Christ the King Sunday

Christ the King Sunday

John 18:33-37

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate 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?” Jesus 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.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. 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.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

The festival many denominations, including the ELCA, celebrate this week is Reign of Christ Sunday, also known as the Feast of Christ the King (or even to our Catholic siblings, Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe). Created to uplift Jesus as having care of and ultimate power over creation, Christ the King is a day layered with deep significance. It is the end of the liturgical year, the fulfillment of the cycle in which we travel with Jesus and the apostles through the building of this new church. It’s a reminder that eventually Christ who ascended will return and not just rule over a kingdom or a country but will unite and heal the entire world.

Originally established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to specifically speak against growing movements of Christian Nationalism, this festival still feels relevant today. 

As partners of ELCA World Hunger we don’t just see the face of Christ in all our neighbors, we also feel the pain of famine in Africa or crops washed away by floods in South America. The belief that we are called to advocate, donate, and share resources until ALL are fed is in our Jesus Way DNA. 

Inflation, rising gas prices, higher food costs, and disrupted supply chains are triggering insecurity or fear in many communities. The anxiety and sense of instability makes sense. This was all supposed to be over by now right? We have seen plenty of anxious folks over the last 2 years. We (yes we, not “they”) hoarded toilet paper or bought all the meat we could for the deep freezer. We asked our friends to grab extra Clorox wipes if they spotted them. As much as we turned to God and our spiritual practices, a lot of us also went into survival mode that called us inward. Are we so very different today than Americans in the era of World War I, most not necessarily evil and intentionally selfish, but weary, frightened, and suffering the effects of trauma?

Are volunteers burned out? Are regular participants saying they need to spend more time with work or home or family duties and they need to back off their commitments? If the answer is yes, I get it. Me too on plenty of days. For this one day though, I invite all of us to remember that scarcity and competition are not part of the final truth. We are people of hope, resilience, journey, and generosity. We care for others as we care for ourselves. We feed the world as we are fed by Christ. Yes, “the struggle is real”, but it’s not forever. Jesus is. Hold on, a new year is coming.

So at the end of this church year I must ask from the text…What kind of king was Jesus?

Some commentators have commented that the writer of John presents Jesus as one who ultimately exercises authority. I, agree with others and simply see Jesus responding to a person with societal power, from the perspective of the underside of history, which has a very different set of values than that of the dominant society.

Perhaps the view that Jesus is the one who exercises ultimate authority is a view that emanates from this worldly kingdom in which we live, a society in which success is associated with “winning” at all costs. Despite that it is widely embraced, this perspective has proven to fail in every part of society.

This passage, in which Jesus speaks to power, shows how the powerful do not like it when they do not control the discourse. The powerful elites of Jesus’ day were accustomed to controlling the ideology and the discourse, just as the powerful elites are accustomed to determining/controlling the ideology and the discourse in our day. Does Jesus respond to Pilate with “authority” or does he just respond with honesty based on his experience as a marginalized individual? 

Jesus posed the questions: Are you asking me sincerely or are you prejudiced because of what people have told you? Did you already make up your mind? In other words, Jesus called out Pilate for his neutrality in their conversation. Pilate’s question is one that he was asking for others—a question that was full of biases.

Pilate wants to act as though he is innocent of his prejudiced notions about Jesus, while playing along with the lies and corruption of his constituents. Jesus does not fall for that; he instead unmasks the demonic forces of his society that engage in such egregious abuse of power.

Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world!” Many have interpreted this to mean that Jesus’ kingdom is somewhere in heaven and not relevant to this world. I believe Jesus is saying that the values of his kingdom are different from those of the current system. In other words, Jesus does not have to exercise the type of authority that seeks to be on top, which results in oppression, corruption of the judicial system, and precisely the kind of hypocrisy that Pilate exhibited in the interaction between him and Jesus. 

The values of Jesus’ kingdom are so vastly different from those of this world that often we Christians fail to understand them. The church, which represents Jesus’ kingdom, is here to serve in humility rather than to seek earthly power. Jesus is the king, yet he does not arrive in a chariot, but on a donkey! Jesus is a king who is killed by those with societal power, not a king who is victorious over his enemies by defeating them in war. However, in allowing himself to be killed and physically defeated for the sake of truth, he engages in the ultimate demonstration of the power of love. 

So what does all this mean for us? Let me try this example. First, imagine a night out on the town. Remember those? Imagine going to a play. It’s a one-act play; all the action, character development, and story happen in a few scenes. It is short and it is satisfying. Being a one-act play, character and story must necessarily be brief and rather shallow. A single theme might be explored, but not much more than that. Certainly nothing of real substance can be experienced, considered, and settled. It was a nice night out though.

Now, imagine another night out. This night you go back to the theater, but this time there is a five-act play. It’s Hamlet. 

Being five acts, all the characters have room to spread out. They are living, breathing figures with motivations, pasts, and desires. Multiple themes are explored. Some of the most fundamental human concerns are introduced with wisdom and depth: obligation, doubt, death, family, the nation. The action in this five-act play is complex; there is even a play within a play that advances the story and gives us clarity around different character motivations. This five-act play takes a lot longer, but it really is satisfying. It seems to cover all of human existence.

Our culture, the world, wants us to think that we live in a one-act play. Depending on who you talk to, that one act is material reality where there is nothing whatsoever except that which can be measured. Others will tell you that this one-act play we are in is all about you—all about your satisfaction and the attainment of something called Potential. In this play, you will strive and strive, until one fateful day, you will arrive. Another strong candidate for the one-act play of the world is a story about the accumulation of things. Gather all you can—you just have a few scenes in which to do it, and at the end of the play, the one with the most toys wins.

Those are rather boring plays. They are flat. They don’t allow for any real growth. Surely, there must be more. Enter the five-act play. Theologian and priest Sam Wells, in his book, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, says that we are in a five-act play. Conveniently, the five acts all start with “C”: Creation, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation.

Creation is, of course, the beginning of all things. Here, we get a hint of Christ the King as described in the Nicene Creed: “through him all things were made.” Act two, Covenant, is where we learn that God has befriended a particular group of people, the Hebrew people, through whom God is made known. 

God makes an agreement to never abandon them. Act three is Christ, the coming of God to be with us in the most intimate way imaginable. In fact, it is beyond imagining that God would become a person. In traditional five-act structures, this would be a climax: the entire Christ event—incarnation, teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Act four is the Church, God with us in the Holy Spirit, even now. Finally, act five: Consummation, when we look for the return of Christ to establish the everlasting kingdom.

This is the grand five-act play of God: Creation, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation. And this isn’t just regular theater, where we merely sit and watch. No, God has made this some sort of participatory theater. God has set the stage for us in Creation and has been calling for us to get up at each act in Covenant, Christ, and Church. We are onstage!

Which play would you rather be in? The one that barely scratches the surface or the one that’s utterly epic, where the depths can never be fully figured out? Maybe you aren’t much of an actor. So be it! This is improvisational theater, and the Holy Spirit will give you what you need to be in this play.

This is what Christ the King is meant to remind us—that we are in a grand story and—hopefully, this won’t be a spoiler—we are in a comedy. We are in a comedy and comedies have happy endings. 

When you read God’s story, which is also our story, evil after evil is woven into a larger and larger tale and God makes good from that evil. From the disobedience of Adam and Eve to the betrayal of Joseph’s brothers, to David’s lust, to Peter’s denial, to the Cross, God continuously redeems evil in the larger tapestry of good because we are in a comedy. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if justice was only a feel-good activity? If we could practice kindness and build relationships and do joy-filled activities in healthy unity without effort what a beautiful world it would be. Anyone who has built a deep and authentic relationship with another person, be it family or friend or romantic partner, knows it’s usually a bit more complicated than that. Even our relationship with the land we live on is one that requires learning and care and effort. Yes, we can enjoy a beautiful sunset stroll beside a lake or a vigorous hike on a favorite trail, but creation care is also a journey of legislative advocacy and indigenous wildflower planting and recycling, listening and learning, and yes, putting in work.

We are loved and freed but freed to serve God without restraint or other allegiance. We interact with the magnificent world around us which strengthens and encourages and sustains us so that we can continue to work for the glory of God and to bring about the beautiful kingdom in which the entire world is healed. Part of our freedom is our commitment to learning and repairing harm so we can heal the relationships we are called to deepen across boundaries as loving Christians. In the entire Earth will see Jesus. The entire Earth, regardless of affiliation or denomination or political party, we will all be held accountable together. If we are to be accountable together then we should be called to work together and lift each other up in partnership.

We know we can all have a richer relationship with God’s people and God’s creation. We’re all very much a work in progress. As we build these relationships though, it’s beautiful to encounter God in the ancient earth, symbol of all that was, and in God’s people, all that is. If such beauty exists there, I can only imagine what beauty exists in what will be.