It isnât usually such a great idea to begin a sermon with a question, but todayâs celebration of the feast of Christ the King really begs us to do just that. The question is, what picture in our mind does the word âkingâ evoke? How do we really picture Christ as King? It is a very different picture for us than it was for the Jews of Jesusâ time or for the early Christians. Our understanding of kingship today is a very romanticized one. Think of how fascinated we are with English royalty, and yet in 1776 our ancestors fought for the right to live under a different form of government. Kingship doesnât really mean much to us any more, and yet this is a feast that we share with several other Christian faith groups: Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran, to name a few. Thereâs something about seeing Christ in this role as king that continues to be important to us Christians today.
So what exactly do we do with this celebration of Christ as King? And why, when we're just about ready to start preparing for the Incarnation, are we reading about Jesus' crucifixion? The answer to these questions has to do with the basic theme not only of this weekâs readings but of last weekâs as well. It has to do with faithfulness and how we are to act as people of God.
In todayâs passage from the prophet Jeremiah, God is rebuking the shepherds of Israel. Like the false prophets of last week who were living evil lives by leading others away from God, the shepherds -- that is the religious leaders of Jeremiah's time -- were not attending to their sheep, to the flock of the God of Israel. God says, âWoe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter. Woe to those who are unfaithful.â God promises to raise up a king who will be wise and just and righteous. But hereâs another strange image for us: we don't see many shepherds any more, either. And, as weâve said, the image of a king is foreign to us. But what we do understand, especially in todayâs church, is relying on people who are faithful. This is how Israel got its first two kings. These kings were raised up from among the people. They were raised up because of their faithfulness, because they were living a life of obedience to God. Remember David: he was the baby of the family, and he had to be called in from the field so that he could be anointed king.
The prophet Jeremiah was expressing the people's hope for an end to their exile and the hope for a new and just leader. When we look back on these passages as a New Testament people, we see the coming of Christ in the words of the prophet. We see Christ as the King of Peace, the redeemer of Godâs people.
Paul takes up this image of the king and gives us a picture of Christ as not only king of our world but also as king of all creation. In this section of his letter to the Colossians, Paul is actually quoting an ancient hymn of praise. In it, Jesus is called the image of God. In him all things in heaven and on earth were created. He is the head of the church. In him all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. Yet Jesus was born into a poor family. Riches and social position don't count in this kind of kingship. In another of Paul's letters, in another ancient hymn, he says that Jesus emptied himself, being born in the likeness of a human being. But he becomes our king through his faithfulness to God's will.
The last verse of this passage from Paul's letter gives us a hint as to why the Gospel describing Jesus' crucifixion is used after all this talk about the power and dominion of the king. Paul says that "through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things . . . making peace through the blood of his cross." This is adding a new dimension to our understanding of faithfulness and kingship.
The kingship of Jesus is vastly different from a worldly kingship. When we celebrate Christ the King, we're holding up a king who is, first and foremost, a redeemer, a reconciler, a servant. This is not a king who comes to exercise domination over people and over the earth. This is a king who comes to show us how to live as a people of God in the kingdom of God. We have a king who has reconciled us to God, who calls us to make peaceâand yet we celebrate this kingship with a Gospel passage on the crucifixion. Doesn't that seem strange?
It would indeed be strange if the crucifixion were the end of the story, but we all know it wasnât. The crucifixion leads to the resurrectionâto the great hope found in the resurrection. In Christ we see not only a king who suffers and dies to reconcile us to God, but also a king who rises again. And that hope is the beginning and the great power of our story.
That hope touches on the other very important part of this Gospel. Jesus didn't suffer and die just for me: he did it for us. He lived out his kingship within the community. We are all loved by God and we are all forgiven by God within the community. We are a part of a people of God that includes the past, the present, and the future. Think about how we're linked in a way with the good thief in today's Gospel, as well as with countless others who have lived faithful lives. We're linked, of course, with each other. The thing we can't forget is that we're also linked with the bad thief and with those who crucified Jesus and with the people who still today persecute Godâs people and lead people away from God. We're linked with many who are very much like ourselves, but weâre also linked with lots of people who aren't âjust like us.â We're all part of God's people, but we are not all equally faithful. So what do we do?
Sometimes, we have to call others to repentance, and sometimes we have to forgive others. But sometimes weâre the ones who need forgiveness; sometimes weâre the ones being called to repent. Where we are all alike is in our need of Godâs mercy, our need for the kind of kingdom God offers, the one where Jesus is king, where God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, making peace through the blood of the cross. The price of this kingdom is the cross. As the old Gospel chorus says, âIf you canât bear the cross, then you canât wear the crown.â The good news is that Jesus has already borne that cross and invites us to share in the kingdom that is his by virtue of it. Thatâs the invitation we respond to in our baptism, which is our pledge of allegiance to his kingdom. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture, and the citizens of his kingdom. Thanks be to God.