If Jesus is King,
How Does He Reign?
How Does He Reign?
As the church celebrates Christ the King Sunday (Reign of Christ Sunday), it faces a question – what does it mean for Jesus to reign? Isaac Watts’ hymn, which my congregation will be sharing on Sunday, declares that “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does its successive journeys run; his love shall spread from shore to shore till moons shall wax and wane no more.” Is Watts equating reign and love? Can we abide such a definition of the reign of Christ? Pushing further, are we ready to affirm that Christ does reign?
A monarch from the 1st century CE was of a different breed from most of today’s monarchs. Modern Americans likely envision kings and queens existing in the image of Elizabeth II, a figure head, who has no real power, except that of personality. We have Presidents here – they have great power and are often spoken of as being the “most powerful person in the world,” but whatever power President Obama has, it’s nothing like that exercised by Caesar. So what does it mean for us to declare Christ to be King? What allegiance are we willing to give? In our three texts we find reflections on this question, reflections worth considering as we think about our relationship with God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the reading from 2 Samuel 23, the narrator declares that these are the “Last Words of David.” There are actually words that follow, but these stand out as David’s testament. He was, according to the narrative, “a man raised high, a man anointed by the God of Jacob, a man honored by the strong one of Israel” (vs. 1). He is one who God has raised up to reign. In time he becomes the model, the exemplar – yes he has frailties, but they are cast aside as we’re led to remember the qualities that the truly great rulers should exhibit. He is a prophet, for the Spirit of the Lord speaks through him. And the word that is spoken is this: “Whoever rules rightly over people, whoever rules in the fear of God, is like the light of sunrise on a morning with no clouds, like the bright gleam after the rain that brings grass from the ground.” To rule correctly, is to rule in the fear of God. It is, as the text goes on to declare – living out of the covenant that God makes with David. Oh, and as for the enemies – they’ll be dealt with harshly. There is a word of hope and a word of judgment. I’m not sure what to make of the word of judgment, but the word of hope calls on those who lead to do so in concert with God.
The word from Revelation invites us to envision the coming of God’s kingdom with power and glory. Jesus is depicted here as the king of kings who both loves us and frees us from our sins through his own blood. As a result, we are made a kingdom of priests. If we’re to envision the kingdom or realm of God then we’ll need to understand our own role in this. Jesus is the ruler, the deliverer, faithful witness, first born of the dead. Yes, he is the Alpha and Omega – first and last. Is the one “who is and was and is to come. There is a universalizing of the vision. In Christ we are drawn into the fullness of God’s presence. For the panentheists among us, perhaps this is a way of envisioning how creation is enfolded into the divine. God is in us and we are in God, though, of course, there is transcendence present in this concept of immanence. But back to that vision of being made into a “kingdom of priests,” it is a good word to remember. It is a reminder that the people of God need no intermediaries between themselves and God, and yet at the same time we can serve as intercessors for each other. If all are priests, then there is equality of our presence before God. We can enter the holy of holies with boldness, as our reading for Hebrews a week previous reminded us (Heb. 1:19-22). As that kingdom of priests, we share in Christ’s reign of goodness, of love, of mercy, and justice, interceding for creation, even as all things are made new.
As we come to the gospel reading from John, it may seem odd to have a text that might be read on Good Friday standing in for Christ the King Sunday, but the questions posed are important ones for us to consider. The point isn’t just whether Jesus is king, but what kind of king will he be? Pilate understands monarchy and power through the lens of empire. He is a representative of Rome’s control. He sees in Jesus merely a pretender, a person with a following but no real power. For Pilate and for imperialists in general, might makes right. The person with the most guns and ammunition holds all the cards. Living as I do in a nation that has come to see itself as the sole remaining superpower, whose military budget outstrips all of its rivals many times over, I have a ringside seat – as do most of you who read these words – to this reality. President Obama may not have all the powers inherent in monarchy, but he is able to exercise considerable power, if for no other reason – he has the codes that can decide the future existence of this world. We’ve avoided nuclear conflagration for the entirety of my life of more than half a century, but should the orders be given things could change rapidly.
Pilate understood the politics of military power, which is why he wouldn’t have taken Jesus as a serious threat. He saw Jesus as a pretender to a non-existent throne. He might be interested in the reason why Jesus was brought before him, but more likely he was annoyed at being bothered by another pretender.
Jesus’ answer is a bit coy – as is often the case in John’s Gospel. He doesn’t come outright and say – yes I’m King of the Jews, but he does accept the premise that he is a representative of the heavenly kingdom. If you must call me a king, he seems to be saying, then understand that “my kingdom doesn’t originate from this world.” Too often Christians have read these words in such a way as to devalue earthly experience. Too often we pine for our departure from this life to that of the next. Our earthly goal, some believe, is to make our escape and leave the world and its challenges behind. But is that what Jesus has in mind?
If we look to the Lord’s Prayer, which doesn’t appear in John’s Gospel, for help, let us remember that important statement in the prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I appreciate Jūrgen Moltmann’s interpretation of this verse from John. He notes that when Jesus says that the kingdom of God is not of this world, he means origin not location. With this in mind, he writes: “It comes from God. If it didn’t come from God it couldn’t heal the sick of this world. But in and through Jesus it is in the midst of the world, and when Jesus said these words the Kingdom of God in person was standing in front of Rome’s imperial governor, Pontius Pilate.”[i] Moltmann goes on to note that this kingdom has both invisible and visible dimensions, but it is “as earthly as Jesus himself was.” It is revealed through and implanted through the cross and the resurrection, and the resulting message is that “the earth is worth it.” It’s not a vision of escape, but being present in and through Christ in the world so that Christ might redeem and transform it. As king, Jesus says, his purpose is to bear witness to the truth. Pilate might want to debate the notion of truth, but Jesus reveals it in his being, for truth is the realm of God revealed in his life here on earth as well as in heaven.
What then is our response to Jesus’ claim to rule? What difference does it make? What claim is made on our allegiance? If we are to seek first the realm of God (Matthew 6:33), what does this mean in relation to the church, to the nation, to the economy, even our own identity. Where is our ultimate allegiance?
When the journey of the church year began a year ago with the first Sunday of Advent, our focus was on the promise and the need to prepare for the coming of God’s realm in ways we might not have anticipated – not with imperial might for example – and now we come to the end of the journey (only to begin again with a new season of Advent). Rather than end with David’s words of judgment on his enemies, let us instead look forward with anticipation to the coming of the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end – the one who was, is and is to come. Or to cast it in the words of Watt’s hymn: “let every creature rise with son; honor and praise to Christ belong; angels descend with songs again, and earth repeat loud amen! Let us do so -- on earth as in heaven.