Toward the end of Second Samuel, an old man’s last words have been written down so that generations to come would remember,
One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of the morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land (2 Samuel 23:3-4).
I love this verse, I love this image, and I sat with it several times over the past couple of weeks, watching the light of the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. It is a scene of such promise and possibility, like the dawn of peace on earth.
This hope for one who rules over people justly goes back as far as historical records, legends and ancient songs can take us. The hope for one who rules in the fear of God is as old as the sad reality of rulers who draw power from the fear of their subjects. For ages, we have hoped for one who would bring to an end the ancient battle for the throne at the top of the world.
Today is a peculiar Sunday. On the church calendar the last Sunday of the church year is called Christ the King – and you probably thought that was the name of a Catholic high school. Christ the King is one of the most recent additions to the calendar of Christian festivals, and oddly enough, it wasn’t introduced until the first half of the 20th century, a time when all the kings and queens had pretty much been pushed into history books or fairy tales.
We live with Burger King and Dairy Queen, we are familiar with The King of Queens, B.B. King and Queen Latifah, but the old lady in Buckingham Palace is hardly a symbol of power anymore. In our world, power doesn’t sit on thrones, but behind desks. Kings and queens belong in fairy tales, musicals, and holiday parks – in Washington and on Wall Street, in Beijing and Brussels they are simply out of place.
What happens when the church sets aside a Sunday to celebrate Christ the King? Mary Anderson worries that people might perceive Christ’s kingdom to be similar to the queen of England’s rule: surrounded with the beauty of a great tradition, but also hopelessly outdated and practically mute [see Mary W. Anderson, “Royal treatment,” The Christian Century, November 15, 2003, p. 18].
Celebrating Christ the King in a world where power no longer sits on thrones but behind desks, are we relegating the Lord of the Universe to the museum or to Disney World? David Buttrick at Vanderbilt wasn’t the first to urge the church to get rid of all kingdom language and use terms such as God’s new order instead. Christ’s claims on those who follow him are highly political, and we shouldn’t mask those claims with quaint titles that turn the good news for all people into yesterday’s news.
I don’t know – power has become bureaucratic and moved from the royal court to the office, but does that mean our imagination has to follow? Does that mean we ought to consider renaming Christ the King, Christ’s in Charge? Does anybody really want to imagine the reign of God as something with cubicles in it? Christ, CEO? Or how about Chairman Christ Sunday?
We hesitate to call Christ the king not just because kings and queens are no longer part of our daily experience. We hesitate because we don’t want to identify Jesus with patriarchal power structures we are still struggling to overcome; and so we compromise and call the Sunday Reign of Christ. We hesitate because we know how easily monarchy turns into tyranny, and the last thing that comes to mind when we think of Jesus is a tyrant. We know that the reign of Christ is different from any kind of rule we know.
I want to suggest that it doesn’t matter so much what titles we use to refer to Jesus’ eternal rule; what does matter is where we look to fill those titles with meaning. I suggest we look nowhere else but to Jesus himself.
In the year 26 AD emperor Tiberius of Rome appointed Pontius Pilate governor over Judea. Pilate ruled the province with an iron fist. He was known to be a ruthless overlord; in the words of one of his contemporaries (Philo), “rigid and stubbornly harsh, wrathful and of spiteful disposition.” His rule was marked by corruption and “the ceaseless and most grievous brutality.”
Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, “One of the many historical ironies of the Christian message is that of all the famous ancient Romans—Julius Caesar or Cicero or Vergil—none has achieved even nearly the universal name recognition of an otherwise obscure provincial gauleiter named Pontius Pilate, who has the distinction—which he shares with, of all people, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and with no other human creature—of having his name recited every day all over the world” in the creeds of the church [Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), p. 266].
Pontius Pilate, the otherwise obscure provincial gauleiter does Rome’s dirty work in a remote but strategically important corner of the empire. Whoever raises their head too high or their voice too much, risks being disposed of as a threat to Rome’s dominance.
“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks Jesus, nervously. He sees the world through the eyes of those he answers to, and he can only think in political terms as they have defined them. Pilate has heard things, rumors mostly about a Galilean the crowd had greeted at the city gate as King of Israel (see John 12:13).
“Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus doesn’t give him a straight answer, and when Pilate asks again, “What have you done?” he responds, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
“So you are a king?” Pilate is puzzled; he can’t seem to get to the bottom of this. Are you a king or are you not?
Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world.” My rule is not based on your notions of power, my dominion is not secured by force. My world is not from the kingdom you serve. My world is made, redeemed, and ruled by a power greater than Rome’s legions. You say that I am a king? You can call me what you want.
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” But Pilate cannot listen. Pilate belongs to a world revolving around rival kingdoms and the raw pursuit of power. He cannot see the truth when it is standing before him in flesh and blood. His imagination is too small for a king who washes the feet of his followers. He cannot wrap his mind around a king who doesn’t command armies but whose word sets the oppressed free. From where he looks at the world, Pilate cannot see a king whose palace is not behind walls but among the people. A king who has no ambition to sit on Caesar’s throne. A king who tells his companion who still carries a sword to put it back into its sheath. A king who insists that should any blood be shed, it would be his own. A strange king indeed.
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And the truth is God’s love for the world, this world, mired in power struggles as it is, deaf to the cries of the poor as it is, blind to the needs and the dignity of others as we are – the truth is God’s love for us and for all.
The truth about God is God’s love for the world. The truth about the world is God’s love for it. The truth about us, the truth about what is real and what is not, the truth about what will cease and what will abide – the truth is what we see in the life of Jesus, whom John of Patmos calls the faithful witness.
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” It is a powerful thing to know what it is you were born for, isn’t it? I can’t think of anything more gripping than knowing, really knowing what it is I was brought into the world for. To be able to say, ‘For this I was born.’
Jesus, the strange king who rules all creation, shows us that the power at the heart of things is not domination but solidarity. His grace and call remind us that we too have the power to testify to the truth, and that for this we were born. He has made us to be a kingdom of faithful witnesses in the world God loves. He has made us to be a kingdom that is unique, unlike any earthly kingdom that is bound by geography, ethnicity, or culture. He calls us from our many tribes and nations to his boundless kingdom where all belong, because all are loved.
For this I was born, for this I lay down my life. Christ the King.
I’ll let others worry whether people might perceive the reign of Christ to be similar to the queen of England’s rule: lovely, somewhat quaint, but largely inconsequential. I’ll let others worry about the linguistics of kingdom language in a postmodern context, because once people get close enough to notice they will see that there is nothing quaint about God’s solidarity with sinners, and that our solidarity with the world’s inconvenient people is anything but inconsequential.
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year, and we are invited to glimpse into the throne room where all idols have been toppled and Christ alone is exalted and worshiped. We come together and sing of the one who is bringing to an end the ancient battle for the throne at the top of the world. We sing of the one who has made of us one people, not by force or coercion or whatever other means earthly rulers have at their disposal, but by opening our eyes to the truth about ourselves and about God. We sing of the one who is like the light of the morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.