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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Christ the King Sunday - November 26, 2006

There’s plenty in the Bible about Jesus as king.  Even before he was born, the angel told Mary, “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  After Jesus’ birth wise men from the East came asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”  When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday his followers were reminded of the prophetic words, “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey.”  When he died on the cross later in that same week, over his head was an inscription written in three languages, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  The book of Revelation hails Jesus as “Lord of lords and King of kings.”

Yet in today’s gospel, Pilate asks, “So you are a king?” and Jesus doesn’t really answer.  He just says, “You say I am a king.”

It’s a little bit strange perhaps, that this last Sunday of the Church year is called Christ the King Sunday.  Despite the biblical instances of the title of king, it’s one that Jesus himself did not embrace.  There are many “I am” statements from Jesus in the gospel of John, I am the good shepherd, I am the bread of life, I am the vine, but he never says, “I am the king.”  My guess is that few of us would claim this image as our favorite for Jesus either.  We’re more fond of Jesus as shepherd, friend, brother, teacher, healer, things like that.  Still, it was the idea of Jesus as a king who somehow threatened the ruling kings of his day that got him in trouble and led to his death.  It’s a problematical title.

On top of that, the ways this particular title has been used have often not been very flattering to the religion which claims Christ’s name.  The title of king came down from the cross and moved out into the world of empires and nations; the cross itself then came to adorn flags and public buildings representing political movements whose policies have not always been in line with the teachings of this one they call king. 

The identity of Christ as King also got some of Jesus’ followers in trouble as time went on.  In the early years of Christianity followers of Jesus were persecuted for claiming Christ as king, persecuted for failing to show proper loyalty to Caesar as king.  That all changed when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the tables were turned and those who didn’t claim Christ as king were persecuted.

Christ as king has a somewhat troubled history on a number of fronts so it is a little surprising that this day is on the calendar.  It might be easier to understand if it had been celebrated since the days of early church, one of those celebrations that has just always been there, but that’s not the case.  It has only been around since 1925 and has only been the last Sunday of the church year since 1969, just the blink of an eye in terms of church history. 

Why perpetuate a Sunday called Christ the King when it seems so fraught with problems?  Why not just call it the last Sunday after Pentecost which is one of the options for today?  Or another option is to call it Reign of Christ Sunday.  Either of those choices might be preferable because they can lead us away from the problematical title of king and toward the kingdom which Jesus announces.  Jesus never identified himself as a king but he does talk a lot about a kingdom; the kingdom of God or sometimes the kingdom of heaven, not that what he is talking about in reference to this kingdom is always perfectly clear.  But references to the kingdom are numerous and in today’s gospel we get Jesus’ statement to Pilate that, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

That’s an important verse for a couple of reasons.  First of all it says that Jesus’ kingdom is not organized according to the prevailing orders of the day.  That immediately calls into question all those throughout history who have used force and coercion in Jesus’ name to further political and nationalistic and religious agendas.  Jesus consistently upsets the power structures of this world.  His kingdom is about another way to be and that can’t be overemphasized. 

My kingdom is not from this world.  Note that Jesus says not from this world as opposed to not in this world.  This is significant too because it calls into question the Left Behind types who would say that God hates the things of this world and wants to destroy them, that we should be looking to get out of this world because the only things that matter are those things that relate to the heavenly realm.  Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, but it is in this world, at least in glimpses.  For now, our call is to live in this world, not to try and escape from it, but to help make known this kingdom of which Jesus spoke by modeling the sacrifice and compassion which was his life.

What this day and this title for Jesus ultimately brings us back to is the idea of a servant king.  At first servant king seems like a contradiction in terms.  Kings aren’t servants, they have servants.  On the other hand, if you think about politicians when they run for office (and mercifully we don’t have to think about it too much for awhile) when asked why they are running they never say, “Because I lust for power and want to rule over people,” even though that may be the truth.  They always say, “Because I want to serve the people.” 

Jesus, if he is a king, serves rather than rules over.  That’s the model of kingship that he provides.  We, his subjects, serve rather than rule over as the means by which we announce his kingdom to others, the means by which we enable others to know what his kingdom is all about.  There definitely is a servant component to the kingship of Jesus and that’s important, but let me not water down the king title of Jesus too much.  It is somewhat problematical and it is an image of Jesus that has been misused in some ways.  But it still is an image for Jesus that we need.  This is Christ the king Sunday after all, not Christ the servant Sunday.

As much as we might prefer some of the other images of Jesus, they can run the risk of becoming a bit too user friendly as they can highlight Jesus’ humanity at the expense of his divinity.  The fully human/fully divine nature of Jesus is one of the mysteries of the faith, one that we do better to accept and dwell in rather than try to figure out.  It is incomprehensible to our human minds, but the divine nature of Jesus reminds us that while he is like us, he is also other than us.  We can’t just be buddy buddy with Jesus.  At some level we have to keep our distance and approach him only with respectful awe.  Jesus as king may be the best image we have to remind us of this.

Christ as King also reminds us of the obedience aspect of our relationship with him.  Kings expect to be obeyed.  Now Jesus’ expectation isn’t an in your face, rule with an iron fist kind of expectation.  His teachings provide a guide for life.  It’s a guide that does frequently run contrary to the ways of the world; it’s a guide that none of us can come close to keeping perfectly.  But Jesus doesn’t provide this guide so that we can ignore it.  It’s an invitation to life in his kingdom.  In obedience we are granted glimpses, we live out glimpses of this kingdom ruled by Christ the King.  Our relationship with Christ the King begins in obedience but it’s more than obedience as from there we begin to understand the graceful nature of this kingdom and the graceful nature of its ruling king.

As problematical as the image of Christ the King may be, it’s still an important one.  Perhaps, especially for Lutherans, it is the right one with which to end the church year.  Understood properly it is a law and gospel image; law in the sense of reminding us of obedience owed the king; gospel in the sense of reminding us of the grace of the servant king.  We need both.  To end the church year, perhaps it is the perfect image.
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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