The Irony of Christ the King (Christ the King Sunday)

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Today is the final Sunday of the Church calendar, before we begin a new church year with the Season of Advent next weekend. We call today “Christ the King” Sunday, and it’s supposed to sum up everything we’ve been reading and learning about Jesus over the past year.

Yet it’s a day that’s full of ironies!  The first irony is that Lutherans celebrate it all!  Unlike many of the ancient church year festivals that we celebrate – including some of the ones we celebrated in the past month like Reformation Day and All Saints’ Day, Christ the King Sunday is a mid 20th century invention.   And it was invented by Pope Pius XI in the 1920s partially to counter the Lutheran celebrations of the Reformation (which is why on the Roman calendar it was originally placed at the end of October).  In fact, it wasn’t until Vatican II in the 1960s that the day got moved (as an ecumenical gesture) to the last Sunday of the Church year; and it wasn’t until 1978 that Lutherans in the US figured that lifting up Christ as King was a good idea for all Christians, and we picked up the observance.

Still, it is sort of ironic that Lutherans celebrate this day.  Yet some of the Bible readings that get picked for this day seem even more ironic.

Today’s Gospel reading, for example, returns us to Good Friday, and in so doing lifts up Jesus as one who:

  • Is mocked as King (the only people who call Jesus a king are the soldiers who are killing him…)
  • Gets enthroned on a Cross, instead of nice comfortable chair …
  • Doesn’t miraculously save the day and wipe out his enemies, the way we want all our story book kings to behave …

Indeed, of all the readings we might choose to lift up Jesus as king, this reading seems the most ironic of all.  At least, it seemed ironic to those who crucified Jesus that anyone might claim that this beaten, dying ordinary person could be messiah and king.

But in that irony lies the really good news.  In fact, Jesus isn’t the kind of fairy tale king that we so often imagine – you know, the kind of king who doesn’t get messy or dirty; the kind who beats all his enemies before anybody even knows they’re a threat; and the kind of king who lets all his subjects continue to live in a fairy tale world.

That’s not the kind of world we live in.  It’s not the kind of world ANYBODY has ever lived in.  And ironically, it turns out that Jesus is the kind of king and the kind of God that we actually need for our real lives and in the real world in which we live.

The Gospels lift up Jesus as the kind of king and God who:

  • Is present for us in the midst of the mess of the real world – even the mess and ugliness of pain and death … Jesus is the kind of king and God who enters into our pain and stands with us in our real world problems…; I think one of the reasons that so many Americans have been fascinated with all the pageantry and hoopla surrounding the change in British monarchy is that we seem to be watching a throwback to a time of medieval pomp and circumstance that probably never actually existed.  But that kind of stuff is great for tourism, which is perhaps one of the reasons the Brits continue to fund it!  And the reason it’s good for tourism is that it ISN’T the world we usually live in, and that’s fine for a vacation.  But we don’t just need God to be part of our vacations; we need God in the midst of the real, everyday problems we face.  And that’s where Jesus meets us, even and especially on the Cross…
  • Teaches people what it means to endure pain and evil without being overcome by it (even when evil dishes out death); Jesus’ words of “forgiveness” even for those who are killing him aren’t words which mean “it’s OK to do this” or “I don’t care”; instead,  they’re about not letting anger, revenge and pain become what Jesus is all about; forgiveness is about not letting evil and pain define who we are …; lately, lots of us have bemoaned how our society is nastier, angrier and resentful than it used to be.  Jesus leads as king by showing us, also perhaps ironically, that the way out isn’t anger and vengeance but forgiveness … (that is, refusing to let those things be who we are and what we’re about…)
  • Gives real hope for the future – finally, this isn’t the end of the story; Jesus is raised from the dead, but only after enduring death; that’s also what he promises the second criminal on the Cross – there’s hope and new life for you;  that’s the promise for us, too, and it’s the promise that can keep us going even when we feel like we’re hanging on our own personal crosses … In the coming weeks of Advent, we’ll read a bunch of biblical stories which are “apocalyptic”.  But “apocalyptic” literature isn’t really about predicting the future, or even predicting revenge, but about raising up a vision of the future in which God’s reign is complete so that you can have strength to endure today …

And so today, even if it seems ironic, we lift up Jesus, enthroned on a Cross as our king.  And maybe today’s Gospel reading is the best one we could have, because it shoots down our fairy tale image of what a king is.  But in its place, Jesus is lifted up as the kind of king we need. 

Jesus is the king and God who stands with us and never leaves us, even and especially when things are horrible in our lives.  Jesus is the kind of king and God who shows us the way to live even when evil and death seem oppressive.  And Jesus is the kind of king and God who gives us hope for a future that’s actually real, and better than any fairy tale we could imagine.