St. Paul's Episcopal Church
When you heard the gospel lesson today, you might have felt the urge to double-check the calendar. After all, we usually hear the story of Jesus' crucifixion when we are headed into Easter--we don't normally associate this story with a Sunday in autumn. This particular Sunday, though--the Sunday at the end of our liturgical year before we start all over again with Advent--is known as Christ the King Sunday. It's a day when we reflect on the image of Jesus as king (which, as we know, is just one of many images used to describe Jesus) and ponder what that royal image might say to us about who Jesus is and what he expects of us. If we look again at the gospel lesson we will see that the reference to Jesus as king, King of the Jews, is prominent, and so it actually is a fitting passage for today.
When we think of royalty, we likely have a wide range of associations with the term. We may think of the traditional items associated with kings and queens and their heirs--things like crowns, thrones, scepters, lavish capes, and horse-drawn carriages. There are also more contemporary associations like televised royal weddings, Kate Middleton's hats, and even Disney princesses. Kings and queens wield ultimate power and demand the allegiance of their subjects, gaining their authority only by virtue of who their parents are. There is a mystique that surrounds royalty, and they seem to operate on a different plane from us.
Jesus himself didn't really use this image to describe himself; he spoke a lot about the kingdom of God, but virtually never described himself as king. Even in John's gospel, which contains a large number of sayings in which Jesus describes himself using all kinds of images--shepherd, vine, living water, lamb of God--Jesus never calls himself a king. It is primarily others who place the label of king on Jesus, sometimes sincerely, such as during Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and sometimes mockingly, as we heard in today's gospel. And yet, the image of Jesus as king has made its way into our tradition. Not everyone is comfortable with this image, and there are those who prefer to call this Sunday something along the lines of "Reign of Christ Sunday," but here we have it. Jesus as king is woven into our calendar, it's found in scripture, and even the hymns we sing today have it as a central theme.
And so, what do we make of this image? We certainly don't want to associate Jesus with ruthless power or paparazzi-worthy activity. So what kind of king are we talking about? Today's readings point to Jesus as a completely new kind of king ruling over a transformed kingdom. In today's reading from Jeremiah, the prophet rails against corrupt kings and other leaders of his time who led people astray. And, going a step further, Jeremiah spoke of a time when a new leader, a different kind of king would emerge--a king who would preside with justice and righteousness.
And we understand Jesus to be this new kind of king. Today's gospel makes that crystal clear. Jesus does not wear a bejeweled crown and sit on a lofty throne--he wears a crown of thorns and hangs on a cross. His power and authority come not from coercion or any human source, but from an overflowing abundance of love, compassion and forgiveness. Even as Jesus is mocked and endures immense suffering, he offers forgiveness for his executioners. As he hangs in agony himself, he is able to listen to the appeal of the criminal who recognizes Jesus' authority, and Jesus lovingly offers this man salvation. This king is a humble man willing to endure suffering even in his innocence, extending his love and compassion in the face of unimaginable pain. This king--one who was born in a manger and who died on a cross--turns our understanding of kingship upside down.
And how can we pay tribute to this new kind of king? How do we claim citizenship in the kingdom of God--a kingdom characterized by justice, peace, love, and righteousness? We can do this by aligning our own actions with the values that Jesus demonstrated in his own life. Perhaps we need to look at ourselves and our lives in a new way, turning things upside down just as Jesus did. Through our own acts of humility, of loving sacrifice, and of forgiveness, we can honor our unlikely king. Just as Jesus, wearing his painful crown as he hung on the cross, asked for forgiveness for his tormenters and offered words of hope to the criminal nearby, so we can move past what may challenge us and separate us from each other to strive for reconciliation in a broken world. There may be times when the image of a powerful royal Christ on a throne inspires us, but we should also remember that God as revealed in Christ was willing to step down from that throne to be among us, to love us, to suffer with us, and to show us how to love each other--that is the kind of king worthy of our praise.