Hey, Bill, Tell Us Something Cool: Late November 2021
On Sunday, November 21, we came to the last Sunday of the Church Year, the last Sunday after Pentecost, the Sunday next before Advent, when we will begin all over again our rehearsal of the life of Jesus and the life of the Church.
In recent years, that Sunday came to serve as the commemoration of Christ the King, a day we have borrowed from our Roman Catholic companions. This observance was initiated in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. It was not in the calendar before that. It was not known to the Early or Reformation Church. It was not known in the Episcopal Prayer Books and lectionaries either, prior to the current revision.
What about Jesus as a king? Truth be told, there is an irony that shrouds this whole business, Jesus as king. It made sense for Pilate to imagine that Jesus was his political opponent. Jesus was a social disrupter, a magnet for many who sought healing and wholeness, someone who could easily have been mistaken as a political rival. His arrest, at Roman hands, and eventual death, at Roman hands, make clear how Pilate’s mistake played out.
It is also true that in John’s gospel, chapter 6.15, Jesus specifically eludes a crowd who wanted to make him king. “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Whatever the dynamic in the conversation with Pilate, kingship was not what Jesus was called to accomplish.
And the imagery of “King of kings and Lord of lords”? It occurs once in the First Letter to Timothy and twice in Revelation. It appears that this terminology was currently then used by political potentates in the Middle Eastern world, to announce their supremacy over other rulers. It too found favor with the Church.
This seems to me to make this commemoration full of irony.
Jesus, born in a manger, illegitimate, an itinerate prophetic figure, called by God in the most profound manner. Jesus, who in Matthew, Mark and Luke, is heard to say, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” [Mark 10.42b-45. Cf. Lk 222.24-27; Mt 20.28] Jesus, who in John’s gospel is depicted in this way, on the night before he died: “Jesus…got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” [13.3b-5]
Finally, and most compellingly, Paul the Apostle wrote in his Letter to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” [2.6-8].
So, we have this irony. Jesus, humble, kneeling, taking the form of a slave, emptied of divinity and about to die, this Jesus entangled in a conversation with the Roman overlord about claims of royalty. In the fullest irony, Pilate had the inscription over Jesus’ head read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
It seems to me that whereas the Church seems to have found the idea of the kingship of Jesus attractive, Jesus himself thought otherwise. When Jesus talked about kingship, he spoke, not about himself, but rather about the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God, that time when the expectations of God, the benevolence of God, the generosity and justice of God, were to be fully and completely realized. The time when God, the King of Heaven, would reign, compassionately, gracefully.
Now then, what are we to take from all this, what is there here that is nourishing and uplifting? What is there here that is strengthening of our faith?
I would urge you to hallow the God whom Jesus called “Abba, Father,” to hallow God as Jesus did. And in so doing, acknowledge the place that Jesus accepted for himself, and to be blessed by that acknowledgment, that confession.
Further, when this regal language and imagery arise associated with Jesus, I suspect he smiles, even now. Yes, he has triumphed over death and the grave. Yes, his spirit continues to nourish the Church and to sustain the hopes and dreams of people like you and me. Yes, he has promised, in due time, to take us to where he is. Yes, his experience suggests to us that even though we will die, we will not lose the companionship of God. But in all this, Jesus never claimed for himself what Pilate and others have wanted to impose upon him.
So, my friends, as Christmas approaches and you hear the marvelous music of Handel’s Messiah, especially when the chorus proclaims “Lord of lords and King of kings” who will “reign forever and ever,” please smile along with Jesus. He knows what we know. He remains Son of God and Mary’s child, the one who healed the sick, anointed the blind, traveled dusty roads with countless wanderers, told stories and parables, befriended those on the margins, died by suffocation on a cross and was raised to glory, leaving kingship to others. So, let your hearts be filled with gladness.