There is a scene in the classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail when King Arthur and his squire are riding—well, hopping, really—through a town. The town is the classic medieval village, populated by people wearing muddy, gray clothing. As Arthur passes by in his gleaming white tunic and shining armor, one of the townspeople says to the other: “Who is that?” The second replies, “Must be a king.” “How do you know that?” asks the first. The second says, “Hasn’t got shit all over him.” I suppose that’s one way to identify a king.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
November 20, 2022
Revelation 1:4–8; Luke 23:33-43
Our impression of a king is a fairly stereotypical one. Usually in some kind of resplendent glory, usually wearing a crown. We get a little confused when monarchs appear to us in ways that defy this understanding. Aragorn doesn’t look like much of a king in The Lord of the Rings until he gets all cleaned up and puts on that crown. The scenes in the movie The Queen where Elizabeth II is shown driving her Range Rover around her Scottish estate seem somehow less “royal”. When I first learned that the Norwegian King rides the tram around town and goes skiing on the public courses, my first reaction was almost what’s the point of even having a king if he’s not going act all… kingly?
Now what does this have to do with us? Today is “Christ the King” Sunday, but it’s not a Sunday that many in the church are aware of. And while we sing hymns with royal imagery and Christmas Carols sing “This, this is Christ the King…”, “Come and worship Christ, the newborn King”, and “Glory to the newborn King!”, Jesus as “king” is not the most frequently encountered image of Christ in the church. Jesus as teacher or prophet or healer are much more prevalent in people’s imaginations. So much so that people are less comfortable with the image than they used to be. Particularly, in America where our fondness for kings is somewhat diminished.
And yet, confessing Jesus as King is at the heart of our religion. Whenever we say the name “Jesus Christ” we are not simply saying a name. We are saying a name and title: Jesus the Christ. Christ comes from the Greek word Χριστος Christos, which is simply the translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic word מְשִׁיחָא mashiah/mashiha“messiah” or “anointed one”. And while we talk all about anointing of the Spirit and Jesus’ prophetic mission, the earliest understanding of the term is of being anointed…as king.
See, the kings of ancient Israel were anointed. If we were to translate the sense of the word rather than the literal meaning, we would call Jesus “Jesus Crowned”. Every time we say the name “Jesus Christ” we are making a confession: Jesus is God’s anointed one; a king.
And it’s not the only time that we make that confession.
II. THE TEXT
In the Revelation to John, Jesus is given a number of Christological titles. He is referred to variously as “the faithful witness”, “the firstborn from among the dead”, “the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand”, “the one who is the first and the last”, “the one who has the sharp two-edged sword”, and “the one who has the key of David”, among others. In the passage we heard from tonight, among the earliest passages in the book, Jesus is identified as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
III. THE KINGS OF THE EARTH
But who are these “kings of the earth”? What do we think of when we think of kings?
Our history is replete with kings. King David, King Solomon, King Nebuchadnezzar, King Richard the Lionhearted, King Henry VIII, King Leonidas, King Alexander the Great, King Tut, King Louis XIV, King Louis the XVI, King William the Conqueror, King Charlemagne, King Faisal, King George (I, II, and III), King Montezuma, King Lapu-lapu, Genghis Khan, King Xerxes, King Artaxerxes, Czar Nicholas, Czar Ivan the Terrible, King Peter the Great, Emperor Hirohito.
And then there are the kings of fiction: King Gilgamesh, King Lear, King Elassar/Aragorn, King Arthur, King Macbeth, King Theoden, Emperor Palpatine.
And all these kings have something in common: they are either warriors or tyrants. All of their kingdoms are propped up by force. In ancient Republican Rome, the greatest insult you could heap upon a leader of Rome was to call him ‘king’ because it connoted oppression and tyranny. Kingdoms are propped up by the sword and are maintained by bloodlines and inheritance, denying power to the masses and concentrated in one family in perpetuity. Well, until the next guy comes along and establishes his family as the family in charge.
So, why on earth, would we as the church lift up the image of Christ as, of all things, a king?
IV. A KING LIKE NO OTHER
In all of the gospels, when Jesus is crucified, a charge against him is hung over his cross. In Luke’s gospel we read, “This is the King of the Jews.” In other versions, it reads simply, “King of the Jews” or “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.”
In all four gospels, this declaration of Jesus’ kingship results in mockery or offense. Some see the title and jeer at him saying things like, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Other accounts show that people are offended by this inscription, claiming it mocks them as Jews. In John’s gospel the priests say, “Don’t write ‘King of the Jews, but ‘This man said, ‘I am king of the Jews.’’” Pilate responds, “I’ve written what I’ve written.”
What all of these reactions show is that if Jesus is a king, he is not like the kind of king anyone is expecting. If he’s a king, after all, he should be able to save himself. Conversely, if this is the kind of king the Jews have, then what a wretched people they must be.
But this is all because every observer is thinking I know what a king is like, and that’s no king. But that’s precisely the point.
And what that means is that the Kingdom that Jesus has come to proclaim, is not like the kingdoms of the earth. And the King that Jesus has come to be is not like the kings of the earth. In John’s telling of the passion, Jesus tells Pilate that were his kingdom of this world his guards would have fought—that is, they would have used violence—to prevent him from going to the cross. But Christ’s kingdom does not, and he goes to the cross without a fight.
Indeed, the kings of the earth are in power through force and violence, but Christ reigns in peace and love. The kings of the earth rule over systems that are inherently unjust, but Christ reigns in justice. The kings of the earth seek glory and riches, but Christ seeks only service and self-sacrifice. The kings of the earth seek immortality and fame. Christ comes in humility and gives his life for the salvation of all.
In John’s gospel, when Jesus says, “My kingdom does not originate from this world,” he’s not kidding. The kingdom that Jesus reigns over is unlike all our kingdoms. And yet, as Revelation notes, Jesus is the “ruler of the kings of the earth”. The kingdom of love, justice, peace, service, mercy, and self-sacrifice is higher than all the kingdoms of the earth.
There is some embarrassment in the modern church about Christ the King Sunday. It’s viewed as patriarchal, monarchist, and imperialist: all the things that a good modern-day Christian should oppose. And we should. But there’s something missing from that understanding, and that’s that proclaiming Christ as King has always been a subversive act.
When Jesus was hailed as King of the Jews, it was seen by the Romans as an act of sedition. Only Caesar was king over the Jews. When early Christians proclaimed “Jesus is Lord,” it was an act of sedition and treason; only Caesar was your lord. And when the Book of Revelation, a book that describes the Roman Empire as a great beast that arises from the sea and servant of Satan, proclaims Christ the “ruler of the kings of the earth”, it is making a powerful political statement.
This is what makes Christian Nationalism so absurd—and so un-Christian. Christian Nationalists invoke Christ to prop up their political entity, their power structure, their candidate, or their ethno-religious group. Exactly the opposite of what Christ’s kingship would do. Christian faith holds all political structures to account—all the kingdoms, republics, constitutional monarchies, autonomous anarcho-syndicalist communes, what have you—all of them are held to account. Christ is not offering himself to us as a king or president that we can plug into our political systems. Christ is offering himself as one who transcends all political systems, and calls them all to account.
This is an incredibly powerful political statement—but it’s not the one most people expect when they imagine making their country a “Christian” one.
But all this is making a theological statement as well. For the Christ the early church was proclaiming was not one who allied with the powerful. The Christ they proclaimed—and that we proclaim—is one who is an ally of the powerless, who seeks their well-being, and who gives up his own power for the sake of the world.
We, then, as servants of this king, are called to follow in his example. When we proclaim Christ as King, we do not identify him as one of the kings of the earth but as the King of Righteousness, who stands over all the kings of the earth. And thus, when we declare Christ to be our king, we declare fealty to that kingdom: a kingdom of justice, a kingdom of mercy, a kingdom of welcome for the stranger, of care for the widow and the orphan, of voice for the voiceless, of hope for the downtrodden. When we proclaim Christ as king, we support not patriarchy or monarchy or imperialism. Instead, we undermine them all with a declaration of fidelity to the ways of God: ways that seek justice for the oppressed, the dignity of all God’s children regardless of any condition of birth, the rejection of violence and hate, the love of neighbor, and a grace that extends to all the families of the earth.
John, to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace and peace to you from the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before God’s throne, and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and always. Amen.
Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “the one who is and was and is coming, the Almighty.”
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”