Here’s a musing by a fictitious high school student about what he thinks of Jesus: “Personally I’m not sure just who or what Christ is. I still pray to Him in a pinch, but I talk to myself in a pinch too—and I’m getting less and less sure there’s a difference. I used to wish somebody would just tell me what to think about him … Mama tries to clear up the confusion by saying that Christ is exactly what the Bible says He is. But what does the Bible say He is? On one page He’s a Word, on the next a bridegroom, then He’s a boy, then a scapegoat, then a thief in the night; read on and He’s the messiah, then oops, He’s a rabbi, and then a fraction—a third of the Trinity—then a fisherman, then a broken loaf of bread. I guess even God, when He’s human, has trouble deciding just what He is.”—David James Duncan, The Brothers K (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), p. 61.
Doesn’t sound very orthodox, does it? “I guess even God, when He’s human, has trouble deciding just what he is.” On the other hand, even our most officially orthodox creeds insist that in Jesus God is “like us in all respects, apart from sin” (Definition of Chalcedon, 451 CE), and taking some time and effort to decide just who you’re going to be sounds like a pretty good idea for someone who is like us in all respects. So maybe our student wrote with a wisdom beyond his years. At least he’s honest.
Anyway, if God is one who dares to live among us in the flesh, it’s no surprise that we, at least, have trouble deciding just what kind of God we’re dealing with here. In the Bible Jesus comes with lots of different labels attached, just as our high school student said. On this occasion we’ve got one more label to tack on. It’s the Feast of Christ the King. “King” is a label that’s been around for as long as we’ve been talking about Christ, and even before: “For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” So says Psalm 95:3.
I’ve heard people say “King” is a dangerous label to use. It can encourage us to think that things ought to run the way they would when kings are in charge. That may have been true back when kings really did have power to push people around. But I wonder if that’s such a danger today. Do we take royalty that seriously any more? Are they anything more than celebrities who might get a few minutes on Entertainment Tonight?
On the other hand, more contemporary labels don’t seem to work too well as substitutes. I’ve heard the day called the Feast of Christ the Cosmic Ruler, and that’s OK, I guess, but it sounds like a Star Trek episode. Several years ago at a workshop, hymn-writer Brian Wren decided to get a bit playful with the idea that we North Americans might try writing some hymns that show God not as a king but as a president. Hmmm. For some reason, the hymn he started making up on the spot never caught on. It went like this: “All glory, laud and honor to you, Great President. / Your word cannot be vetoed, for it’s divinely sent. / And when your term is over (this is democracy), / You’ll need a new replacement—perhaps you’ll call on me.”
Maybe you’re thinking that this feast day is some carry-over from the Middle Ages, back when people really had kings with clout. That’s what I’ve assumed. But when I tried looking it up in my own Episcopal calendar I couldn’t find it. I found the lectionary readings for the last day of Pentecost, and they’re the same as everyone else’s, more or less, but my church doesn’t officially recognize this feast day, even though the parish I belong to likes to pull out all the stops for it (but they’re always looking for excuses to jazz things up). It turns out that the Feast of Christ the King was invented by the Vatican in 1925, and it wasn’t put at the last Sunday before Advent until 1970. So much for thinking we’ve always done it that way.
That’s today’s history lesson. The feast day is pretty new. But the label’s been around for as long as we’ve been talking about Christ, for as long as we’ve been talking about God. It has some obvious limits, but maybe not if we remember that it’s only one of a whole cluster of labels. But like our fictional high school student, we still need to ask, “What kind of God are we dealing with here?” Just who is this God who comes among us with all these labels attached? If Christ is King, or if God is King, what does that tell us about kings, about rulers of any sort? What does it tell us about wanting people around who’ll make sure the trains run on time? Is that the kind of king God is? Is that the kind of world God wants us to have?
The first time Israel insisted on having a king, God replied that it might not be such a good idea. God said, basically, “If you have a king around, he’ll take the best of everything you have and order you around and make everything be about him. And when he does all that, don’t come complaining to me” (1 Samuel 8:11-13). Then of course David came along, and even God couldn’t seem to help liking him, and after that kings got better billing in the Bible. But in the background there was always that early warning—maybe kings aren’t such a good idea.
When people forgot, prophets like Ezekiel showed up to remind everybody that the only real king is God, and not just any God, but a God who, like a shepherd, especially looks after the people who’ve been shoved aside by the overly ambitious and possessive folk (34:16). Go ahead and think of me as a king, said God, but don’t forget that I’m a shepherd too.
Then finally God comes to us in the flesh, in the life, death and risen life of Jesus of Nazareth. And all these labels like king and lord and messiah get turned on their head. In Christ we finally see God’s power as the power of a love that doesn’t push us around but lets us do our worst and keeps coming back for more. That’s not what we think of when we think of kings. But that’s the kind of king Christ is, and the kind of king God is.
Today’s Gospel lesson sketches a vivid scene where Christ starts out sitting on a throne and looking pretty kingly. But then he says to us, “All of you keep looking for me in all the wrong places. If you want to find me, if you want to see me as I want to be seen, don’t look at this throne. Look around you instead at the people you might not want to see. Look at the people whose lives aren’t going quite as well as yours. Look at the outsiders. Their faces are my face. How you treat them is how you treat me.”
No wonder our student had so much trouble figuring out who Jesus is. When God comes to us in our flesh, in the flesh of a crucified and risen carpenter, in broken bread and poured-out wine, and most especially in the faces of people we might overlook, there’s no telling where God’s going to meet us next. When Christ is King, every outsider becomes royalty. And all the pomp we might cook up for a feast day like this becomes empty if we forget that. Christ reigns, God reigns, when the outsiders get welcomed inside, when the insiders go out to be with the outsiders. There’s God’s orthodoxy.