Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Elsewhere this is known as the Reign of Christ: this is thought to sound less grandiose and imperious than Christ the King. I don’t have a problem with Christ the King, because there is no association in my mind between Jesus the King and any kind of pomp. We sing of the Servant King, and of the King who rides a donkey. The Kingship shown to us in Jesus is radically different from our normal concepts of royalty; the palace was a stable, the crown was made of thorns, the jewels were the poor and the sinners who became Jesus’ friends – his courtiers. But if Jesus had no palace, no crown, no land to reign over why do we call him a King at all?
Jesus the King in the New Testament
Well, the kingly status of Jesus arises from a number of places in the Gospels. Matthew and Mark both begin their gospels with ‘Jesus Christ’. As we know, Jesus was the name that Mary gave to her child after the visit from the angel: you will call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins. This name ‘Jesus’ means ‘the one who rescues’ or ‘the one who saves’. I think many people believe that the second name we give Jesus – Christ – was his surname, but this isn’t the case: in his lifetime Jesus would have been known as ‘the son of Mary and/or Joseph’ – there were no surnames as such. The name ‘Christ’ comes from the Greek word ‘Christos’ which means ‘the anointed one’. This is a royal title, anointing being something received almost exclusively by kings: so, for example, King David was anointed by the prophet Samuel. In fact, here in the United Kingdom kings and queens are still anointed with oil at their coronations. So, when Matthew and Mark begin their gospels with the title, Jesus Christ, or Jesus the Messiah (which has the same meaning) they are saying something very specific about Jesus – that he has a special, kingly status.
Jesus is also referred to directly as a King in a number of places in the Gospels: in Matthew’s Gospel, when the wise men come seeking Jesus, they ask Herod ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?’ Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, of which we heard the beginning a few moments ago continues with a kingly prophecy: He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Later in the Bible, in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, and in the book of Revelation Jesus is referred to as the King of Kings.
And finally there is the passage in today’s Gospel; the account of Pontius Pilate’s cross questioning of Jesus shortly before the crucifixion, and then the title above Jesus’ head as he hangs on the cross ‘The King of the Jews’. We still see remnants of this on crucifixion figures to this day in the form of four letters – INRI – Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. (There are no Js in Latin so the words ‘Jesus’ and ‘Jews’ both begin with the letter I.)
Jesus before Pilate
I have always felt that there is something spine-tingling in today’s Gospel reading – almost as if Pilate had somehow glimpsed the Ancient One spoken of in our first reading – he had sensed something awe inspiring . One one level the gospel passage can be read as a conversation in which Pilate tries to get Jesus to say enough to hang himself (literally and metaphorically), a sort of sinister dance in which the two men skirt around each other, eyeing each other up suspiciously. But the passage makes me feel that Pilate knows that he has bitten off more than he can chew; that there is something about this man standing before him which suggests a power that he can’t begin to match; and with it comes the knowledge that he isn’t going to come out of this encounter unscathed: by the time events have played themselves out either his career or his soul will be in tatters. It is Pilate who has the sign ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ placed above Jesus’ head on the cross, and, in John’s Gospel we read that Pilate declines to have this changed to read ‘He said he was the King of the Jews’. Pilate knows, and he knows that he has allowed this King to be executed without just cause. He has blood on his hands, and this blood will not easily wash off.
Christ our King
So, the most prolonged narrative of Jesus’ Kingship takes place in the context of his trial and crucifixion. Christ our King is a crucified King, a victim of state violence, his throne is the cross, his crown is made of thorns: he has been stripped of his robes and hangs before us naked. The crucified, humiliated and forsaken King. It is for this reason that thousands of people who have faced execution in death camps or at the hands of firing squads, along with political prisoners, humiliated people who have lost all their dignity, and people who have experienced forsakenness or abandonment, have been drawn to Christ the King – he is someone like them; their archetype and their companion.
Ther Kingdom of God – the beginning and the end ….
Kings have kingdoms. The Kingdom of Christ our King is hotly debated by theologians and there is much disagreement about Jesus’ many teachings about God’s Kingdom. At the time, some of Jesus’ followers thought that the Kingdom was going to be their own country, free from Roman occupation and oppression and that Jesus had come to lead an uprising; these hopes were shattered when Jesus was crucified and the Gospel writers make it clear that this is not what Jesus intended. I think it’s clear that the Kingdom of God was carried in the person of Jesus – in him the age of God’s Kingdom dawned. So, with Advent around the corner we await the season of preparation for Christ’s coming amongst us; an annual remembrance, but more than that: Christmas reminds us that Jesus is born amongst us perpetually. Christians believe that there will be a final judgement, at which time God’s Kingdom will be fully realised – the dawn of a new age of justice, righteousness and peace; and this feast of Christ the King reminds us of Chrst’s second coming and of God’s judgement which precedes it. We will all be held to account; we will all be judged with love and compassion.
… and here and now
But God’s Kingdom is still here, between these two events – the beginning and the end. The Kingdom is amongst us, in the midst of us; growing like a mustard seed; growing when the lost are found, the sick are healed, when people find they are loved, when people are set free from the bonds that constrict them. The Kingdom is growing with the characters of Jesus’ followers – in meekness and mercy, in peacemaking, in righteousness and purity of heart, amongst those who are faithful in hard times, when those who mourn are comforted. If we look at Jesus’ life, we can see how inclusive his Kingdom is intended to be; everyone was welcome, no matter how unlovely. Each time someone finds a welcome home amongst God’s people, the Kingdom has grown bigger. Each time someone discovers their worth as a child of God, the Kingdom dawns. When people discover their talents and are enabled to use them for good, the Kingdom comes amongst us. So, look around and see: the Kingdom is growing here and now, in our little community and Christ is our King.