Today is the end of the Western liturgical calendar, a day known as the Sunday of “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ.” It’s a metaphor that doesn’t strongly resonate for many of us these days. It’s been a long time since any of us have really experienced ‘kingship’ in any meaningful way. Today I’d like to spend some time thinking through what this symbol of the Kingdom of God and Christ the King is saying — and just as importantly, what it’s not.
First, let’s remember that the Bible is pretty pessimistic about the idea of royalty. Israel was explicitly not to have a king, and when the tribes insisted, God and the judge Samuel relented in this only after warning them they were making a big mistake:
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day. (1 Sam 8.11-18)
This is the authoritarian and imperial playbook in a nutshell, the vacuuming up of people and wealth into the service of a few. And that is not how things were to work for God’s people. It is the opposite of the shalom for which humanity was created. And so the very existence of kingship in Israel and Judah is portrayed in the Scriptures as a tangible symbol of their rejection of God. (Verna Dozier goes so far as to call this event the ‘second Fall’.)
And yet, kingship is such a powerful idea that it never really went away, no matter how rocky Israel and Judah’s histories with monarchy were, no matter how many times their national life was hindered by the policies of foreign kings, the people never lost their taste for it, and many hoped for the time when a heroic messianic king would come and save them from their enemies.
When Jesus came, he preached the Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven. But this was not yet another authoritarian vision. Like he did with so much of common religious and political vocabulary, he used the word while completely subverting it and infusing it with a whole new meaning. In fact, he sets up the Kingdom of God not as a symbol for the kingdoms of this world, but as their opposite. If a king (or an authoritarian figure by any other name — emperor, fuhrer, dictator, CEO, president — does something in a certain way, it’s probably the opposite of God’s way. So when the New Testament talks about the Kingdom of God and Christ as our King, it is being profoundly ironic.
We see this irony in full effect in today’s Gospel reading from Luke 23, which is Jesus’ crucifixion. Kingship language can be found throughout the story: The charge brought against him before the Roman courts was that he set himself up as a king; he is mocked with the words, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” They place an inscription above him reading, “This is the King of the Jews.” Even those being crucified with him get in on the action: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” It’s clear in the story that the characters think Jesus’ crucifixion is proof that he is not a king. But in the logic of the Gospel, his willingness to be rejected and killed actually reveals that he is truly the King. For the whole ethic of the Kingdom of God is one of authority being revealed in humility, power in weakness, wealth in generosity, leadership in service, greatness in smallness.
The problem with how the New Testament subverts the language of power and domination is that a lot of people miss the irony and subversion altogether and simply adopt the old definitions and slap a thin coat of Christian symbols on top of it. We have seen this sadly time and time again across the past two thousand years, as many ‘Christians’ came to view Monarchy, Empire, and expansionism as participation in the Kingdom of God rather than a rejection of it.
In light of this, some Christians have decided to reject the Kingdom language altogether. One common way they do this is to call it the “Kindom of God.” This rightfully highlights the strong familial language the New Testament uses for describing faithful relationships with God and one another. Another option is Randy Woodley’s idea of the “Community of Creation.” This correctly highlights the interconnectedness of all things within God’s care. But what makes the way the New Testament uses Kingdom language so powerful is in precisely the contrast it makes with the way kingdoms work. Some suggestions I’ve seen that try to replicate this contrast in more meaningful contemporary language are “the Constitution of God,” and “The Culture of God.” But by their nature, these ideas shift the focus from God to human community, so they don’t quite fit the bill either. Because of this I’d prefer to supplement the Kingdom language with these other ways of describing God’s ways, rather than replacing it.
When it comes to God, the limitations of human ideas and language mean that we always need to be prepared to ‘unsay’ whatever we say about God. And we do well not to let any one metaphor dominate our thinking. Rather, we need as many symbols as we can think of to enrich our understanding of God and God’s ways.
So, yes, today is the Sunday of Christ the King. But it is a day not to reinforce our human ideas of power and domination, but to subvert them in the name of our King, who came not to be served but to serve, whose power is made perfect in weakness, and who died at the hands of human kings, for the life of the world. May we remember, today, tomorrow, and always, that God’s ways are not our ways, and that God’s Kingdom, Kindom, Community, and Culture turn our conceptions on their head.
Long live the King.