It is 1925: Secularism and nationalism is on the rise. Fewer people go to church, and more people identify with their country saying things like “America first!” Churches observe national holidays and sing hymns to the country, rather than to God. Many feel jaded… like God is an old notion and the new way is to follow someone who identified with the common man, speaks like him, and has good and bad qualities like him.
I’m speaking about the year 1925 – but it could be 2018. In 1925, the Great War, rumored to be the Final War, World War I had finished. The great kings and czars and ruling families of the Romanovs, the Habsburgs, the Osmans and Hohenzollerns were destroyed. People no longer identified with kings. They identified with presidents. Führers. Elected leaders. And since these people come and go quickly, they identified with their counties. I am French! I am English! I am American!
Churches began to display country’s flags, and hymns were rewritten to new words to honor countries.
But fewer people came to church. Church was too quaint, too antiquated, to answer to the pain that was Guernica, trench war fare, and missing brothers.
So Pope Pius XI said, we need a king “whose kingdom there shall be no end.” Who will be able to lead and answer to this world of pain. And over a few years, he and theologians worked together to craft a long letter explaining how Jesus is a king. If everyone saw Jesus as their ruler, their king, their president, their czar or führer, then there is hope of lasting peace among all these nations and never again would the whole world break out in to war. Truly, the Great War was the War to end all Wars.
We know it didn’t last. WWII breaks out. We have rumors of WWIII ever since WWII ended. Nationalism rises and falls. Secularism rises and falls. And even among Christian to Christian, we argue and fight.
But the goal of the Pope was lofty and right. He instituted this day, the last Sunday of the Church Year, as Christ the King Sunday. We Protestants adopted it, and sometimes call it Reign of Christ Sunday. Or something similar. The idea is the same: there is no king but Jesus. There is no Caesar but Jesus. There is no president but Jesus. There is no reign, no ruler, but Jesus. And since we’re all under the one same ruler, then there are no French, no English, no Americans. We are all one people – Christians.
And this gives us the hope of peace.
Really, the same notion is what holds the United Church of Christ together. We affirm there is no head of the church but Christ – and that is the bridge that unites us with all our different theologies, different political views, and different ways of worshiping and being.
But, I don’t know about you, the idea of Jesus as “King” sits a little awkward with our scripture.
Consider… Jesus NEVER calls himself king. Not once. He calls himself the ‘son of man.’ A human. He calls himself a child of god, but also calls you a child of god. He calls himself a servant, and a slave, and a witness to truth. After giving the people bread, the people went to take Jesus and make him king. He runs away. When the disciples want Jesus to go to Jerusalem and be king, he tells them kings are tyrants. Be servants. When Satan offers Jesus to be king of the world… Jesus refuses. Three of our four gospels are concerned with showing Jesus as a humble man, with humble beginnings, living a humble life, and dying ignobly.
All four note he dies, however, with the sign declaring his guilty charge above his head. And that sign reads: “KING OF THE JEWS.” in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. This sign is abbreviated on some crosses as INBI or INRI.
How did he come to be charged with sedition, with trying to become king, when he was adamant he was NOT an earthly king?
John teases us with it from the beginning, but the bulk of the testimony to Jesus’ kingship is in the final chapters of the book of John. ((We’re setting aside Matthew, Mark, and Luke who do not really use king language.))
“John intentionally and dramatically arranges the trial of Jesus before Pilate into 7 or 8 scenes, punctuated by Pilate’s egress to meet the Jews and ingress to interact with Jesus.1 Each scene — and the whole trial — centers on kingship.
Scene 1: 18:28-32
Jesus is accused; the charge will be sedition — making himself a king.
Scene 2: 18:33-38a
The nature of Jesus’ kingship is raised. Is he king on Earth, king of Israel? King of who?
Scene 3: 18:38b-40
The choice: King of the Jews or Barabbas? The people reject the king for a bandit.
Scene 4: 19:1-3
Jesus is crowned King of the Jews by the local king.
Scene 5: 19:4-7
Jesus is presented to the people dressed ironically as a king. The chief priests and police, seeking Jesus’ death, demand Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate has put them in the position of demanding the death of their own king (19:6).
Scene 6: 19:8-11
Jesus’ authority as king and Son of God is revealed: Jesus won’t bow to Pilate.
Scene 7: 19:12-16a
Jesus is presented as King of the Jews. Pilate maneuvers in Jesus’ trial to appear as the one who crucifies the Jewish king. John recreates this scene of the demand for Jesus’ crucifixion twice. The second time, he underscores that it is the beginning of Passover, the moment when Israel would stop and remember God’s kingship and God’s rule over other powers. Instead, at that same moment, Pilate asks the Jews again, “Shall I crucify your king?” In their reply, “we have no king but the emperor” (John 19:15), John shows that the Jews’ rejection of Jesus leads them to deny God’s kingship and embrace Roman rule.
Some add an 8th scene: 19:16b-22
Jesus is exalted on the cross and reigns as King of the Jews. Part of the irony of John’s presentation of the trial and crucifixion is that Pilate uses his own authority to declare Jesus’ kingship. Pilate places an inscription over the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (John 19:19). The chief priests protest, asking Pilate to clarify that this was only what Jesus claimed. But Pilate refuses their request with a solemn pronouncement, “What I have written, I have written” (19:22).
In this way, John crafts his narrative so that Jesus’ kingship becomes most visible in his crucifixion. It is as if his crucifixion is his enthronement as king, the moment at which the declaration of his kingship is made public
By the time of the crucifixion in John, Jesus is established as the king of not Jews… but “Jews,” which in John means all people whether or not they accept Jesus as king. He is king over the local kings and king over Caesar – for he is now lifted up and taken to heaven to rule.
As the crucifixion makes clear, Jesus’ kingship is “not of this world” (John 18:36). All of the gospels agree that Jesus and Caesar reigned in opposite ways. Caesar stayed in charge with violence, bread and circuses, militaries. Violence kept people fearful. Free bread fed their bellies. Circuses entertained them. Militaries oppressed neighbors and stole wealth and labor for Rome.
Jesus reigns with peace and repeatedly says “Do not be afraid.” He tells us to forgive one another. Jesus reigns with bread – the free bread from heaven that fulfills not bellies, but souls. Jesus reigns without circuses. Without entertainment that makes you forget your troubles because Jesus goes into your troubles and invites us to address them. Jesus rules without militaries. We’re told to set down our weapons, and to pray blessings upon our enemies.
Because Jesus reigns as no other king, some Christians have taken to referring to the Kin-dom of Heaven instead of the Kingdom. In a kingdom, a king is in charge. A male over all others. And the idea of a king brings forward the idea of hierarchy. Crowns. The king ruling over the impoverished and lowly serfs. A king with knights for war. A king with power stolen from others and kept with fear and manipulation. By referring to the kin-dom of God, we remember Jesus isn’t king like an earthly king.
Kin means family. Jesus reigns as our brother, our beloved, our friend. Jesus reigns as our servant, our slave, our sacrifice. Jesus reigns with hope, peace, joy, compassion, forgiveness – with love.
Kin-dom of God reminds us that WE are family. Much like Pope Pious intended the Reign of Christ to remind us: we are one. Our nationalities, our race, our gender expressions and sexual orientations, our ways of worship, our political views, our secular allegiances and clubs and groups do not separate us because… we are one. We are the children of God. We are all brothers and sisters.