A Curious Kind of King
Robert S. Turner
Reign of Christ Sunday
November 20, 2016
I learned something this week about Reign of Christ Sunday, better known as the Feast of Christ the King, which we commemorate today. I learned that it has only been a part of the calendar of the church for less than a century. It celebrates the all-embracing sovereignty of Christ as the Lord of the cosmos, but it only came into being in 1925, in the face of growing secularism and the rise of fascist movements in Europe.
Pope Pius XI instituted the feast day because of his concerns that in the post-World War I years, the authority of the church and respect for God were dwindling. People were leaving the fold of the Church, at least in Europe, in droves, and a spirit of skepticism had replaced the obedient faith the clerical establishment had considered their due for centuries. Besides these troubling developments in the religious realm, nascent movements of intense nationalism had arisen in the political sphere—first the Fascists in Italy under Mussolini, then Hitler’s National Socialists in Germany and Franco’s Nationalists in Spain, as well as other, smaller factions throughout Western Europe and the Americas.
In the face of these perceived threats to the authority of the Roman Catholic church, Pius issued an encyclical called Quas Primas in 1925. In it, among other things, he established a feast day specifically designed to reassert the sovereignty of Christ and, by extension, the Church. Originally celebrated in October, it was later moved to the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, where it now sits as the culmination of the church year. The year begins with Advent, in which we wait expectantly for the coming of Jesus, both as a child and as the returning Lord, and ends with this acclamation of his cosmic rule. There is a symmetry and poetry to it that is quite beautiful.
But beautiful or not, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief. When we look at the world, it can be hard to convince ourselves that anyone benign is in charge. With so much chaos, violence, and death in the world; with what appears to be the triumph of fear over faith, egoism over humility, and baseness over respect; it certainly seems, at least to me in my darker moments, that Jesus is asleep at the switch.
When you think about it, our situation here at the tail end of 2016 is similar in a lot of ways to Pope Pius’s situation ninety-one years ago. With the Brexit vote in the UK, the refusal of much of the European Union to accept refugees from Syria, and here in the US with the election of Donald Trump, the world once again faces the threat of short-sighted nationalism and widespread xenophobia. Plus, the spread of secularism has continued mostly unabated since 1925, so that in our country at least, the options “No affiliation” and “Spiritual but not religious” claim bigger and bigger slices of the religious preference pie chart. It’s not that hard to understand, if not sympathize with, the feeling of near panic that led the pontiff to try to shore up belief in Christ as the cosmic king. A lot of religious people in our day are whistling in the dark too, trying to put on a brave face as their cultural dominance, or even relevance, continues to slip away.
It still boggles my mind that 81 percent of white evangelical voters are estimated to have voted for Donald Trump for president. I knew a significant number, perhaps even a majority, would deliberately blindfold themselves to all the ways Trump violates so many of their professed values and press the touch screen next to his name, but eighty-one percent? That is obscene. I find it disheartening to realize how easy it is for many Christians to abandon the way of Jesus in the pursuit of worldly power; to reject the way of the cross in favor of the power-over of political and cultural dominance.
That is why I am so glad that the people who devised the Revised Common Lectionary had the wisdom to choose as the gospel lesson for Reign of Christ Sunday in this final year of the three-year cycle the passage from Luke 23 we read earlier. On the day we hail Jesus as the Pantocrator, the Lord and King of all that is, the victorious Christ seated on the throne of the universe, our gospel reading takes place on a hill called Skull, where we watch the writhing forms of three men dying a torturous, shameful death at the hands of the seemingly all-powerful empire of Rome.
This is a curious kind of king we have here.
Jesus is the one in the middle, the central figure in the tableau, like a king on his throne with two of his ministers on lesser thrones on either side. In fact, Luke’s account is full of kingly imagery. Before the scene in question, he is questioned by Pontius Pilate, who asks him if he is the king of the Jews. Jesus does not deny the charge. Pilate sends him over to Herod Antipas, since Jesus is a Galilean and therefore falls under Herod’s jurisdiction, and Herod and his men mock Jesus by dressing him up in a royal robe and sending him back to Pilate. As part of their sentence, condemned prisoners had to carry their own crossbeams to the place of execution, but Jesus has his carried for him. As he makes his way through the streets of Jerusalem, Luke tells us that a great number of people followed him, as though it were a royal procession.
In today’s passage, the language of kingship continues. The inscription atop his cross, which declares the crime for which he is being punished, simply reads, “This is the King of the Jews” (v. 37). First the priests and scribes and then one of the criminals crucified alongside Jesus call him the Messiah in mocking tones. The leaders sneer at him, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (v. 35). The criminal bitterly derides him, spitting, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (v. 39). The Hebrew word Messiah, which in Greek is translated Christ, means “anointed one,” and referred to the practice of anointing the kings of Israel and Judah with oil at their coronations. The soldiers also mockingly suggest that he come down off the cross, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (v. 37). And finally, the other criminal acknowledges sincerely what everyone else has been saying ironically, asking Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom (v. 42).
It is impossible to escape the conclusion Luke wants us to draw, that Jesus really is a king, and all the people insulting him are actually unwitting heralds of his majesty. But again we are confronted with a paradox: an executed king whose throne is actually the instrument of his death.
Shane Claiborne was here the other night, and he gave a powerful argument in favor of abolishing the death penalty in our country. Coming at it from a Christian perspective, he expressed dismay at how many Christians—those who claim to follow the crucified Messiah—support and defend capital punishment. He reminded us that those two sticks of crossed wood, long before they became a symbol of God’s love for the world, long before they evolved into an emblem of triumph and cultural dominance, were a shame- and fear-inducing instrument of state terror. The cross has become almost innocuous and emptied of meaning for a lot of people, partly because of its ubiquity, but in the beginning it was overflowing with meaning—and all of it bad. Citing black theologian James Cone, Claiborne suggested a parallel between the cross and the lynching tree, which for decades, even centuries, white people used as a means of terrorizing black people and enforcing social control over them. Claiborne pointed out that if we wanted to recapture the ambiguous symbolism the cross had in the early years of the church, we should hang an electric chair on our wall.
I talk a lot about the reign of God—what is more familiarly known as the kingdom of God. I make no apologies about that, because from my reading of the New Testament, the reign of God was Jesus’s primary topic of conversation and teaching. But to avoid confusion, we need to unpack the term occasionally. What do we mean by the “reign of God”? Our answer to this question will give us a valuable clue to understanding Jesus’s curious kind of kingship as well.
The first thing to note is that the reign of God is not the same thing as heaven. Mark, the first gospel writer, talked about the kingdom of God, but Matthew, who may have had a scribal background, had scruples about using the name of God too freely, so he substituted the word “heaven” for “God,” giving us “the kingdom of heaven.” He meant exactly the same thing Mark did, but unfortunately, generations of Christians have taken the words literally, and have equated the kingdom of heaven with heaven. The result is that too many Christians focus all their thought and energy on ensuring a place for themselves in heaven after they die, and do their best to get others to do the same. Service and social justice may be important, but it takes a backseat to evangelism, which is understood as the systematic process of getting people to “ask Jesus into their hearts” so they end up in the good place rather than the bad.
But this is not what the reign of God means. It’s not located in some otherworldly realm, but right here on this earth.
Second, the reign of God is not merely future, but also present. Conversely, it is not merely present, but also future. Some people believe in a golden age that will kick in sometime in the distant future, after Jesus returns and defeats the devil and his minions. The earth will become a paradise ruled over by Christ, after all evildoers are judged and consigned to hell. Others believe that the reign of God is something that we can build through our own efforts here and now. Through the evolutionary process, we will be able to banish all the evils that have plagued humankind from the beginning: war, disease, poverty, sin, and so on. I find it hard to get on board with the notion that our world is naturally progressing from bad to good—I don’t think the evidence supports it—but some people still hold onto this hope, and believe that establishing the reign of God, whether they call it that or not, is our responsibility and ours alone.
But the reign of God is, by definition, a work of God's, not ours. We are privileged to serve as God’s co-laborers, and we most certainly do have a role to play, but apart from God it simply will not happen. What we experience now in fits and starts will someday be the rule rather than the exception. Some may disagree with me on this, but I believe that there will be a future consummation, when all that is wrong will be made right, when the banquet table will be set and everyone will be invited to gather around it. We live in hope. We wait in hope. We work and pray and struggle and weep, but always in hope. In the long run, love will win.
The third thing I want to say about the reign of God is that we don’t have to guess what it looks like. All we have to do is to look at Jesus’s life and ministry and we will learn all we need to know about the shape and content of God’s reign. I am convinced that Jesus’s primary purpose in carrying out his mission in the towns and villages of Galilee was to establish faithful covenant communities that would be able to withstand the corrosive effects of living in an unjust society under military occupation. Where he saw hunger and poverty, he encouraged sharing so that everyone’s needs were met. Where he saw families and communities torn apart by the ravages of debt, he established debt forgiveness as one of the pillars of his new group. Where he saw people being excluded or marginalized because of their occupation or sex or ethnic background or ritual impurity or economic status, he created a community in which all the divisions and hierarchies were removed or turned on their heads. In the Jesus movement, the last were to be first, the humble were to be exalted, and the leaders were to act as servants. Where he saw the powers and authorities using domination and force to cow the people into submission, he introduced a nonviolent ethic of resistance to subvert the Domination System.
Fourth, as we see in this passage from Luke, the reign of God is all about second chances. Jesus goes to his death with forgiveness on his lips. When he is mocked and spat upon, reviled and insulted, he does not respond in kind. Instead, he says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (v. 34). When the man on the other cross comes to his defense, confesses his own guilt, and makes the modest request that Jesus will remember him, Jesus offers him a second chance, assuring him that he is loved and forgiven and will no longer be alone: “Truly I tell you,” he says, “today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43).
On this Reign of Christ Sunday, we come to worship the king of an upside-down kingdom, a king who does not resemble any of the authoritarian dictators who wield worldly power within the Domination System, but rather who redefines what it means to be a king. Christ the King ensures justice, serves instead of being served, is obedient even to the point of giving up his life, and forgives even his killers. In his kingdom all are welcome, all are equal in dignity, the life of every person is honored and protected, and all distinctions of status based on color, anatomy, orientation, or portfolio are obliterated. In his kingdom—in the reign of God that is already present among us but has not yet arrived in its fullness—justice is the rule, love is the law, and reconciliation is the glue that holds the community together.
Our task as a church—our privilege as one manifestation of the Body of Christ—is to live God’s reign into being here in the University District of Columbus, Ohio. Guided by Jesus and empowered by the Spirit of God, we are to build a reconciled and reconciling community, a welcoming and affirming fellowship, a congregation of resistance that stands with all who find themselves outside the corridors of power and privilege and opposes anyone and anything that would try to keep them there.
May we be found faithful in this curious venture by the curious king of an upside-down kingdom, and may that kingdom come and that curious king’s will be done in Columbus, in Ohio, throughout the United States, and all over the earth, just as it is in heaven.
Come quickly, Christ our King!