âItâs good to be king!â says Louis the Fourteenth in Mel Brooksâ film âHistory of the World, Part One,â but the Feast of Christ the King makes many of us uneasy. We have little experience of kings and queens, and much of our experience has not been very positive. Of course, the United States was born out of a rebellion against royal authority, and the last two hundred years of Western history is the story of the gradual decline and disappearance of royal power and its replacement with that of duly elected representatives. Historically, we know kings and hereditary rulers as tyrants, refusing to yield power, or as buffoons, unable to see that their time had passed. In either case, they were forced from power. Say âkingâ and an American with some historical knowledge is likely to think of Franceâs Louis the Fourteenth saying, âI am the state,â or Marie Antoinette dismissing the hungry and their cries for bread with her notoriously callous comment, âLet them eat cake.â
Christ the King may also make us uneasy because of its association with religious imperialism. If Christ is the king, then does his church occupy a privileged position? The Anglican cross followed the British flag throughout the British Empire and enjoyed a privileged status, sometimes reinforced by bullets and bayonets.
So what kind of king is Christ, and how does he exercise his authority?
First, we need to recognize that kingship was central to Christâs mission. Matthew, Mark, and Luke speak with one voice in telling us that at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus announced that the âkingdom of Godâ was drawing near. But Jesus upended and undermined the whole concept of kingship. This worldâs kingdoms are about power and prestige; Jesus was about service and humility. The rulers of this world are about coercion and violence; Jesusâ life was characterized by peace and reconciliation. Kings surround themselves with throngs of fawning courtiers; Jesus chose the lowly and rejected as his companions.
Two of the three sayings of Jesus from the cross illustrate the nature of his kingship. One of the powers of kings is to pardon those accused of crimes. The irony of the crucifixion is that Jesus was sentenced to die for claiming to be a king. However, even while being nailed to the cross, Jesus demonstrated that it was his executioners who were in need of pardon and he alone had the power to grant it. âFather, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.â
In pardoning those who were executing him, Jesus showed us the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness frees not only those who are forgiven; it also frees the forgiver. When we forgive, we release ourselves from the chains of anger and resentment. In forgiving others, we exercise the royal power that Christ delegated to his followers.
The power of forgiveness is also illustrated by the example of Sir Thomas More. During the English Reformation, More, who was Henry the Eighthâs Lord Chancellor, would not recognize the kingâs authority to rule the church as he ruled the state, so Henry had More tried on charges of treason and bound over for execution. After being sentenced, More addressed the judges at his trial, saying, âI verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your lordships have here in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together, to our everlasting salvation.â More knew and demonstrated the power of forgiveness.
Secondly, kings and rulers are usually surrounded by throngs of sycophants. One thinks of Louis the Fourteenthâs palace at Versailles, deliberately built to keep Franceâs nobles occupied in an endless round of meaningless ceremonies so that they would have no time to plot against the king. In contrast, Jesus surrounded himself with the poor and marginalized. He crossed social, moral, and religious boundaries by accepting women as disciples. His critics charged that he ate and drank with thieves and prostitutes. United Methodist Bishop William Willimon remarked that Jesus does the same thing every time we celebrate the eucharist!
Even on the cross, Jesus continued his habit of associating with the despised and disreputable. Poignantly, the second thief pleaded, âJesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.â
What persuaded the penitent thief to believe not only that Jesus was a king but would survive the cross and âcome intoâ his kingdom? Had he observed Jesus pardoning his enemies? Or was he able to see that the cross itself was Jesusâ royal throne?
âRemembranceâ is central to Jewish thought. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, Exodus tells us that God ârememberedâ the covenant he had made with the patriarchs. The kind of remembering that God did in Exodus and that the thief was asking Jesus to do is not the opposite of forgetting; it is the opposite of dismembering. The thief was asking to be made a part of Jesusâ kingdom.
In his Easter sermon for 2004 Archbishop Rowan Williams suggests that remembering is central to the concept of resurrection. He said:
âAt Auschwitz there is an inscription in Hebrew from the Old Testament, 'O earth, cover not their blood'; the Holocaust, along with the mass killings of the thirties in the Soviet Union or the revolutionary years in China, went forward at the hands of people who assumed as blandly as any ancient Roman that the dead could be buried once and for all and forgotten. â¦ Some lives, it seems, are â¦ forgettable; some deaths still obliterate memory, for those of us at a distance. â¦ When deaths like this are forgotten, the gospel of the resurrection should come as a sharp word of judgment as well as of hope.â
The judgment of Easter is that the Crucified and Risen Christ remembers not only us but also those whom we have forgotten and neglected and marginalized; he remembers us as we are â right and wrong, good and bad.
âLord Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,â prayed the penitent thief; but it is our prayer, too. Indeed, it may be the most important prayer that we pray. Like the thief crucified beside Jesus, we pray that we may be a part of the great kingdom he is building in this world and the next. But we must always keep in mind that we make our prayer to Christ the King, whose judgment is ever against those who trust in their own righteousness (and at times that is all of us) but whose arms are always outstretched in love.