“What does king mean to you?”
This was the question my preaching professor asked me when I went knocking on his door, asking for advice on how preach Christ the King Sunday.
I was surprised to learn Christ the King Sunday is sort of a new phenomenon. Instead of focusing solely on a king-head figure, over the centuries Christians have celebrated the broader reign of God and set time aside in the year for celebration. Lutherans and other Protestants historically celebrated the reign of God on Reformation Day, October 31. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the last Sunday of October was designated Reign of God Sunday.
As time passed, the world became increasingly more secular. Instead of being a primary lens for decision making, the reign of God and God’s intention for the world was a secondary lens to the growing strength of political systems throughout the western world. In 1925, Pope Pius XI inaugurated a Sunday dedicated to Christ as King, emphasizing the authority of Christ was greater than any monarch or ruler. When the ecumenical Common and Revised Common Lectionaries were formed in the following decades, “Christ the King, Reign of God” Sunday was incorporated to be the last day of the church year.
All of this history was floating around in my mind when my professor asked the pointed question, “What does king mean to you?”
Living as a US citizen in a post-modern world, the notion of a king may be a bit abstract. There is not one reigning family line that has greatly affected our realities more than any other, with the exception of perhaps the Kennedy’s or maybe the Kardashian’s. Watching the Royal Wedding of William and Kate could have filled us with a sense of awe, but our connection to such moments most strongly resembles seeing a fairy tale brought to life.
So what does king mean to us?
Just moments out of a tumultuous election season, there is no doubt that while we may not have a political king-head figure in our country, we are impacted by ruling orders that impact our world. Elections force us to think about which reign influences our voting. Is that authority taxes or money concerns? Could it be healthcare? Education? Foreign Policy?
If we had to name it, what reign would we say dominates how we function in our nation? Which authority is the ultimate ruler?
This is the hidden question Jesus faces while he stands on trial before Pilate. When Pilate outwardly asks “Are you the king of the Jews?,” the question beneath the question was “If the Jews believe that you are their king, to which allegiance do they pledge? Your authority, or the Roman authority?”
If we thought the presidential debates were heated this fall, they had nothing on this exchange before Pilate and Jesus. The ultimate politician, Pilate asks a question that if answered directly would lead Jesus no option but to condemn himself.
If Jesus had answered, “Yes, I am the king of the Jews,” he would have been persecuted for trying to overpower the Roman reign. If he answered, “No, I am not the king of the Jews,” the authority of his work would be destroyed. Pilate asks a lose/lose question, one that will surely trap Jesus.
But Jesus is no stranger to the political game and responds to Pilate’s question with a question. Jesus replies, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus’ response not only flips the coin away from answering the question, he acknowledges that it is his own people that have sent him to trial.
Now Pilate is the one forced to acknowledge that he is in a lose/lose dilemma. You can’t trap a man who recognizes the trap. So Pilate responds, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
This is a watershed moment in the text. When Pilate asks, “what have you done?” this trial turns from a crime against the state to a civil trial of people against each other. Whatever wrongs Jesus’ people are accusing him of have no bearing on the authority of the Roman kingdom.
Jesus is not a threat to the empire. He is a threat to the ruling authority that dictates the soul.
Jesus further tells Pilate that if the people were of his kingdom, he would not be facing trial. He would not be facing persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire or the vengeful or fearful actions of any group of people.
We are ruled by countless authorities of this earthly kingdom which reign over the actions of our hearts and minds. We are influenced by spiritual and emotional pressures of greed, loneliness, fear, and doubt. We are influenced by worldly pressures of addiction, financial and healthy limitations, and social status. We are born victims of a fallen humanity, living in a kingdom where our actions are at times as unjust as the ones that sent Jesus to trial before Pilate.
While such influences would separate us from Christ in our human world, under the reign of God our would-be limitations can serve as springboards to unite in Christ.
When Jesus died upon the cross, the limitations found in the authorities of this world were washed away. Through his death and resurrection, we are no longer victims of a fallen humanity and are resurrected into God’s reign.
We are living in the midst of our salvation, set free from the barriers that would keep us from knowing and experiencing the grace of God. By the waters of our baptism, we are granted citizenship into God’s reign. Sealed with the cross of Christ, we have been given authority to help demonstrate God’s reign on earth. Every time we gather at the table, we are given the nourishment to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, washing the feet of those around us, reminding ourselves that our worldly status has no bearing in this kingdom.
In this kingdom, under God’s reign, it does not matter if we vote red or vote blue.
This kingdom does not care if we have been greedy, thoughtless, or irresponsible with our resources.
It does not matter what our skin color is, what our sexual orientation is, what our marital status is, what our financial status is, whether we have a job or are unemployed, have had infidelities in our marriage or have always remained faithful. We are still a part of this kingdom.
Being a member of God’s reign does not mean we are perfect people who will never make mistakes. It does not mean that we should stop striving to follow the example of Christ in our everyday lives. Being a citizen of this kingdom does mean that when we do make mistakes, when our actions reflect the human world more than God’s, we are forgiven. We are still loved. We are still citizens of a holy reign.
Our citizenship does not waver, our salvation is secure. Nothing we say, think or do will stop our Triune God from reaching into the darkest places of our heart and soul and accept us just as we are.
Our citizenship is once and for always, the ultimate gift of love and faithfulness.
It is in celebration of this gift we uplift that Christ is King, and that the Reign of God has no boundaries. It is in celebration of this gift that we do our best to operate under the authority of our true citizenship, standing strong against the temptations found in the human world.
Christ is king, and today we celebrate that the reign of God’s salvation knows no end.