+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this Feast of Christ the King we are invited to meditate on a rather foreign concept to us modern, Western people. We have no king in this nation; though sometimes looking at the nastiness that seems to define Washington at present we may wish we had one. Even those European countries which have maintained a monarchy have kept the institution while gradually stripping it of its political power over the course of centuries. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around what that image of Jesus on his “throne of glory” is all about. The best image most of us have of kingship is from things like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.
But the reality is, none of our images in popular culture really gets to the heart of the biblical view of kingship. We must, then, remind ourselves of the political milieu of the first century. The Jews were, as happened so many times during their history, a people ruled by heathen outsiders. While much can be said of the benefits Roman rule brought to the Ancient Near East as well as Europe, the reality is that those subjected to such rule without consent were not inclined to appreciate an Emperor governing from a thousand miles away. While governance by consent is a hopelessly anachronistic concept, we can nonetheless appreciate the fact that the Jews would have been none-too-happy about the arrangement, just like I said last week regarding the Jews during the period of Seleucid rule during which Daniel was written. To make things worse, Roman rule was not a benign institution in this part of the ancient world. Granted, most Roman governors made shrewd concessions to those practicing the Jewish religion in order to keep the peace (concessions which former empires, like the Hellenists, had failed to make). Even so, the uneasy peace which would ultimately break apart roughly thirty years after the death of Christ was constantly tested by regressive taxation and occasional violent persecution.
Suffice it to say, Roman rule in Israel was predicated on one overarching goal- namely, the accumulation and protection of power in the hands of a few individuals. There is no sense of a social contract in this period, no commonwealth. Contemporary anarchists have no idea how good we have it today, in a nation which (for all of its flaws) recognizes that, to some extent at least, we’re all in it together. I mean, these days we at least get tax breaks for doing what we ought to be doing anyway, like contributing to the church and to charities.
This being the context, Jesus’ action in as our sovereign is all the more radical. I think the most clear example of this is our Lord’s action during his crucifixion. As the King reigning from his throne, the cross, Jesus welcomes a stranger, a criminal, into his kingdom. He doesn’t require proper documentation or a citizenship exam or the promise to pay taxes. He doesn’t ask the criminal hanging beside him if he’s really a terrorist out to infiltrate the Kingdom of God. In response to nothing more than sincere desire, our meek king said “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The King of Glory is a King whose law is love, and (as I’ve said from this pulpit many times before) Christian love is not about warm, sentimental feelings; it’s about treating those people we call brothers and sisters as if they really were our brothers and sisters. It’s about comforting the weak and feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and putting the stranger’s needs before our own.
And when I say “stranger”, I mean it. If Christ is truly King, it means that His Law is universal. It really means that we are obliged to see our God and King in people outside our own community. It means we treat the stranger just as well as the person already inside our walls, because in a very real sense the stranger is our King. It means we have to welcome the criminal, just like Jesus did. It’s easy to prop up those whom we see as “our own” (which phrase, by the by, implies a rather disturbing sense of ownership we claim over those who wish to live their lives in community with us). It’s far more difficult to see Jesus in the outsider and thus to treat that outsider as if he were more important than ourselves. As William Tyndale, father of the English Bible, famously put it, “The Church is the one institution that exists for those outside it.” I fear, sometimes, that we’ve forgotten that.
In all events, the Kingship of Christ is not only different from the kingship of the emperor; it is diametrically opposed to the spirit of our age- the spirit which revels in individualism and so-called enlightened self interest. There is no place in the Kingdom for ethical egoism. I am not sure which is worse: an Emperor in Rome or a king in every man’s self-estimation. Whichever is worse, the latter is the contemporary sin, and it is more dangerous than the former at least as it regards our souls.
So our response to the Kingship of Christ is pretty simple. It is in loving sacrifice that we involve ourselves in Christ’s Kingship. It is in that remarkable paradox in which we see Christ reigning not only from His Throne of Glory, but from the Cross of Shame with a Crown bejeweled by thorns. Our own Glory, our own Kingship is bought on that more shameful throne with that most heavy crown, and our acceptance of the reign which Christ wishes to give us is a condition of our willingness to take up that Cross, put on that crown and follow.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.