November 20, 2016

Christ the King Sunday - Year C

Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year when we celebrate "Christ the King." But this is a relative newcomer to the Christian calendar. Pope Pius XI introduced the feast in 1925 and the Anglicans followed suit not long after. It is meant to celebrate the final kingship of Christ at the end of the liturgical year and the end of time.

But the language of kingship seems outmoded maybe even offensive to our post-modern sensibilities. And there are good reasons for this. We don't live under kings, so the metaphor feels irrelevant. And we're rightly repulsed at how the reigns of some monarchs meant terror for most subjects, as the prophet Jeremiah alludes to in our reading today.

Nonetheless, the language of kingship is embedded in the Christian story. The earliest followers of Jesus, and especially his detractors, used the language of kingship to describe who he was, and Jesus himself taught extensively about God’s Kingdom. The question then becomes what kingship means.

In the epistle for last week, Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica. His ministry there started in the local synagogue, then expanded to include "a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women."

Then came the detractors. Their accusations have the suspicious sound of historical reliability. A mob complained to city officials that the Christians "defied Caesar's decrees" by saying that "there is another king, one called Jesus." Thessalonica erupted in riots.

Civic-minded Romans accused the early Christians of sedition because of the overt political implications of their confession of obeying "another king," belonging to a "kingdom of God," and a "citizenship in heaven." If Jesus is Lord and King, then allegiance to him is absolute and unconditional. Political heresy then follows — Caesar and Herod are not our Kings. At best, our allegiance to them is relative and conditional. At worst, they are posers to be deposed.

In the gospel for this week, Jesus is dragged to the Roman governor's palace for three reasons, all political: "We found this fellow subverting the nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King." Jesus died as a politically subversive criminal and therefore his followers were subversive citizens.

Pilate met the angry mob outside the Praetorium, then grilled Jesus alone back inside. "Are you the king of the Jews?"

           "My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus replied. "My kingdom is from another place."

           "You are a king, then!" mocked Pilate.

"Yes, you are right in saying that I am a king."

Pilate went back outside, declared that Jesus was innocent, then had his soldiers beat, flog, and humiliate him with purple robes and a crown of thorns. "Hail, O king of the Jews!" they mocked.

Back outside, the mob hounded Pilate: "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar." Pilate thus found himself sandwiched between angering the mob and betraying his emperor.

           He caved in: "Here is your king. Shall I crucify your king?"

           "We have no king but Caesar!"

Pilate insulted the Jews one last time by fastening a notice to the cross, written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, which he knew would offend them: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." They objected, of course: "Don't write 'The king of the Jews,' but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews."

It was too late: "What I have written, I have written," said Pilate. With his mockery of the Jews, Pilate wrote much more than he ever could have known or imagined.

Later believers would worship Jesus not only as king of the Jews, but also as "the king of kings", the "king of the ages", and "ruler of the kings of the earth". But even all that doesn't plumb the depths of the full Christian confession. If the language of kingship in the gospel offends us, the epistle to the Colossians makes your head explode.

It's impossible to reconstruct two thousand years after the fact, but it seems like the church at Colossae faced a syncretistic mishmash of spiritual teachings. Paul mentions philosophic speculations, ascetic practices about food and drink, and religious rituals based upon the lunar calendar or the Jewish Sabbath. All these, Paul says, are a mere "shadow" compared to the "reality" that we experience in Christ.

Jesus wasn't just the son of a carpenter, says Paul, an itinerate rabbi, or a rogue "king" who angered Rome. He's not even merely "the head of the church." Yes, he's all these, but he's far more.

The Colossian confession makes the language of kingship look pale and puny by comparison. For Paul, Jesus is the Lord of all creation and cosmos, whether "things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities."

The other readings this week fill out this picture of Christ the king and Lord of the cosmos. He's the one who gathers rather than scatters. Instead of waging war, "he makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire." (Psalm 46:9). Jesus the king welcomes the criminals (Luke 23:43).

In the mission and message of Jesus, says Paul, God will "reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven." Peace and reconciliation for all of creation, this is what we celebrate on Christ the King Sunday.

May we live lives worthy of this king!