Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Christ the King
“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23)
Some years ago when Karla and I were living in New York City, we were invited to celebrate Passover with a Jewish family. As the meal progressed, with the repeated invocations “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe,” the proverbial irreverent uncle finally blurted out, “What is it, with all this king stuff? Who believes in kings anymore anyway?”
Well, that might be a good question for us today, on the Feast of Christ the King. Who believes in kings anymore, anyway?
The intent of today, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, is to add a big exclamation point to the story of Jesus that we have been telling since last Advent. Having worked our way through his birth, and baptism, and ministry, and death, and resurrection, and ascension, and the life in the Spirit which followed—finally, we see the point of it all with a great clarity, and so lapse into a certain air of exuberant triumphalism: Christ is King of Kings and Lord of all, as one of the day’s hymns puts it. Except that — it’s really not so clear what it all means after all. The mystery is still a mystery.
Why, just look at the gospel reading. There we see Jesus hanging on the cross, surrounded on both sides by criminals, condemned like himself to die. The text suggests that if Jesus is a king, then he is certainly not a king in anything like what we associate with the word: pomp, circumstance, protocol, privilege, power, majesty. (Just think of the new season of “The Crown” on Netflix as a point of reference — that is not what we have here!).
No, Jesus turns the idea of kingship inside out. Rather than one who is served, he is one who has come to serve, as we see in the image there at the altar of Jesus washing Peter’s feet at the Last Supper. In fact, through such acts Jesus mocks the very idea of kingly privilege throughout his life: on Palm Sunday, we recall that he arrived in Jerusalem hailed as King of the Jews, yet riding on an ass.
In a hymn that we will sing later in the service, “Blest be the king whose coming,” we will jump ahead to Advent, which already anticipates this inversion of the idea of king by placing on our lips a hymn of Christ’s humility, suggestively sung to the very same tune we will use on Palm Sunday to welcome him in, “All Glory, laud and honor, to thee redeemer king.” Except that today we sing, “Not robed in royal splendor, in power and pomp comes he, but clad as are the poorest, such his humility.”
I recently ran across the fact that in the ancient Middle Eastern world, kings were often given the title of “gardener,” because they were understood to be responsible for tending the territory, the landscape of their kingdom. A king was understood as one who provided for the care of the earth, who preserved its well-being on behalf of the people, both in the present and in generations to come.
Thinking then of Jesus as some sort of king, how interesting it is that when Mary first encounters the resurrected Jesus on Easter morning, she mistakes him for the gardener. (Hence the image in the bulletin, of “Christ the Gardener” by Edouard Manet.) Kingship as humble custodian of the land.
So on this Feast of Christ the King, if we pay attention to all the clues that are given us, we discover on multiple fronts that its meaning in the end comes from the inversion that Jesus makes of the very concept of power. He turns kingship inside out, and upside down.
And that, I think, is the message of this day for us. Jesus takes our assumptions about the way the world works, and inverts them, turning them inside out as well. At a societal level, he challenges ideologies by which we live such as the idea that life is governed by competition, rather than compassion. Or he challenges the idea that security from the intruding presence of the Other is a birthright, when he himself is in the face of that Other.
But the challenge he offers to the way we live is not just at that level. It is also deeply personal. This day Jesus asks the question of each of us: what do you hold onto that needs to be turned inside out and upside down? Is it an old resentment that you carry with you, day in and day out? Perhaps it is an attitude of indifference to someone who needs your help. Perhaps it is a lack of faith in yourself. Perhaps it is your relationship to God, or to the community. All of us have some set of internal assumptions like that, to which we defensively cling, even though they eat away at us, blocking us from living fully and gracefully.
And so on this day Christ the King comes to each of us in the humility of Jesus of Nazareth, reminding us that just as he turned kingship upside down by his own victory over sin and death, so too he can also guide us to facing what burdens us and turn it upside down and inside out as well. Isn’t that the message he gave to the repentant thief hanging on the cross next to him — today you have been released from all that has held you back in life, and be with me in the freedom of paradise? And so we join the thief in praying, “Jesus, remember me—remember each of us—when you come into your kingdom.” Amen.