I feel tense on this liturgical holiday of Christ the King. I feel tense because I’m not so sure how to celebrate Christ as King – as ruler, as the One who reigns – when the world seems to defy that truth with every turn. One of our seniors, Ben Skeen, attested to an example of this conflicting reality in a Facebook post: "Ah Black Friday. The time of the year where people line up at obscene hours to buy stuff they don’t need for cheap just hours after giving thanks for what they already have." The tensions between hope and reality pour out this time of year. Where is Christ as our King in times like these? How is the Kingdom of God embodied here and now? As we celebrated abundance on Thursday, how many were not welcomed to feast on food and love and family? As we look forward to the coming of the Christ child and of a season rooted in hope, how many feel a deep sense of loss and loneliness? As we snuggle by warm fires with hot chocolate and carols, how many are shivering in the cold hollows of highway overpasses? As we hear songs with the ceaseless jingling of bells and reminder to be joyful, how many are silently suffering from depression? And then here, today, how can we celebrate Christ as King when it seems we, the kingdom, wander from the Shepherd’s fold at every chance we get?
I must admit that I also feel tense because Christ as King is a really difficult title for me to accept. Every social justice and feminist bone in my body lengthens against hierarchy and dominion. I struggle with the word "king" as history swirls in my head of dictators and deceit and caste systems and all the awful -isms that have prevented equality for thousands of years. I squirm at the idea of Christ wearing any kind of crown except the crown of thorns. I dismiss the ancient gilded images of Kingly Jesus, wondering if anyone ever truly understood that Christ came as a rebel to overturn the kingdoms of this world. All of this might make me a heretic but I’ll venture to assume that some of you are with me in my heresy. What does Christ as King actually mean to us here, today? What did it mean for Christ before Pilate in his trial so many years ago?
In the scene where we meet Jesus today, Pilate is looking for clarification. It is important to remember the political context of Pilate, of Jesus, of the trial. Pilate serves Rome and therefore, serves the emperor Tiberius. In the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ trial, there is but one ruler – Tiberius. Any threat to that kingship is a threat to what the nation knows and therefore, is a threat to every political, social, and economical sphere. That scares Pilate, scares the people. Tiberius is not interested in sharing the throne but then again, neither is Jesus.
Pilate asks Jesus, "‘So are you a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.’" (v. 37a) Now when Pilate hears this, he hears the title "king" and thinks of Tiberius’ empire. Pilate’s framework is limited. Jesus knows that Pilate is a bit dense and that we are, too, and so he tries to put it in language Pilate can hear. Christ claims he is a king but appends his title with a modifier befitting of only the holy – he came to testify to the truth. "Truth" is what sets Tiberius and Christ apart for the Roman Empire’s power comes from worldly gain while Christ’s power comes from eternal certainty. Jesus is not the kind of king Pilate knows and Jesus is not the kind of king we expect, either.
This is the part of the text that reminds me how totally depraved I am. When I wrestled with Jesus’ words from John, I realized that I had been using a framework for king that was so of-this-world, it didn’t do any justice to my faith. It is as if I forgot the other stories from the gospels where I believed in Jesus as miracle-worker and messenger of God’s good news. When I get to this scene, I fall into place with the rest of the people and with Pilate and try to fit Jesus into a frame that cannot fully accommodate his boundlessness.
But by grace alone, I am reminded that in this part of the text, there is also a call to new life. I – we – are invited by Jesus to breakdown the framework of all we know and be the kingdom Christ describes us to be. Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world and that his followers do not live as expected. I think Jesus is saying to us, "Do not conform yourself to limits set by earthly beings but instead live as a people who belong to a radical king. Live with the message I modeled for you: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with me." Christ’s reign as king cannot be fully known without us being the kingdom he calls us to be.
That’s why today, the last day of the liturgical year, is centered on this text. Christ the King Sunday is the final eschatological (or end times) dream – it is the hope of what Jesus wanted us to be – a kingdom that does not find power in the Roman Empire then nor whatever dominates us now. This day is a reminder of what Christ as King could actually look like: all are fed, all are welcomed, all are healed, all are honored, all are heard, all have a place in the kingdom. We celebrate today because we have hope that God reigns even in a world as tense as ours.
But to realize Christ’s hope for us, we’re called to start at the beginning – to start with the advent of God among us as Emmanuel. Christ the King Sunday is strategically placed at the end of the liturgical calendar, to remind us what we’re capable of being as Christ’s kingdom and invite us immediately into a chance to start again before the kingdom even began. Next week is like New Year’s Day, the starting point for the rest of the year. We’ll walk with Christ in his journey from birth, to ministry, to death, to resurrection, to transfiguration, to the Pentecost and to the life of the early church. We’ll return here again a year from now a people who’ve heard the story yet again. And I wonder – will we come to Christ the King Sunday as a kingdom proclaiming a new reign?
Our psalm from this morning gives me hope that we will. Return to it with me. David has promised to build God a temple as a sign of the covenant between them. This sanctuary has two purposes – for God to dwell and for the people to worship. But the sanctuary needs to be built first in order for God to dwell in it and then for the people to come and worship God there. The framework needs to be built. The framework can only be built by those who keep the covenant, by those who live out the kingdom as God intended it. God is King, surely, but without a place to dwell and without people to worship God, how can God fully reign?
Friends, there is no doubt in my heart that when Christ said to Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world," he meant you and me. My faith rests on knowing that Christ knew that living in this world and yet answering to Him would require struggle, would require a living out of a different kind of kingdom. Christ knew that being His living kingdom would call us to believe in a world beyond ours, to trust in not our own powers and works but in God’s, to be humble enough to know that we have a long way to go. But Christ knew this was the Good News: we have the capacity to be the living kingdom and to call Christ as our King. Begin with me again, friends, and let us enter this year ready to build a sanctuary for God to reign. Amen.