Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church year. It seems appropriate to end the church year with a feast celebrating the coming of Christ, but if we look at the history of the feast we see that the images of Jesus of Nazareth and Christ the King are different. And they have been used throughout history in subtly different ways, so it is difficult to understand this feast.
As a principle feast of the Church, Christ the King was only introduced in 1925 when the Vatican had lost its territory and many of the European states after WWI were being converted to other types of governance than monarchies. My ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ gets a bit raised when I think of how to preach on the kingship of Christ. I think that we sometimes err when we make too much of Christ’s kingship without understanding what it meant.
Jesus was not a king. He was an itinerant rabbi or holy man in the boondocks of the Gallilee. But according to John’s gospel, he is accused of having kingly aspirations by Pilate. What did Pilate mean? Pilate was in Jerusalem in order to keep the peace during the time of pilgrimage of Passover. It was a volatile time in Jerusalem; there was political unrest.
Jesus preached a relationship with God that freed people from earthly powers. Jesus’ message was of a spiritual liberation that called people to remember their rootedness in the God of David and Solomon. He taught a type of faith in the Holy One of Israel that would unite people to recognize that the God of Israel was still present to them and not merely the arbiter of the Law or the receiver of sacrifices. Jesus was teaching a type of understanding of their faith that was outside the realm of the Pharisees or the Sadducee parties that kept the whole of Judaism in turmoil. He taught about a God who was readily available to all people by virtue of their trust. But Jesus was not teaching about a personal savior. God saved nations. People in Jesus’ time did not think of society in the terms of ‘what can it do for me?’ The type of individualism that we recognize today just was not part of the way that people thought in those days. Personal salvation meant little—they thought of themselves as a “People”. And that God was the God of their set of tribes, or peoples even though their government had been coerced into the Roman Empire.
The Messiah was both a spiritual leader in the minds of the people as well as a secular leader. It was that secular leader that the Romans feared, and it was for the crime of inciting riots that Jesus was wrongfully crucified.
So what are we to make of Christ the King? I think that we need to look at what leadership means. Initially the People of Israel were a tribal people and leadership was by far more organic. The leader was often the patriarch of the people who traveled with him whether they were blood kin or not. But for the safety of the tribe, the leader was one who could care for his people. The image often was characterized by the role of the shepherd—on who cared for his animals but also protected his wealth. For the shepherd, his wealth was in his sheep; for the king, his wealth was in his people.
It was not until the time of Constantine that the image of Christ as King evolves into the richly adorned and magnificently adorned. Christ’s raiment began to look more like Byzantine courtiers than the simple rabbi that he was. And that image stuck. Even in our own minds, Christ the King is the resurrected one on the cross.
But what would it be like if we thought of leadership in different terms? What if, we expected our leaders to sit with the ‘council of the elders’ in our own day? What if we understood leadership to be one who listened to the desires of her followers and mediated what they needed rather than what would give them payback? What if our leadership provided direction for us to live our lives freely and with respect for one another? What if our leaders were persons of integrity rather than those who needed titles and privilege?
I believe that the life of Jesus of Nazareth gives that kind of image of leadership, not the image of king. We now live in a totally different world than that of Jesus of Nazareth. But I do believe that the way that Jesus lived shows us the kind of leadership that is expected of Christian leaders and Christian followers. I am not talking about the ‘Jesus, meek and mild’ image that we often grew up with. I am talking about the leadership of one who saw the suffering of the world as something needed to be addressed and ease wherever possible. I am talking about leaders that depend not on law but compassion to keep order.
This parish is full of leadership. We have people who are very talented and very self-less. We have immensely talented folk here. We are a people who often have to lead in our work and even in our play. We have everything from leaders in industry and economics and teachers to leaders of cub scouts in this parish. And at the same time, we are all followers. We follow Christ. We understand that in order to lead, we also must be able to follow. And we look upon Christ to be the kind of leader that we can follow in our lives.
Personally, I have a hard time following the kind of Christ the King that is being portrayed in much of Christian art today. The kind of leadership I see in Christ my Lord is the one who washed feet and allowed his feet to be anointed. The kind of leadership I see in Jesus is one who told the truth even when it hurt, but always stayed until the hurt was gone. The kind of leadership I see in Christ the Alpha and Omega, is the beginning and end of how I want to treat others and how I want to be treated. It is the kind of leadership that makes me personally and me as a part of the whole, more responsible, more capable of loving and more resilient to the vagaries of life.
Christ is my king but not in the way that others think. Christ is the center of my universe. Jesus’ life becomes the pattern for my own. But I try to live my own individuality washed in the image of Christ’s compassion for the world. I look for the qualities of compassion, fearlessness and concern for others in those I follow. And when I must lead, I do not let the Pilates of my life call me king either. I must not conform to those secular norms for leadership that have accreted themselves to the title “Christ the King.” If I want a new leadership for the world, I must begin with me. I must ask myself to lead in ways that are compassionate and I must be willing to follow those who are. AMEN