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?”[1] Jesus gives us a picture of what that looks like:  

“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” John 13:1-5.  

It is important to note that, at this point, Judas Iscariot is still among the disciples. Jesus washed his feet also. That is how Jesus’ disciples are to confront their enemies-the same way as they are to deal with one another. There can be no limitations on the love God lavishes upon the world and we are not to concern ourselves with doubts about whether our works of love for anyone are appreciated or make any difference at all. Though the gospels are not altogether consistent concerning the fate of Judas after his betrayal, it seems unlikely that he ever found his way back to the community of disciples. If, as Matthew’s gospel tells us, Judas ended his own life upon learning that Jesus had been condemned to death, then Jesus’ humble act of kindness toward him might well have been the last touch of human compassion he felt. Whether that made a difference we do not know. Neither does it matter.

In this polarized world in which kingdoms vie with each other for dominance, for control over limited resources and for supremacy based on blood, soil, race and national identity, Jesus calls together a community to begin living now in the promised reign of God to come. The church is to be a sign, a sacrament, if you will, of God’s reign. To be clear, the church is not the kingdom of God. It can, at best, bear witness to that reality in its always flawed and never complete efforts to follow in the way of its King. That way takes the form of the cross in a world bound and determined to reject its King. The hand extended in friendship into enemy territory may well find itself nail pierced. After all, Jesus told his disciples that “whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” John 12:26. As it happens, Jesus is among refugees most of America wants to keep out of our country. Jesus dwells in the midst of nations and groups designated enemies by our government. Jesus is among the incarcerated, the homeless and the sick and elderly poor warehoused in substandard facilities. Jesus calls us to join him in crossing borders, breaking down walls and building bridges over rivers of hostility. Claiming Jesus as our king means rejecting the nationalistic, racist and violent ways of this world’s kingdoms. His is a kingdom passionately devoted to loving the world, but does not spring from the same root as the many fleeting kingdoms vying to reign over it.   

Here is an anonymous poetic component of a Sabbath rite developed in the Galilean town of Safed in the sixteenth century. It is addressed to the Sabbath angels and was typically sung when the men of the household came in from their work. Though the prayer seeks peace of the household it points beyond itself to the larger harmony of existence under God’s gentle reign. As such, it is an appropriate meditation for the day.  

Peace be Upon You

Peace be upon you—

      ministering angels,

            angels of heaven—

from the King who is king of all kings,

      the Holy One, blessed be He;

      in peace be your coming—

            angels of peace,

                  angels of heaven—

from the King who is king of all kings,

      the Holy One, blessed be He.

Bless me with peace—

      angels of peace,

            angels of heaven—

from the King who is king of all kings,

      the Holy One, blessed be He,

      in peace be your leaving—

            angels of peace,

                  angels of heaven,

from the King who is king of all kings,

      the Holy One, blessed be He.

Source: Poetry, March 2012. This anonymous liturgy is translated by Peter Cole (b. 1957), a MacArthur-winning poet and translator who lives in Jerusalem and New Haven. He was born in Paterson, New Jersey and attended Williams College and Hampshire college.  Cole’s work as both a poet and a translator reflects a sustained engagement with the cultures of Judaism and especially of the Middle East. He currently teaches one semester a year at Yale University. You can find out more about Peter Cole and his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] “O Christ What Can It Mean for Us,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Hymn # 431 (c. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; pub. by Augsburg Fortress). Text by Delores Dufner, Music by Henry S. Culer

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