A sermon delivered at Manningham Uniting Church on 25/11/18: the Feast of Christ the King.
An audio recording can be found here.
God, may my words be loving and true, and may those who listen discern what is not. Amen.
In our two readings for today Jesus is identified, in one way or another, as a King.
In John 18 Jesus is asked if he is King of the Jews. While in Revelation Jesus is proclaimed, with some confidence, to be ruler over the kings of the earth.
These readings are appropriate as we remember that today is the last day of the liturgical year. Today marks the feast of Christ the King, the final week of our regular readings through the lectionary. Before, of course, we begin again: with the journey of advent towards Jesus’ birth; and then the journey of Lent towards Jesus’ death at Easter.
This is the cycle that, whether we are conscious of it or not, we flow through year after year. Journeying together through Scripture, towards the pivotal events in the life of Christ. Reminding ourselves of the ongoing life of this story as it reverberates through our community, throughout history, and throughout the world.
I want us today to try and explore what it means for us to confess that Christ is King. As we do this I want to keep in mind the liturgical context we find ourselves in: we are on a journey together, through the rhythms of the Christian calendar, fed by Scripture along the way, and heading towards the key moments that mark out the way of Christ.
As a first pass I want to suggest that to confess Christ as King might have something to do with the way we collectively journey through the life of Jesus. We journey to Jesus’ birth. We journey to Jesus’ death. And then we journey … in a sort of roundabout way, sometimes as if wandering through a desert … and we arrive at today: the feast of Christ the King.
Birth, death, and … well, where exactly are we? What significant event in the life of Christ are we commemorating today? What exactly do we mean when we talk about Christ becoming King?
Part of what makes this celebration strange is that if Jesus is a king, he is a king unlike any other king that has come before, and any king that has come since.
As the quote from the late Bruce Prewer on your Order of Service points out, proclaiming Christ as King is a sort of holy nonsense. Prewer goes on:
“He had no troops and built no palace,
He had no throne and wore no crown
yet as a king he is on his own.”
Jesus redefines what it means to be a king. And our readings from today help us to unpack exactly what this means.
When questioned by Pilate Jesus suggests that his kingdom is not of this world. Unlike kings of the past, and political leaders of the present, Jesus is not interested in traditional understandings of power. If Jesus was a king like other kings his followers would have attempted to storm Pilate’s palace. And yet they didn’t.
The power Jesus seeks isn’t straightforwardly political. It is not militaristic. It does not seek control of governments or armies. It is something different from the kings of this world.
And yet as Jesus stands before Pilate we cannot ignore the political reality of what is about to happen. Ultimately Jesus is put to death. Death on a Roman cross.
At the same time as Jesus is insisting that his kingdom is not from this world, and therefore cannot be identified with any particular political form or agenda in this world, at the same time he is in direct conflict with political power. Jesus is moving ever closer to being put to death by another kingdom that very much is of this world.
What it means for Jesus to be King: on the one hand, is not reducible or identifiable with any political agenda or party, and on the other hand what it means for Christ to be king leads to clear and direct political implications and conflict. This complexity and tension is precisely why it is so hard for many of us to confess today that Christ is King. We do not want to be seen as identifying with a particular political program; or perhaps for others we do not want to be seen as having to carry lightly a particular political program that we are invested in.
Another facet of Jesus’ kingship in John 18 is the central question of whether Jesus is the king of the Jews. This is the question Pilate asks. And this is a fair question for Pilate to ask. After all, people were evidently suggesting that Jesus was the king of the Jews. And there is a clear association between Jesus and king David – the great king of the Jewish people – running through all of the Gospels. And yet Pilate rightly points out that it was the Jewish leaders themselves that handed Jesus over to Pilate. If Jesus is the king of the Jews, the Jewish people themselves seemed to have rejected him.
As well as Jesus being a king that cannot be identified with any particular political movement, Jesus is a king that cannot be straightforwardly identified with any particular people. Of course Jesus was a Jew, and drew on his Jewish heritage to understand his own identity. Yet, in being rejected by the Jewish leaders we see that what it means for Jesus to be king moves past racial boundaries, like those between Jew and Gentile. In the end, for Jesus before Pilate, the people who are the subjects of Jesus’ kingdom are the faithful, those who witness to the truth and hear Christ’s voice. Not simply people from any one racial group.
We glimpse the ongoing expression of this movement across racial boundaries in our reading from Revelation. This account of a divine vision is sent to the seven churches in Asia. The claim that Jesus the king calls into his kingdom anyone who testifies to the truth is expressed in the movement of the Gospel out of Jerusalem, and towards Jews and Gentiles spread throughout the Roman empire. As this kingdom expands it crosses cultural and racial boundaries, creating new communities as it does so.
The kingdom over which Jesus is king cannot, then, be contained by political agendas, or racial boundaries. But rather this kingdom moves outward, spreading to Asia and now beyond.
The otherworldly language, as fantastical and often magical as it can sound, helps to express the open ended nature of Christ’s kingdom. In painting the story of Jesus with stark imagery, the writer of Revelation is trying to push us to see things differently – to look at the world differently. To imagine what it means to say that Jesus is king, in a world that does not recognise this kingship and this kingdom.
Revelation draws on the deep riches of Jewish apocalypticism — the Jewish tradition of offering fantastical images of the world that try to force us to see the world differently. This is what is demanded of us as we are led by our King, Jesus, who crosses political and racial divides, forming new communities as we join him on the journey.
Really what we commemorate today, on the feast of Christ the King, is not just one event in the life of Jesus. But rather a series of ongoing events, that are still ongoing, in the life of the resurrected crucified one. The cascading effects of new life that the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth has unleashed upon the world.
Proclaiming that Christ is King means proclaiming that Christ moves beyond the political, or cultural, or racial, or theological boxes we try to put him in.
We celebrate a king who refuses to look like any other king.
A king without a palace, without a throne, without a crown — who does not wield political violence, but suffers and is killed by political violence on a cross.
What we proclaim when we proclaim that Christ is King is the establishment of God’s reign on Earth, that flows out of the way of Christ: through his life and teaching.
And so today we commemorate the arrival and establishment of this Kingdom on Earth, over which Christ is King. We commemorate the becoming real of God’s reign on Earth. We celebrate the way in which the life of Christ continues to move freely throughout the world. Through myriad ways over the last year the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has ushered in new life into the world. Through our own lives, through our faith communities, through social services, through surprising outbreaks of hope and joy.
And we commemorate today, as a sign and symbol of the many events that reveal Christ to be King — the events where the reign of God becomes evident and real, where the Kingdom of God becomes tangible before our very eyes. Where love and mercy and justice reign supreme, and break open the realities in which we live — forcing us to see the world differently.
In commemorating the joy of this new life, we remind ourselves of the cracks through which light floods in. We remind ourselves of the foundation of Christ’s Kingdom: the way of the cross. We remind ourselves that Jesus calls into question our political commitments, our cultural and racial blindspots. Christ moves us out beyond ourselves: leading the charge as a King in the forefront.
In his death and resurrection Jesus establishes a reality that is more real than real, more true than true. It is a reality that says sinners are in fact saints, the outcast are in fact beloved, the lowly are the exalted. And we celebrate today those moments when – echoing the words of Revelation – our eyes see the world anew, as if a miracle has descended from heaven, and the life and teaching of Christ has inspired new life, new hope, and new joy in the world.
And we celebrate that this event is not just one event, but Christ becomes King over and over and over, year after year, as the reign of God’s love crosses every boundary and forms new communities as it enfolds lives in mercy, and bends the arc of history towards justice.
Forever and ever, Amen.