Is Jesus King?
This coming Sunday is the last of the "church year," the three year lectionary cycle that takes us through the seasons. Since 1970, the Roman Rite (and Anglicans and other Protestants following suit) has celebrated the feast of Christ the King, also known by its formal Roman title "The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe."
I won't get lost in some of the problematic aspects of this late addition to the liturgical calendar. I do want to explore this question: is Jesus King? And if Jesus is King, what are the implications, politically, culturally, ecclesiologically, and for our daily lives as his followers?
There is a potentially kingly title so tied to Jesus that it has almost become his proper name. If you watch "Jesus Christ Superstar" you would be pretty convinced his birth name is Jesus Christ. But Christ means literally anointed. This is a messianic title, it implies that Jesus was anointed by God as the Messiah in the line of David. We see this Messianic promise in this week's reading from Ezekiel:
"Thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken."
There was a lot of Messianic expectation at the time Jesus lived. Last week I took a look on this blog at the ways we misunderstand Jesus and his teachings. Jesus taught as a rabbi and prophet in the tradition of the 8th century prophets, teaching of a relationship with the God of Israel best described in terms of "Abba, Father," of a radical dependence on the love and provision of God.
Jesus was without a doubt familiar with contemporary Messianic expectations. He knew that one way to respond to Roman occupation was to lead violent insurrection to overthrow the oppressor. He knew that another option was to retreat with the most faithful and pure to the wilderness to live purely and apart from corrupt society. He purposefully rejected those options.
And he rejected what the world knows as Kingship. In the passion narratives in the Gospels, Jesus is asked directly if he is either Messiah or a King. In Matthew: "tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God?" His answer "You have said so." In Luke's Gospel also, he answers "You say that I am." Pilate asks him most directly, "are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus again answers, "you say so."
In John's Gospel Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
Only in Mark's Gospel do we see Jesus answer in the affirmative, saying "I am" when asked if he is the Son of God, another royal, political title given to Caesar.
But all four Gospels conclude these exchanges relatively the same way, though with detail changes. In all four, after being questioned and unjustly tried Jesus is tortured, mocked, and crucified to death. His only crown is one of thorns. And he dies and is buried.
So what is the point of any of this? Even though Jesus met none of the relevant expectation for who the Messiah would be or what he would do (expel foreign rule, restore the Kingdom to Israel, sit again on the throne of David, etc.), and even though he was put to a shameful death, his followers insisted on calling him the Christ, God's anointed, the Messiah. They did this because they experienced something ludicrously unexpected, something supernatural and beyond comprehension. Jesus came to them, alive. He was not dead, for he had risen.
It is in the Resurrection that Jesus is crowned Lord of all, God's "yes" to the crucified one. But again pointing to my last post, Fleming Rutledge reminds us in "The Crucifixion" that the transhistorical resurrection cannot be separated from the historical event of Jesus' crucifixion. Any Lordship or Kingship that Jesus bears is one seen on the Cross. All of these titles, whether Messiah, or Lord, or King, do not define Jesus. Jesus defines them. They do not hold claim over Jesus. Jesus claims them. We cannot argue who Jesus is by using these terms, but we can understand the truest form of Kingship, actual, true rulership, leadership, care, and stewardship by looking at who the person of Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, who that person is and what we know about him. Jesus tells Pilate this when he says his kingdom is not "of" this world, in other words, his kingdom is nothing like what Pilate understands a kingdom to be, its character and quality are not "of" this world. This is ultimately why Pilate is left to question "what is truth?" In the categories of the world, truth makes no sense. The world cannot understand the cross. The world cannot comprehend his power or his kingship. The world cannot understand Jesus. To give just some credit to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber, there is one moment in Jesus Christ Superstar that I think understands the Gospels when Jesus says,
Neither you, Simon, nor the fifty thousand
Nor the Romans, nor the Jews
Nor Judas, nor the twelve, nor the Priests, nor the scribes
Nor doomed Jerusalem itself
Understand what power is
Understand what glory is
Understand at all
The implications are brought out in the texts chosen for Year A. God's pastoral nature and the language of shepherd to describe God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament were both originally understood as royal terminology. The shepherd as a familiar image for a king. This pastoral dominion of God over Israel in Ezekiel is a beautiful promise:
I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
God promises a home for God's people. God will bring everyone back from the far off places and feed them with abundance, and with justice. All will be made right, good, and just under God's rulership in stark opposition to the corrupt and unjust rulers of the world. The systemic injustices of the world, God will make right. I have to believe Jesus had this text in mind when he taught about the sheep and the ghosts. Here's Ezekiel followed by Jesus:
I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. - Ezekiel 34
Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. - Matthew 25
But what we see in Matthew 25 is very interesting to me, because while the judgment and final justice play in this scene of the Son of Man ruling from a throne, the enacted, lived care - you might say the policy implementation of this cosmic kingship - is in the past tense.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
This is the final implication I want to point out: Jesus' authority rests on those who follow him. The kingship or lordship or reign of Jesus, whatever language you wish to use, is played out concretely through the lives of his followers as they practice the sacrificial way of love. And notice where this "king" is found? "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." His throne is the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.
Is Jesus King? Not like any we have known in this world. But he claims that and all power and authority to himself as he draws all things to himself. So we can say, Jesus is King and Caesar is not. If we want to understand what a king is, we can see it transparently in the passion, cross, and resurrection. Now it is up to us to live his authority that rests on us, we who likewise were anointed in our baptism to carry his Spirit into the world. May we go to love and serve.