Here we are at the end of the season of Pentecost. For many months now we have been walking with Jesus during his earthly ministry. We have seen him teach, preach, pray, heal, and challenge. Next week we begin again with Advent as we wait in hope and expectation for Jesus’ birth and when we wait in hope and expectation for his coming again. But before we enter Advent, we have this strange Sunday called Christ the King Sunday, which I have to admit that until recently I didn’t like a whole lot and really didn’t understand.
So, what is this little feast that comes around once a year wedged between the ordinary season of Pentecost and the season of expectation, Advent? Well, it is our newest liturgical celebration. It was created in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. In the aftermath of that terrible global tribulation, World War I, Pope Pius found himself very troubled. Though there had been a cessation of hostilities, there was no true peace. He was disturbed by the rise of class divisions and unbridled nationalism.
In July 1925 Adolf Hitler published the first volume of his manifesto, Mein Kampf. In August 1925, approximately 40,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched on Washington, D.C. With membership of nearly 5 million, the KKK was reputed to be the largest fraternal organization in the U.S. at the time. In October, the Locarno Treaties divided Europe into eastern and western sections. The aftermath of World War I saw growing nationalist sentiment throughout the world. That same year, Mussolini became the fascist head of the Italian Republic and was actively trying to win over Italy’s Roman Catholic majority through several religious appeasements. Pope Pius wanted to counter what he saw to be unhealthy nationalism and called the church to declare Christ’s kingship over all of creation. In other words, no matter one’s nation of citizenship, a Christ follower’s first identity and allegiance is to Jesus. Pope Pius believed that true peace can only be found under the Kingship of Christ as “Prince of Peace.”
For much of my ordained life I struggled with this feast because I erroneously thought that the kind of nationalism and class division that Pope Pius witnessed was a thing of the past. Surely, I thought, we have learned from our mistakes, and this won’t happen again. Yes, I was naïve. I think I also struggled with the idea of Christ as King because kingship seems so antithetical to who Jesus is. It was difficult for me to grasp that this is exactly the point of this feast. The whole idea of Christ as King is to turn kingship on its head and to show that God’s vision of kingship or power is something very different from earthly kingship or power.
But now we have all lived through the past few years and we can see clearly just how easy it is for humans to succumb to the idolatry of authoritarian leaders. We have watched as populist candidates who aspire to be kings espouse nationalist, white-supremacist, anti-immigration, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-democratic policies. And we have watched as millions have rallied around them and raised them up across the world and right here in the United States. And a large percentage of those supporting these would be kings call themselves Christian and claim to follow Christ. These supporters of authoritarian leaders even believe that God has anointed these would be kings and that in supporting them they are doing the will of God. It seems now more than ever we need to be reminded of who the true King is, what Godly kingship is, and what it means to follow Christ the King.
I think the best place to jump in is to talk about what sort of king Jesus is. We say that Jesus is God incarnate. In other words, God came into the world in Jesus to show us as much about God as a limited human being is able and to show us what it means to be a human made in God’s image. So, when we see Jesus, we see God’s vision for this world. We see the world as God would have it be. And what do we see when we see Jesus? Well, let’s look at our Gospel reading for today from Luke.
It feels like a strange passage to be reading as we approach the seasons of Advent and Christmas, but it really isn’t. It perfectly demonstrates how God sees and exercises power. What is revealed about God’s power in this passage is 180 degrees different from how humans frequently see and exercise power, particularly humans who aspire to be kings or support those who aspire to be kings. Jesus has been arrested not because he was violent, or transgressed the property rights of other people, or harmed other people in any way. He was arrested because he challenged the would-be kings of his day and age by defending the oppressed, the prisoner, the poor, the outcast and the widow. He held up God’s vision of a world in which those who have more than they need give their excess to those who don’t have enough, including their excess of power and privilege. This was a terrifying vision for those who were quite happy with the way the status quo and so they use the worldly systems of the Roman Empire to arrest Jesus and put him to death.
In the Roman Empire, there was no more shaming, dis-honoring, dis-empowering way to execute someone than crucifixion. Crucifixion was only perpetrated on people of the lower classes and who were not Roman citizens. It was not a glorious death. It was a shameful death. It was a death meant to teach the living a lesson and to strike fear in their hearts. And you can see the shame in our passage for today. Not only does Jesus have to die a slow, painful, and horrible death, but he has to do it while hearing people laugh and scoff at him. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” We may repeat the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me,” but we know it really isn’t true. Words are just as painful as any physical violence ever purported to be.
And what does Jesus do? He forgives them. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” He turns the other cheek. He forgives seventy times seven. He doesn’t respond to violent words with violent words. He responds with peace. This is true kingship. This is godly kingship. This is godly power, and it is very different from the way we are used to thinking of power. We usually think of power as power over—force, violence, control and the like. But God’s power is love. It is power with. It is empowering. It is peace.
I recently read a very interesting article from The Christian Century written by theologians John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan and I want to share with you a few paragraphs from the article:
As we’ve traveled and studied the Bible and early human civilizations, it’s become increasingly clear to us that the main problem from which humans need to be saved is escalatory violence. Anthropologists have shown that 5,000 years ago, on the Mesopotamian plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, at the dawn of civilization, the escalatory nature of human violence was already evident. It was, in fact, the midwife that rocked that cradle of civilization as the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic climaxed there. One can also see this intensification of violence in the biblical story, from Cain in Genesis 4:15 to Lamech in Genesis 4:24—including the inaugural mention of sin in Genesis 4:7.
Sociology has also uncovered the escalatory nature of human violence. Since Homo sapiens spread out from Africa 70,000 years ago, we have never invented weapons we did not use, nor created ones less lethal than those they replaced. We moved inexorably from iron sword to atomic bomb in about 3,000 years. As civilization’s drug of choice, intensifying violence deludes us into believing that peace on earth will result from global control, that nonviolence will finally derive from consummate violence.
If civilization saves us from barbarism, what saves us from civilization itself? This question is not just a moral or religious one but a historical and evolutionary challenge. Are we a magnificent but inevitably doomed species? Given our historic trajectory of escalatory violence, what can save our species from itself?
Very deliberately, Jesus of Nazareth lived by and died from incarnating one obvious answer—indeed, surely the only possible answer. Programmatic nonviolent resistance to violence alone can end civilization’s trajectory of escalation.
In other words, understanding what true kingship is, seeing Christ as King, and following that king rather than the would-be kings of this world is vital not so that we will enter heaven when we die, but because we won’t survive as a species if we don’t. Violence begets violence whether that violence is directed at our fellow human beings, other animals, or the earth itself. The cycle of violence perpetuates itself. The only way to stop the cycle of violence is to step out of the cycle itself. Just look at the power of the movements created by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. When violence meets up with the peace of God, the true nature of the ones perpetrating the violence is revealed.
And though it may feel at times like the would-be kings are winning, that violence has the upper hand, we need to remind ourselves that this is not the truth. Every time violence is met with peace, God’s kingdom breaks into this world just a little bit. Every time you or I meet violence with peace, God’s kingdom breaks into this world just a little bit. Every time we treat another person or any part of creation with dignity, kindness and respect a little piece of God’s kingdom breaks into this world. Every time we place somebody else’s needs before our wants, God’s kingdom breaks into this world just a little bit. Every time we use any privilege we might have to stand up for those on the margins of our world, a little piece of God’s kingdom breaks into this world. Every time we forgive rather than seek vengeance, a little piece of God’s kingdom breaks into this world. Every time we choose to follow Christ the King, the Prince of Peace, rather than the would-be kings of this world, a little bit of God’s kingdom breaks into this world. May Christ forever and always be the only king to which we give our allegiance and our lives. Amen.
 John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, “Rising up with Christ.” The Christian Century. January 19, 2018. Retrieved from Christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/rising-christ.