Christ the King
Psalm 46 | Colossians 1:11-20
Today we come to the end of the Church year. Next Sunday, is the start of advent, the start of the time of getting ready, as we approach the great mystery of Christmas. This week, the final Sunday of the Church year, we celebrate the festival of Christ the King.
I have to admit – and I suspect this won’t surprise many of you – that I find the festival of Christ the King a bit of a problem. When I hear of a King, my first thought is of the medieval monarchs from my school history lessons. Now perhaps it was just the fact that the unpleasant bits of history tend to get retold (and remembered by students) – a fact that the Horrible Histories books have made admirable use of – or perhaps it’s the addition of the kings in works of fiction – but the overwhelming image there is of the tyrant; the king who is obsessed with his own power and with threats, real or imagined, to it. And my second thought is of a modern constitutional monarch, who may or may not be an admirable person, but who doesn’t wield great power or authority.
It helps a little to know the origin of the festival, for it is a relatively recent addition to the Churh calendar. It was first declared in 1925. In a Europe that had not long ago been torn apart by the clash of great empires in the First World War, and which, was seeing the rise of the power of facism, with its absolute demand on the loyalty of each citizen to the power of the state, Pope Pius proclaimed the festival of Christ the King as a reminder to believers throughout the world that their ultimate loyalty was owed to another king.
And of course, the language of Kingdom (or, as I’ve mentioned before, perhaps better, “Realm”) is language that Jesus used. Although I find it interesting that though Jesus often spoke of the Kingdom or Realm or Reign of God, he didn’t name himself as King. Others, friend and foe, gave him that label.
From the very early days of the Church the title began to be used: King Jesus, Jesus King of the Jews, Jesus King of Israel. The King set in contrast to the King of Rome, the Emporer, Nero, and later Vespasian and his descendants. If Jesus is King, the Emporer is not. Just like the prophets before them, and like Pope Pius two thousand years later, the title “King Jesus” was a religious, social and political rebuke to the empire; to the corruption of power, and to the abuse of religion in the service of that power.
To name Jesus as King is, and always has been, an act of subversion, an act of rebellion.
But I want to take a bit of a detour.
Now I make no secret of the fact that I am not a Monarchist. But one argument put forward in favour of monarchy in a democratic state that I have some sympathy for, is that of stability. That by contrast to the swings in direction brought about by each newly elected government the monarch provides a constant center. It was, of course, said very often of Queen Elizabeth II following her death earlier this year – that so much changed during the decades during which she was on the throne, and she was one, perhaps the only, constant through it all. As we’ve been reflecting recently on what it means to be the Church “when everything has changed” that might be an image of monarch that has some attraction.
In the opening words of Psalm 46, the psalmist certainly drew upon the image of the constancy of God:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
What kind of King? One who is a constant, though the earth should change:
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
So when we reflect on the image of Christ as King, we now have two ideas to draw upon that are far older than this relatively modern festival.
If God is your King, if Jesus is your King, then you can draw upon a deeper and more absolute sense of constancy than any monarch, no matter how long lived. When everything changes, God does not.
And naming Jesus as King is, and always has been, a challenge to the secular powers of the day. If God is your king, if Jesus is your king, then no monarch, no state, no system, no empire, can claim your final allegiance. For there is another king, an ultimate king.
But to name Jesus as King also means something else. It is an act of subversion, but not of anarchy. It is not an overthrow of those powers that would claim our final loyalty for the sake of it.
To name Jesus as King also requires us to act as if we were subjects, citizens of the reign of God that he came to proclaim.
In his letter to the Church as Collossae, Paul places the title of king, clearly on the shoulders of Jesus. He is the image of the invisible God (a claim made by several of the Caesers), he is the firstborn of creation. All the powers that exist in creation, all the kings and nations and powers and rulers: all exist through him and for him; and he is the head of them all, before them all, in him they all hold together.
To the Church at Collossae, and to us, Paul writes – if there is anything that claims a higher calling on your life than Jesus, then that claim is false. That claim has to be subjected to our first loyalty, our first calling, the calling we live out in the life of faith; the calling to be the people of God.
Which is all very well: but what does it mean? What does it actually mean for us?
To say that God has a higher claim, that Jesus has a higher claim on our lives than any other power or ruler or kingdom; might be something to aknowledge as a theological concept, but what does it mean?
To answer that is more than the task of a single reflection; it’s the task of a lifetime lived seeking to serve the work of the Reign of God, while seeking, at the same time, as Jeremiah told the people, the welfare of the city in which we find ourselves. How it is that by serving the Kingdom of God we find ourselves at the same time serving the world around us, changing it, making it a better place to live, a more just, more generous, more safe, more beautiful, more fun world. That is the work of a lifetime.
There will always be other voices, other powers, calling for our allegiance. And we are called to be good citizens of our nation, good employees, good members of our families, good members of our Church. To seek the welfare of the city.
But those calls are always subject another, higher call: that we are called to serve the one in whom God was pleased to reconcile all things to God. At the end of our reading, Paul described the work of God in Jesus in these words:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
So whatever else the Kingdom of God looks like, whatever else the true service to Jesus as King involves, it will always reflect that the fundamental work of God in Christ was the reconciliation of all things.
If we name that Jesus as our King, then our lives will need to reflect that God’s work, God’s kingdom, Christ’s kingship, is characterised by reconciliation. Reconciliation of individuals with each other, with creation, and with God; reconciliation of races, nations, faiths, cultures and subcultures.
This is the constancy of God; this has always been the plan and the way of God; reconciliation. From the call of Abram, through whom all nations would be blessed, to the law of Moses with its careful provision for the foreigner in the land, to the teaching of Jesus to treat the Samaritan as neighbour and extend love to the enemy, to the vision of Revelation, with every nation and language joined in worship.
Though the mountain tremble, though everything may change, God does not.
God is, was, and always will be, reconciling all things in creation.
That is a constant to hold onto.