Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
[Scripture: Luke 23:33-43]
The last Sunday of the liturgical year is Christ the King Sunday. In some traditions, the term “Reign of Christ” is used, but the intent is the same: as the Christian year comes to a close, reflecting as it does the whole sweep of history, we take the time to remember at the end, that in the end, Christ is Lord of all. The task of the day is to consider what that means.
What does it mean to call Christ Lord, to call him king? It cannot mean the same thing as calling another King. When we think of Kings, as much as we can being Americans, we probably think of a vast gulf between ordinary people and royalty. Then again, perhaps as Americans we think of royalty in in grander terms than those in countries with monarchies where the fact that royals aren’t all that different from the rest becomes apparent in the press.
So maybe the pristinized image we have of royalty is more in keeping with the way people once thought of monarchs before the veil was torn away and they traded divine right for the fickleness of celebrity. So, perhaps, for an American, the word King still connotes an older, grander institution; one where the monarch had ultimate power, and ultimate authority to exercise it.
It is helpful to consider this because it helps us understand the world in which Christ was first called King. It helps us to consider what it meant for him to be labeled that way then, and what it means for us to call him by that title now.
Of course, those who called Christ King in the Gospels, often did so in mockery. They understood kingship to entail an exercise of power and violence. This was a time and a place where the father of a household had the power of life and death over the other members of the family, and where the emperor was seen as the sort of father-figure of the empire, having the same sort of authority over all his subjects. Coupled with this was the claim of divinity that the emperors made, ascribing divine power and authority to their actions, justifying them with more than simple force.
The fact that Jesus did not exercise power or exert authority in the ways that would have been expected–and that to some observers, that he seemed unable to–meant that they could only apply the word to him in jest. They may have executed him for the claim, but they did not take it seriously, especially once he was hanging on the cross. All of which begs the question of why the recounting of the crucifixion would be chosen as the Gospel lesson for Christ the King Sunday.
There must be something important for us to learn here. And it is focused on the curious way that Jesus goes to the Cross. He demonstrates mercy for those who are in the process of taking his life in a heinous and cruel manner. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” he cries out (Luke 23:34). Through the mercy that he shows during a time of such tremendous agony, both to those crucifying him and to the repentant thief, Jesus demonstrates the magnanimity that is the hallmark of true authority and kingship.
Jesus shows his word to be true in fulfilling not only the Law and the Prophets, so emphasized by Luke, but his own teaching about forgiveness, offering mercy even as he’s nailed to the cross. This is not what authority and power looks like to the world, and yet it is an exercise in the most astounding sort of authority: God, freely giving himself to death in order to ultimately save his people from the same fate. The creator of the universe becoming the ultimate scape-goat, to demonstrate that there is no longer any need for scape-goating. The sacrifice of sacrifices, ending all sacrifices.
Because of this, the mockery of the masses is doubly ironic. In mocking Christ by placing the sign “King of the Jews” above his head, they thought themselves to be drawing attention to the distance between the authority and power of a king, and what was happening to Jesus. But they were actually proclaiming a truth much more fundamental than they could have known. And so the Cross is transformed from a gruesome instrument of torture into a throne from which the King pronounces mercy and pardon, displaying true authority and power even at the point of ultimate weakness.
We have been shaped by Christian history, and so the contrast, while still stark, might be hard for us to fully grasp. Perhaps looking at the way those who have been more recently exposed to the Gospel talked about it could be helpful.
One of the most intriguing pieces of literature I read while in college was a medieval English poem entitled the Dream of the Rood. For those of you who have been in churches with Rood Screens, you probably know that “Rood” is an old English word for Cross (from the same root as Rod).
The poem follows an Anglo-Saxon convention of personifying inanimate objects, in this case the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified. The way the Cross talks about Jesus is full of warrior imagery, while at the same time, Jesus’ actions are far from those that a pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon chieftain would’ve been expected to take. And yet, Christ’s actions are interpreted through that lens and, I would argue, it helps highlight the sort of reversal entailed by the crucifixion:
The Dream of the Rood
“Then I saw the Lord of all humanity come toward me quickly, bravely, for he meant to climb up on me. Then I did not dare to bend or break, to contradict the command of the Lord, when I saw the earth’s surface quake. I could have felled all the enemies about me, had I fallen, but I stood firm. And that young man, who was almighty God himself, stripped off his clothes–so resolute, unflinching. He mounted the hateful gallows , unbowed beneath the stares of many, since then, it was his will to be redemption for mankind. When the man embraced me, I quaked, I shook; nonetheless I dared not topple, collapse onto the face of the earth. I had to–and I did–stand fast. Raised aloft a cross, I lifted up the mighty king, Wielder of the heavens. I did not dare to fall. They wounded me through with dark nails: the hurts are here on view upon me, gaping, evil spreading gashes. But to none of them dared I do harm, though they humiliated both of us together. And after he, that warrior, sent forth his spirit, the blood-flow from his side soaked me.
On that hill I survived many marvels. I saw the God of hosts sorely tormented. Darkness covered the corpse of the king in clouds; overshaded by clouds, a shadow went forth, spread over its spleandor. All creation wept; all cried for the King’s dying: Christ was on the Cross.”
(“The Dream of the Rood” from The Asheville Reader: The Medieval and Renaissance World, p 36-37)
The gospel reversals are many. For the Anglo-Saxons, Christ as the chieftain who embraced a shameful death, who did not lash out at his enemies. Once they embraced Jesus as King, the actions of Christ transformed the way the Anglo-Saxons looked at Kingship and eventually at government, just as happened in other cultures.
But despite the many transformations wrought by the influence of the Christian tradition, there is still a vast gulf between the way we tend to believe authority and power are rightly exercised and the way Jesus exercises them both. We live with that tension, and our task as Christians is to continue bending our expectations and desires to match the example that Christ has given.
To paraphrase the words of today’s collect, Jesus is the only King whose rule brings freedom. He himself declared that his yoke is easy, his burden light. Most of all, Christ is the only one whose death brings life.
The great Methodist missionary Stanley Jones called the Cross Christ’s “Professorial Chair,” the place from which his teaching is done. The Cross is likewise his throne: the throne of the King who shows the ultimate mercy to his people. And it is a method of execution, but one that resulted in the temporary death of God, so that eternal life might be the reward of his people.
It’s worth thinking about how differently things work in the Kingdom of God, and Christ the King Sunday is a good reminder of that. Amen.