Grace Presbyterian Church
November 20, 2016, Reign of Christ C
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
The Paradoxical Reign of Christ
While for most folks the main “holiday” of note this week is the one marked by massive feasts on Thursday and massive shopping bills on Friday, the liturgical calendar does offer up one more small-scale commemoration for today before the turning of a new liturgical year next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent. Today is the festival day of the church known as Christ the King, or Reign of Christ Sunday.
This is, unlike most of the dates that dot the church calendar, one which is both pretty new and possible to date fairly precisely. It was first declared in 1925. Pius XI, the pope at the time in the Roman Catholic Church, decreed the feast day in reaction to the increasing rise of dictatorships and other governments he saw as inimical to the authority of the church; Protestant church traditions eventually adapted the feast day as well, pointing to the ultimate authority of Christ as against any secular government or other pretender to the throne of the human heart.
I wonder, though, if such an occasion is itself fraught with potential for confusion or distraction, not because of the theological premise behind it – being able to acknowledge the sovereignty of Christ is a good thing for the church – but perhaps because of our own human capacity for misunderstanding and misapprehension of a term like “Christ the King.”
Put another way: do we, in our modern minds and ways of thinking, get the “kingship” of Christ wrong? Do we, because of our modern connotations of the word “king,” turn Christ into something Christ is not?
Let’s face it; we get a particular mental picture in our heads when we hear or say or think the word “king.” Aside from the modern British monarchy – ceremonial but largely without power – our concept of “king” is usually about absolute authority. The king commands; you obey, or else. Though we might not think of them immediately, the most apt synonyms for our image of “king” are words like “tyrant,” or “autocrat,” or maybe “emperor” – words that evoke rulers who wield absolute power, and who punish those who resist it. (To be clear, one does not have to have the title “king” to be such a ruler, or to desire to be such a ruler, as a cursory survey of world leaders, and would-be leaders, makes clear.)
When applied to Christ, some Christians take comfort in such an image. We can slip into the desire for a really Old Testament-style deity who gets into smiting enemies and unleashing judgment on those we don’t like. Christ is a pretty poor fit for that title, though, as the gospels uncomfortably remind us. Much more than smiting our enemies, Christ is apt to point out what might be called the “gospel of Pogo.” Perhaps you might remember the most famous quote from that old comic strip character: “We have met the enemy, and they is us.”
It isn’t just the gospels who undo our image of kings, though. Even the prophet Jeremiah, pronouncer of judgment and woe that he was, doesn’t necessarily look at kings in the way we’d like. You will notice that in today’s reading from Jeremiah, though it really is all about kings, it takes him quite a while to use the actual word “king.” The image he calls up most clearly is instead “shepherd.” You know, as in “The Lord is my shepherd.” Jeremiah’s prophecy isn’t the only one to invoke this image; both Isaiah and Ezekiel also include discourses on the mandate for kings to serve as shepherds to their people.
Of course, it’s not hard to make the connection between Jeremiah’s image of king-as-shepherd and a Messiah who proclaimed “I am the good shepherd” in John’s gospel. What is hard is to make a connection between Jeremiah’s words and any king Israel had known up to his time. Not even the great King David, who had literally been a shepherd in his youth, truly lived up to this mandate. Human kings had not truly filled the role God had meant for kings to fulfill, but this does not stop Jeremiah from pointing forward to a time when God would bring forth “a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and he shall deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
In the reading from the letter to the Christians at Colossae, we get a slightly different image, directly of Christ, one which does point to the all-encompassing authority of Christ (even speaking of God transferring us into “the kingdom of his beloved Son” in verse 13) without quite conforming to our human image of a king. Here, the “reign of Christ” is one that is meant to pull us forward into full maturity in Christ, growing in wisdom and trust as we come under the reign of the Christ who is celebrated in the hymn that begins in verse 15. This is a “king” who is “before all things, and in him all things hold together”; “the head of the body, the church”; the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” But all this fulsome praise is not merely for praise’s sake, but to encourage the Colossians to remain steadfast in the gospel that had been proclaimed to them. Christ the King here is both the source of our wisdom and maturity, but also our only hope of attaining it. Again, not terribly characteristic of the human “kings” we recall.
But if any of today’s readings should undo all our human images of how kings work, the portion of Luke’s crucifixion account we heard ought to do it. This is the eye-twister, the one that makes our brains shut down and say “nope nope nope nope nope.”
Crucifixion was no mere means of execution in the Roman Empire. It was execution combined with humiliation. You didn’t just die; you died pathetically. Even your clothing was an object of a dice game. You were a public spectacle. You hung on that cross for all the world to see and be reminded who the real ruler was – the emperor in Rome, not some insignificant desert rabbi.
In this context, the sign placed over Jesus’s cross – “This is the King of the Jews” – was nothing less than a taunt directed towards a broken, humiliated, dying man, and indeed all who had followed him. The mockery of the soldiers pointed towards that humiliation – “you’re a king, huh? So hop on down from that cross and save yourself.” Being mocked by another criminal at the same time just heaped scorn upon scorn.
And yet Jesus’s response, hanging upon that cross? Forgiveness toward those who had done this to him, and redemption to the second criminal, the one who somehow grasped what he was seeing and cried out for mercy to Jesus.
Here is the ultimate rebuke to our very earthly tendencies about kingship and power. In the words of theologian Eberhard Busch, “The majesty of this king is revealed, not when we look up, but when we look down.” This is the kingship that Jesus has taught us, and this, if we are truly devoted to the reign of Christ, is the kingship we celebrate – one of humility, forgiveness, and utter and undying fidelity to Christ and no other. No human claim on our allegiance can ever – ever – come between or contend with our allegiance to Christ, the shepherd king, the humiliated and broken and crucified Messiah.
The Reign of Christ is not about pomp and power; its only glory is in the cross and the empty tomb. Let our human fumbling with words never lead us astray from this incomprehensible, paradoxical truth. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#12 Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
#109 Blest Be the God of Israel
#274 You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd
#273 He Is King of Kings
Was going to give agnusday.org a break, but in all honesty searching for images for Christ the King Sunday kinda proves the point of the sermon...