King Jesus. Really?
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Today is the final Sunday of the church’s liturgical year. Next week is the first Sunday of Advent (November 27), the beginning of the new cycle of the Christian story. On this day, many Christians celebrate the Feast of Christ the King.
The festival is of recent liturgical innovation — fewer than 100 years ago. I wonder if it should even be part of the Christian calendar.
I’ve included both New Testament readings today — from the Gospel of Luke and from the Letter to the Colossians — to try to make sense of this strange celebration of kingship.
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
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. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; 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."
I confess: I’m not a fan of the Feast of Christ the King. The word “king” is too problematic. It is wedded to social privilege and pyramids of wealth and power and invested with centuries of inequities and fairy tale fantasies.
If it were up to me (which it is not), I’d remove it from the Christian calendar. But we appear to be stuck with it for the duration. What to do with Christ the King?
Defenders of the celebration usually say that it provides a good opportunity to preach about how God’s kingdom differs from the kingdoms of this world. That’s the most optimistic possibility for today’s feast. Many clergy make good, well-intentioned efforts to shift our imagination about Jesus and kingship. However, Christianity has a terrible record when it comes to any sort of kingship, whether temporal or divine. If Christians are honest, that’s a big theological lift for a single Sunday.
Even though I’m home this weekend and not preaching, I thought about the texts from Luke and Colossians quite a bit this week. And something in these oddly paired selections struck me that I’d never considered before.
The story from the Gospel of Luke is chilling. The Romans mocked Jesus at his execution by hanging a sign over his head: “This is the King of the Jews.” I can barely write that phrase without feeling sick. The sign displays their bitter hatred for Jesus and the Jews. They ridicule not only Jesus, but the Jewish hope for the Messiah, the Jewish expectation for the Kingdom of God, and Jewish helplessness as a conquered people (“save yourself!”).
The crucifixion is an act of despicable antisemitism on the part of a powerful empire. The execution of this one Jewish rabbi witnesses to the deep poisoned well in western history — an intense ridicule of and prejudice against the people with whom God made a sacred covenant. Yet Jesus’ kingship begins there, in a scene of bigotry and torture — part of the long genocidal ugliness of antisemitism.
Jesus’ earliest followers, who were mostly Jewish, had to try to make sense of this bloody coronation. The letter to the Colossians weaves the image of this kingship into creation. In today’s reading, we hear echoes of another Jewish story — of darkness giving way to light, where the chaotic disorder is transformed into a sacred cosmic order. Genesis. Rome intended to destroy God’s kingdom. Instead, something new is born.
Jesus, the Son of Man, the “firstborn of creation,” is transformed through death into the perfect Adam in whom God dwells. The calling of Adam’s human “kingship” — to subdue and have dominion over the earth — shifts to Jesus.
Colossians invites those who follow Jesus back into the primal story of God and humankind. The reading resets and restates the ancient mandate of mutual creativity in the garden, where God and human beings dwell as friends. That’s “dominion” in Genesis, the edenic image of “kingship.”
As Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes: “Appreciation and enjoyment of the creatures are the hallmark of God's dominion and therefore the standard by which our own attempt to exercise dominion must be judged.” The characteristics of this paradisal kingship have nothing to do with power over others. Indeed, dominion means care for the earth, co-creativity, joy, thanksgiving, and friendship. That was the divine intention of Genesis; that is the divine invitation of life renewed through Christ.
Luke and Colossians offer starkly contrasting views of kingship. At the crucifixion in Luke’s gospel, the underground toxic stream of antisemitism breaks through the surface — Caesar’s minions force its sour wine down Jesus’ throat. Rome proves itself poison, the head of violence and death, firstborn of destruction. All such kingdoms will always be the same. The empire isn’t about gratitude and joy for all creatures and creation; the empire’s dominion is about power over others for the sake of its own wealth and privilege.
Colossians refers to Jesus as the “head” of the church. And this is important — “head” doesn’t mean “head” as in Caesar holding dominion over people in a pyramid of power. It isn’t about Jesus being “head” as in the CEO of a company. The use of “head” here implies the head of a river, the source. This theological metaphor shifts power away from a top-down structure of dominion toward an organic and interconnected image, strengthening the notion of an Edenic reprise.
Rome meant for the sour wine of imperial dominion to destroy this ancient Jewish hope. Yet, the followers of Jesus insist that the ridicule and violence of the Cross unleash the generative waters of God’s salvation and shalom for the whole world.
A poisoned well or a River of Life?
Indeed, the very end of the Bible depicts a River of Life coming from the “throne of God and of the Lamb,” an image of the New Jerusalem, the center of the Kingdom of God. But who is King? The One on the Throne? No, says that writer. The “servants” of God “will see his face, and his name. . . And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
The final vision of the Bible is one where all people are kings. And, in that, kingship forever dissolves in worship and wonder, the full measure of divine friendship and human comity.
Christians haven’t done well with kingship — not in history and not now. We’ve far too often desired our own Jesus-Caesar to kick earthly kings and emperors in the teeth. We’ve wanted our Jesus, our vision of Christ, to triumph politically and execute not justice but vengeance. Too many Christians desire an ecclesiastical pyramid of power to rule over the world.
But “dominion” was never intended to mean domination. And our twisted views of kingship have done far more damage than good.
This year, rereading these texts highlighted a simple truth: God never wanted us to have kings. And any celebration of Christ the King needs always to be an invitation into the work of sacred deconstruction of one of humanity’s worst ideas.
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Kings sit down on rocks to remember,
And stare at the shore;
They wonder why the people who loved them
Don’t love them any more.
They think: surely we are dreaming,
We shall wake soon
To a purple High Lord of the Bedchamber
Handing us the moon —
A round moon, heavier than ermine,
For us to hold.
And the threadbare kings on the seashore
Shiver in the cold.
— Dorothy E. Reid
My Crown is in my heart, not on my head:
Not deck'd with Diamonds, and Indian stones:
Nor to be seen: my Crown is call'd Content,
A Crown it is, that seldom Kings enjoy.
― William Shakespeare
We must not define Jesus and his kingdom by fitting them within conventional understandings of kings and kingdoms. Rather, we must judge and deconstruct those conventional definitions in light of Jesus and his example.
― Brian McLaren
GEORGIA ON OUR MINDS
SOUTHERN LIGHTS 2023 is almost upon us! Y’all come!
This coming January on St. Simons Island in Georgia, Brian McLaren and I are hosting extraordinary guests including Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, theologian Reggie Williams, and Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio in a weekend festival of reimagining faith in words, for the world, and in context of the cosmos — poetry, theology, and science!
We’re also going to do live, on-stage podcasts with guest pod hosts Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Tripp Fuller — and great music from the wonderful Ken Medema.
Please join us in Georgia or virtually online. CLICK HERE for info and registration!
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