Christ the King, Year B--What Curious Kind of King is This?
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Christ the King, Year B
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
“My Kingdom is not from this world…”
The Feast of Christ the King is a tricky one. For people stuffed to the gills with top-down, unilateral power, patriarchy, and hierarchy, talk of “kings” and “kingdoms” can seem like just another instance of an outmoded Christianity whose relevance has long since passed. If we think of Jesus and the Kingdom of God in the same way we think of earthly kings and kingdoms this is indeed the case. But before we erase all reference to the Kings and Kingdoms from Holy Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer, we have to ask whether the kind of king we see enacted in the person of Jesus accords with our common of picture of how kings behave. If we spend a little time examining kings and kingdoms through the lens of Jesus’ life, through the lens of self-emptying, sacrificial love, we discover that the Holy Scripture uses the words “king” and “kingdom” in a way that totally overturns and subverts how we hear these words. Holy Scripture uses the words “king” and “kingdom” to show us the true nature of kingship and a new kind of kingdom. Suddenly, we see that the Gospel is not hopelessly outdated, but radically ahead of its time—so far ahead that we haven’t yet caught up with it yet.
In the person of Jesus we have a curious kind of king. This is a king who refuses to call us servants, but friends. This is a King who breaks bread with us, rolls up his sleeves, ties a towel around his waist, and washes our feet (Jn 13: 1-17). This curious kind of King regards his equality with God not as something to be grasped or exploited but empties himself and takes the form of a slave, a slave obedient to death even death on a cross (Phil 2: 5-11). This curious kind of King invites everyone—the lame, the sick, and the blind—from the highways and byways to his banquet (Lk 14: 16-24). This curious kind of King goes towards all those from whom worldly kings recoil—lepers, prostitutes and tax-collectors—and brings them into the boundaryless fold of all-inclusive, radically welcoming hospitality. This curious kind of King gives Himself to die hanging on a tree on a trash heap outside the city walls to free us from the slavery of scapegoating violence, and the fear of death, that we might become by grace the truly human human beings we were created to be.
This is why we have the exchange between Pilate and Jesus in our gospel for today. Pilate—the embodiment of all the usual associations of bureaucratic power and control—asks Jesus if he is “King of the Jews.” Pilates wants to know if Jesus is a threat to his power. But Jesus’ answer moves the whole conversation to a different level—“My kingdom,” he replies, “is not from this world.” That’s the danger of uncritically appropriating king and kingdom language apart from the life actual life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. We impose our idea of King onto Jesus and miss the whole thrust of his radical critique.
It must be said, of course, that the Church has been all to willing to go along with this willful blindness to the radical nature of the curious kind of Kingship Jesus enacts. In his tome Process and Reality, A.N. Whitehead writes,
When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers…. The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly…. But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar. There is … in the Galilean origin of Christianity, yet another suggestion which does not fit in very well…. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love, and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. it does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present. (342-343).
What a stinging indictment of the Church—that it rendered unto God what properly belonged to Caesar. But this is what the Feast of Christ the King sets squarely before us: our human propensity to create God not in the image of the “Galilean vision of humility” who serves the last, the least, the lost, and the left behind, but of imperial power, privilege, and prestige.
To be fair, the disciples never got it either, so the Church finds fellow travelers in Peter, James, John who repeatedly keep wanting to turn Jesus in a figure of military might instead of the humble servant each of his actions reveals to us. That’s why the Feast of Christ the King is not a triumphalist pronouncement, a Sunday when we get to rest on our laurels (pun intended) and clap ourselves on the back. Instead, as we enter into the season of Advent with all its apocalyptic language we are called to recognize, name, and repent of all the ways the Church and we as the gathered people of God in this place have turned to banquet that is to be open to all into a fortress of sorts.
This is the feast where we face up to the stark reality that too often we have denied Christ the Stranger in the name of Christ. This is the feast where we humbly acknowledge that the Church is often more comfortable as gatekeeper or bouncer and not as one of the grace-crazed servants who head out to the highways and byways to usher everyone, without exception, into the banquet of divine love, the party that been in full-swing since the foundation of the world. Advent apocalypticism is a declaration of the end of the old kingdom—the kingdom based on top-down power and domination, on insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, those on the top and those on the bottom.
That old kingdom is the Temple that God in Christ through the continued presence and action of the Holy Spirit wants to topple. In the person and work of the one we call our Lord Jesus Christ, God is building a new kingdom based on humble, self-giving love. It is through opening, receiving, yielding, and giving our “yes” with the Blessed Virgin Mary to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit that the Kingdom is born in and through our lives. Jesus is our righteousness, our holiness, and the closer we get to Him the more our lives shine through with His light, the light of all-inclusive, unconditional love. Our discipleship, our faithful witness, our dwelling on God’s word in Scripture, our daily prayer, our coming together in worship, our service to others in often hidden and unremarkable ways are the means of grace, the leaven in the bread that ushers in a new set of relations where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, but only love serving love in love.
Kingdom and kingship in this sense is much more like kindom and kinship—a vision of a network of interrelated and interpenetrating mutually-sustaining relationships with love, abundance, and flourishing (human, ecological) at its center. When we truly understand what Jesus reveals to us, we begin to see and live from the reality that we are kin to each other and kin with all of creation. Human beings don’t have some theological warrant to dominate and exploit the waters of the earth, cull the forests, or pollute the firmament. All the species of the earth are recognized as kin as well.
Paul’s metaphor of the one body with many members captures the interrelatedness and mutual co-operation of the kindom of God. In the kindom of God, we are all unexpected insiders in the life of God, members of one another in Christ. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12: 22). Any time the Church utters those words, “I have no need of you,” it stops being Church, it stops being the place in and through whose members the kindom of God is manifest, and reverts to the kind of kingdoms of this world with which are all too familiar—kingdoms based on exclusion and exploitation with winners and losers, those who are on the inside and those left out in the cold.
And so it is that we can boldly sing hymns to Christ the King and the Kingdom of God—not as rendering unto God what properly belonged to Caesar, but as a radical critique of all systems of domination and oppression, of all that gets in the way of love. For when we call Christ King, we are saying that we are members of each other, that all are welcomed at the banquet of divine love. When we call Christ King we are saying that it is in being pledged to one another and the hurting world outside these walls that we discover the love that made us and that makes us more ourselves each moment. When we call Christ King we are boldly declaring that nothing can separate us from the love of God and that the forces of darkness—war, famine, hatred, violence, powers or principalities—can never overcome the light, the light of love serving love in love.