Christ the King Sunday
Neat things happen sometimes for reasons that may be questionable. In 1925 Pope Pius XI created The festival of Christ the King. It was to be celebrated on the last Sunday in October primarily to combat the popularity of Reformation Sunday which commemorated Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the Whittenberg Cathedral Door. In 1969 it was moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Intentionally divisive it has become part of a uniting movement . There is a strong emphasis on unity in the Prayer of the Day from the Evangelical Lutheran Book of Worship.
Almighty and ever-living God, you anointed your beloved Son to be priest and sovereign forever. Grant that all the people of the earth,
now divided by the power of sin, may be united by the glorious and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The prayer speaks of Jesus as priest and sovereign and prays that the people of the earth, now divided by sin may by united by his gentle rule. We Americans don’t know about living under a “king” or even a “lord.” Honestly, at times I have to scratch my head when I hear some people proclaim that “Jesus is Lord!”, knowing full well they haven’t the slightest idea what declaring “Christ is King” means. On the other hand, we are at least free from the prejudices against kings and lords that was present among early Friends who were subject to their absolute authority. That would be like people who grew up with an abusive father and have great difficulty with the idea of God being “Father”. We may be better able to understand a kingship that does not come from this world; because we don’t have a negative “gut reaction” to kings that are of this world. But for the most of us the words king and lord are perhaps the most difficult New Testament words to appreciate. Most people today simply have no experience of persons embodying these social roles, much less of the social system that supports such roles.
Before the eighteenth century the king was the author and guarantor of the prosperity of his people that is if he followed the rules of justice and obeyed divine commandments. It’s gets pretty earthy but the king’s proper function was to promote fertility about him, in animals, persons and vegetation. Kings ensured prosperity on land and sea, with abundant fruit and women. Those subject to the King should be able to expect from him peace and prosperity, security and abundance. The great irony of Jesus as king — the one who is to provide the “good life” for his subjects — is the one who is put to death.
John 18:33-37 is a strange reading for Christ the King Sunday. It is a small part of Jesus’ trial before Pilate (18:28-19:16a). 33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters* again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king…
Like the rule in chess that the king can’t be taken, only check mated, as a rule, kings don’t stand trial. They rule until their deaths. They are in charge of everything that happens in their kingdom. A king may die an early death — when another king with a more powerful army conquers the king or when the king’s subjects rebel. In those cases the defeated king is seldom given a trial. He is just killed. Rigidly hierarchical societies in the ancient Mediterranean world did not allow for trials of social inferiors; instead they had accusations and punishments. So for us to speak of a “trial” of Jesus is simply out of place. While we call it a trial we need to note that it’s not like any trial that we experience in our day.
Three of the five times John’s uses the word “kingdom” are in this one verse (18:36). The other two times are in Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus. On the previous Passover, the crowd acclaimed Jesus a prophet and tried to make him into their king, but Jesus slipped away from them (6:14-15). When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for this Passover, they again hailed him as king, but he hid himself from them (12:13, 36). If Jesus is “the King of the Jews,” he sure has a strange way of showing it! He will show it by being put on trial and subsequently crucified!
In all versions of the story Pilate asks the question “Are you the King of the Jews?” It suggests that the Jewish authorities had not told Pilate what they really held against Jesus. The matters of concern to the Jewish authorities in the immediately preceding trial/interrogation were clearly religious. But with Pilate an issue in which the Romans were interested is introduced. For them it wouldn’t be religious, it would be political. It’s fascinating. What we hear from Pilate is how a Roman would understand Jesus as King of the Jews.
How do we make sense out of the authority and power of Jesus? What language might we use to get people involved, what image might be effective to present Jesus to the world in ways that creates the need for people to make a decision for or against Jesus? That’s what Jesus does with Pilate in this dramatic climax of his life. Our challenge is that of the Priests, Pharisees and Scribes who have to create the situation where Jesus is on trial. Jesus’ presence in the world is the moment of judgment in which the world must decide whether it recognizes the revelation of God in Jesus. As the trial proceeds, Jesus is shown to be the true judge (see 19:13-16a). Similarly, the trial will show that Jesus is not king according to the world’s conventional expectations.
The text began with Pilate entering the praetorium to question Jesus – or so he thinks. He asks “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responds with a question: “From yourself are you asking this or have others told you about me?” Three times in Jesus’ question he emphasizes a form of “you”. Jesus puts Pilate and the accusing Jews on trial. “What do you say about me?” “Who is your king?” The Jews made it clear that Caesar was their king (19:12, 15). Pilate, by his actions makes it clear that Jesus is not his.
1The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved;
2your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.
3The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring.
4More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the Lord!
5Your decrees are very sure; holiness befits your house, O Lord, forevermore.
“The Lord is king” the Psalm begins. It points to all the trappings of royal imagery: robes, majesty, thrones, and decrees. The Lord is praised for being robed in majesty — that is, in the splendor of creation and especially on the gift of water in abundance. The Baptists and others who really love baptism love Psalm 93.
* The floods have lifted up their voice
* The floods lift up their roaring
* More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters
* More majestic than waves of the sea…
When the psalmist was looking for a metaphor for divine majesty, he choose simple H2O. Yes, that basic element that makes up 70% of the earth’s surface and a similar percentage of the human body. Without H2O, there’d be no life on the planet — duh!
Slightly more noteworthy than the fact that the psalm features water as the allegorical epitome of the Lord’s greatness is the fact that the psalm proclaims loud water in particular. The psalmist had almost certainly been to the beach on a Big Surf day. If you’ve ever stood on the shoreline meditating on the hugeness of the water as the waves pounded the shore, then you can probably relate to what was in the psalmist’s mind. Even the most poetry-averse person can understand that the big, vast, loudness of the ocean points to the mighty work of a Lord who is big, vast, and loud.
So, yeah, overwhelmingly loud noise and divine majesty often go hand in hand. That’s why they loudly play Hail to the Chief when the president enters the room. That’s why, in the Book of Revelation, there’s trumpet sound all over, but especially when the seven angels are revealing the hidden things of God in Christ. Royalty and amplifiers cranked to the max and loud crashing waves and the majesty of the Lord are all of a piece. Now contrast all the regal decibels with Jesus quietly telling Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” Or “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. There’s irony there, right there, where Jesus talks about those who listen to his voice. Within hours that very voice would rasp out the words, “It is finished,” and then fall silent.
Can we talk about Jesus putting us on trial? “Who is our king?” Who is your king was a very real question for the accusing Jew and to Pilate. Is it God or Caesar? Who is our “god and lord”? For Pilate and “the Jews” is it Jesus or Caesar?
Pilate asks Jesus “What have you done?” Jesus doesn’t answer. It’s a wrong question. The issue is not about what Jesus has done, but who he is and from where he has come. Jesus turns it around: “You are saying that I am a king.” With that statement is Jesus again putting Pilate on trial:? “You have said it, but is it what you believe?” Jesus could tell Pilate anything. What is important is what Pilate believed.
For us there is a better question. Who or what competes with Jesus in our lives to be king (or lord) over us? It’s a simple question – Let’s say that your phone rings and someone says: “Will you hold for the Governor?” Now, just for story telling purposes I’m going to imagine that regardless of your political pedigree you would say “yes”. And then in a couple of minutes that seem like an hour you hear the voice the newly elected Governor of Washington. After a few pleasantries he tells you that someone has recommended you to serve as the representative from eastern Washington on a special blue ribbon panel focused on your area of proficiency. He tells you that he really needs your expertise. And then he asks “Will you serve?”
The most important aspect of declaring Christ as King, is not our understanding of Jesus’ lordship — who he is and what he does; but our life with each other under that lordship. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). It is with our words and our life we proclaim, “Jesus is our Lord and King.”