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Re-imaging Christ the King

Last Sunday marked the end of the Christian calendar year and was celebrated by churches all around the world as Christ the King Sunday. Personally, I think Jesus would have been appalled at the title, but let’s take a look at it. Where did it come from? Why is it celebrated? And what do we do with it?

(For the full video version, click here.)

Let’s start back in the time of Jesus. Who would have been called King? Caesar! Among other titles he used were Lord, son of God, savior, king of kings, and lord of lords. In addition, he was spoken of as the one who had brought peace on earth. Early Christians transferred all of this language to Jesus. It was a direct political challenge to Caesar’s power and authority. Caesar was not Lord, Jesus was. Caesar was not the Savior who brought peace, Jesus was. In fact, in a few short weeks, we'll hear the angel in the Gospel of Luke announce to the shepherds that a child is born in the City of David, a savior, who is the Messiah (the Christ in Greek), the Lord, who will bring peace on earth.

We are very used to the language of Lord or King for Jesus, but at the time, it was a challenge to the authority of the empire. As Marcus Borg points out in his book The Heart of Christianity, “To use [an example] from more recent times, it is like Christians in Nazi Germany saying, “Jesus is mein Fuhrer” – and thus Hitler is not.” That sort of talk tends to get people killed.

Not only does Christ the King Sunday celebrate the elevation of Jesus to kingly status over heaven and earth, but it also often anticipates the second coming of Jesus. You see, Jesus’ followers who believed in him as the Messiah, the anointed one who would free them from oppression from Rome and bring the completion of God’s kingdom of peace to earth, were sorely disappointed when he was executed and nothing had changed. So, they changed the story to a future coming at the end of times. So, for many Christian churches they use this day to continue to anticipate the return of Jesus.

So, what do we do with this? Frankly, it is possible that all this works for you (if so, you can stop reading now), but it never worked for me. Jesus, was not my King, but a wise teacher who was approachable, kind, compassionate and deeply connected to God and willing to share that. Nor was Jesus a divine being who couldn’t get it right the first time and so would return at the end of the world to take the righteous with him to Heaven and leave the rest of humanity to deal with the torment of the apocalypse. Because this never worked for me, I mostly just ignored it.

But as I am becoming more and more conscious of the spiritual language we use, and it is hard to avoid the title of Lord and King for Jesus, especially as we come to the traditional Christmas songs and stories, I decided that perhaps this was a good time to talk about it and do some re-imaging of King Jesus.

Think about the image the title "king" evokes for you. For me it conjures up a picture of a regal man on a throne, clothed in rich fabrics, bejeweled and crowned, and attended by a throng of servants. King speaks to me of wealth and power and elitism.

In pre-modern times a kingdom was typically characterized by three things: 

  • Political oppression – ordinary people had no voice. They were ruled by the wealthy and elite
  • Economic exploitation – 1-5% of the population had half to two-thirds of the wealth. 90% of the population lived in severe poverty and subsistence living, there was much malnourishment and disease.
  • Domination system was divinely legitimated. Kings ruled by divine right, their powers and privilege were given by God.

None of this sounds like Jesus to me. About the only way I think we can envision Jesus and the Kingdom of God, which he talked so much about, is to envisionhim as an upside-down king over an upside-down kingdom.

"King" Jesus was not wealthy and elite, but a peasant, a good Jewish carpenter, who had no land, no throne, no place to lay his head. He didn’t seek to be served, but to serve. He didn’t want power-over others, but to empower others or share power with others.

And if he had a Kingdom, it was not an earthly realm, but in the words he so often used, it was the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. If we simply listen to the beatitudes we hear that this kingdom to the poor, and in it the hungry will be filled, the meek will inherit the land, those who struggle for justice will know the justice of the God’s kingdom, and those who work for peace are truly the children of the kingdom. Also, in the kingdom, those who sorrow and grieve will laugh and be consoled. Now, all this sounds much more like the Jesus I know!

Because we don't live in a kingdom, the irony and the subversiveness of calling him a king is missed on us. But those who listened to Jesus at the time would have heard the comparison to the earthly kingdom:

Kingdom (individuals) vs. kindom (community) or Kingdom of God/Heaven

Private vs. public

Power over vs. shared power or empowerment

Dependence vs. interdependence

Obey vs. free and equal voice

Human injustice in the domination system where all people were not created equally vs. God’s justice

So, when we hear Jesus as King as have to do the translation in our heads. He is the king that lifts up the lowly, brings peace to our hearts and our world, and empowers us.

Do you remember the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. He hid behind the curtain and spoke loudly into a microphone dictating his will and decrees. But when he was exposed, he merely gave to Dorothy, the scarecrow, the lion and the tinman what they already had. He empowered them to be their best, fullest selves. We’ve sort of put Jesus behind the curtain of a robe and crown and enthroned him at the right hand of God, but truly his teachings are meant to empower each of us to be our best, fullest selves.

Mother Theresa once spoke at Marquette University and a student asked her how she would feel about her almost inevitable sainthood by the Catholic Church. She told him she wouldn’t like it at all. The audience laughed, but she told them that she was serious, she wasn’t doing anything they couldn’t do.

Jesus tried to point out the same thing to his followers. He taught them about God’s great love and showed them how to love others. He taught them and showed them what forgiveness looked like. He was an example of inclusive compassion and stood up for the marginalized, outcast and oppressed. He said that being great wasn’t about being on top, but about serving others. This is the kingdom, he said, it begins by growing inside you and then is lived by you in the world. And, oh, by the way, this is how one honors the divine, by living with this merciful, compassionate, loving spirit… not by how you pray, or what you eat, or where you worship, or what laws you follow. Finally Jesus told them that they could do even greater things (really, check out John 14:12).

So, this is the culmination of the Christian year… remembering the upside-down king of the upside-down kingdom of God. The kingdom that we’re called to find within us and live outside of us.

The coming weeks of Advent will make much more sense if we are able to remember all this.

Love & Light!

Kaye