Christ the King

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

We’ve come upon one of those Sunday’s that can seem nearly impossible to preach in the North American context: Christ the King Sunday, a.k.a. the last Sunday of Pentecost (and, for that matter, the liturgical year). Why is it so hard? Three simple reasons: 1) Princess Diana excepted, most U.S. citizens have not been too keen on royalty (and especially Kings!) since the days of George III. 2) We have little sense of the church year in general and the season of Pentecost in particular, so the mounting tension of apocalyptic texts in recent weeks and its culmination in Christ the King Sunday will escape, if not just plain befuddle, most of our hearers. 3) Using the term “king” to describe Jesus threatens to miss the whole point of the gospel because of the way “king” plays to a static sense of order rather than a dynamic sense of God’s rule on earth.

This last point bears elaboration. The kingdom of God (or of heaven, in Matthew) is not simply about supplanting an earthly ruler with a heavenly one. In heralding the coming kingdom of God, Jesus was not advocating regime change. Rather, Jesus was announcing the advent of an entirely different way of being in relationship with each other and with God. It’s not the ruler that changes, but the realm in which we live.

This makes matters a little more complicated. If proclaiming Christos Kyrios — “Christ is Lord,” the earliest Christian confession — meant simply giving our allegiance to a different ruler, then most of our lives could remain untouched. As long as we didn’t swear allegiance to some Caesar or king, that is, we could more or less conduct business as usual and conceive of faith as a largely private affair. But the kingdom — or, maybe better, realm — of God that Jesus proclaims represents a whole new reality where nothing is the same — not our relationships or rules, not our view of self or others, not our priorities or principles — nothing. Everything we thought we knew about kings and kingdoms, in fact, gets turned right on its head.

An entirely new reality, of course, is difficult to conceptualize. I think that’s probably why Jesus gives greatest expression to what the realm of God will be like through parables. Parables don’t pretend to correspond to reality directly. They are regularly outrageous, exaggerated, humorous, and almost always have a hidden trap door that only drops open a little while after the telling. Parables, that is, get at reality sideways, disrupting our sensibilities and overturning our conventions in order to point to how it will be in the new realm and reign of God.

So we get a glimpse of the kind of king Christ will be in the story of the audaciously, even offensively generous employer who defies all conceptions of fair play by paying both those who have been working all day and those who labored just a few hours the same. We get some sense of shape of the new “relational calculus” that will be operative in this realm in the tale of the father who humiliates himself again and again by running after both this wayward and legalistic sons. We get a hint of what will be expected of us in the yarn about the wounded man overlooked by the best and brightest only to be tended by the despised foreigner. Glimpses only, perhaps, but enough to know that everything in the realm of God will be different.

Further, the realm of God over which Christ is king is not lurking somewhere “out there.” It is already here among us, heralded by Christ’s preaching and made manifest in his death and resurrection. Yes, some future consummation may await us, yet the new realm is also already here, in our very midst. That means, of course, that we presently live in both realms, citizens of this world and citizens of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated. I can understand why some would push Jesus’ realm into the future while others would retreat from the one we’re in. Either extreme is simpler than holding — and living in — the tension, the paradox, of living in two worlds. Much of our life is governed by the rules of this world, rules that while they can be improved will never fully usher in the justice, the equity, the shalom that God has promised. At the same time, having had a glimpse of the realm Jesus describes, we can never be satisfied with the way things are, never deterred from emulating, even actualizing, the kingdom of God in our midst.

Little wonder, then, that this understanding of “the kingdom of God” hasn’t taken hold. If we believe that Christian faith isn’t just allegiance to a different sovereign but rather is entrance into an entirely new realm, then who knows what God will expect from us. No longer can we keep our faith a private affair and ignore the need of our neighbor. No longer can we sing robust and rousing hymns about God’s glory and majesty and ignore the plight of God’s good earth. No longer can we pray that God’s kingdom come and yet manage our wealth as if it actually belonged — rather than was entrusted — to us. And no longer can we relegate the realm of God to a comfortably distant — or for that matter frighteningly near — future. The realm and rule of God is all around us, beckoning us to live by its vision and values even now.

Which is where today’s reading from Luke comes in. Jesus is on the cross. It’s not the place you’d look for a king, but then again, nothing is ever quite what you expect with Jesus. He’s in between two criminals. One joins the soldiers and religious authorities who jeer him. The other, however, intervenes, protests Jesus innocence, and asks that Jesus remember him when he comes into his kingdom. It’s a humble request, when you think about it. He asks neither to be rescued from this plight nor revenged for his suffering. Rather, he wants only to be remembered, to not be forgotten. And how does Jesus respond? He exceeds even the criminal’s wildest expectations, declaring that today, even now, he would enter with Jesus into paradise.

What kind of king is this, who welcomes a criminal into his realm and promises relief and release amid obvious agony? It is a king who refuses to conform to the expectations of this world, who will be governed neither by its limited vision of worthiness nor its truncated understanding of justice. It is a king who is not content to rule from afar, but rather comes to meet us in our weakness and need. It is a king willing to embrace all, forgive all, redeem all, because that is his deepest and truest nature. It is, finally, our king, come to usher us into his kingdom even as he implores us to recognize and make more manifest that kingdom already around us. This is our king, Working Preacher, and I give thanks for your part in announcing to us the inbreaking of the crucified king so that we may join with Christians of every time in that most simple and simultaneously profound of prayers, “Maranatha — Come, Lord Jesus.”

Yours in Christ,