Christ the King Sunday
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean


Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as “Christ the King Sunday,” and it’s interesting that we should find ourselves here, suddenly, at the foot of the cross. It is a neck-rending jump in our lectionary from the past weeks of reading about Jesus’ teaching ministry, to skipping all of Holy Week—the triumphal entry, the trial—to find ourselves at the cross. And it is odd, again, to consider that we go from here to Advent: the season in which we remember the beginning, the coming of the Christ-child, as well as the return of Christ at the end of time. And yet, it is appropriate that we find ourselves here on Christ the King Sunday. For, in Christ’s work on the cross, we begin to realize, truly, what his kingship is about. The cross has become for us the symbol of that kingship, the sign of Christ’s victory over death, the Lord of Life, and, thus, the hope and promise of everlasting life for us all in his everlasting kingdom.

“Christ the King Sunday” is a fairly recent feast day for the church. The Roman Catholic Church called it into being in 1925, and set it on the last Sunday of October, not coincidentally to counterbalance the Lutherans “Reformation Sunday” on the same date. It was, no doubt, a bit of a jab.

In effect, the Roman Catholics said to the Lutherans, “Go ahead and honor Luther on this day. As for us, we’ll honor Christ who is our King.”

During Vatican II, for ecumenical reasons, the Roman Church moved Christ the King Sunday to the last Sunday after Pentecost—the last Sunday before Advent—which is where we Episcopalians have picked up on the theme in our Lectionary. & Even though the Book of Common Prayer doesn’t specifically refer the last Sunday after Pentecost as “Christ the King Sunday,” most if not all parishes recognize it as such. After all, we must keep the via media intact. And especially so here at Grace Cathedral, where we have a Lutheran pastor in tow, we get both Reformation Sunday on the last Sunday of October and Christ the King today, on this last Sunday of the church year.

Hebrew religion referred to God as “King” over and over again. In fact, there was no more common title for God than “King,” especially in the Psalter.

The Gospels, from the start, pick up this royal imagery and apply it to Jesus. Gabriel declares to Mary, “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” The Magi arrive in Judea with the question on their lips: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” The kingly imagery for Jesus remains until the last of the gospel narratives. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to the cries of the people: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” At his trial, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

The soldiers dress him in a scarlet robe, put a royal reed in his hand, and a thorny crown is slammed on his head, so that the royal joke of Jesus’ kingship will not go unnoticed. Finally, as mocking dutiful subjects, the soldiers kneel before Jesus paying him homage: “Hail, King of the Jews!” & a sign with the same words is nailed to the top the execution cross.

In some ways, you can’t blame Pilate or the soldiers for making a parody of Jesus. After all, he wasn’t much of a king. No paparazzi chased him. He never opened Parliament. He had no army, no jewels, no castle, not even a sword.

When he died, no flags flew at half-mast. No funeral procession stretched three miles from a palace to a cathedral. He didn’t cause a national shortage of white roses, lilies or tulips that might have been flung on the hearse at it passed by. He had no royal guards to carry his casket, and no giant TV screens were set up in Jerusalem’s parks so that all the royal mourners could watch the proceedings. And, to be sure, there was no adaptation of “Candle in the Wind” to “Good-bye Israel’s Rose” accompanying his funeral.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying those aren’t all nice things–respectful things. All I’m saying is Jesus didn’t get ’em. He wasn’t, at any time, treated much like royalty. Nor, did he ask to be.

In terms of what the world thinks of kingship, Jesus would make a perfect cover for The National Lampoon. And that is because he wanted it that way. In the wilderness, the devil had shown Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: “To you, I will give their glory and all this authority . . .” But Jesus did refuse.

Next, it was the “people.” After the feeding the five thousand, as the disciples were busy gathering up the leftovers from the feast, the people came after Jesus “to take him by force and make him king.” But Jesus would have nothing to do with their “royal” plans and he withdrew immediately to a nearby mountain.

You see, Jesus knew the difference between “kingship” as the world understands that term and “kingship” as it applies to the kingdom of God. And the danger in “Christ the King Sunday” is that we will continue to think in worldly terms as we consider and proclaim and celebrate the kingship of Jesus.

The danger is the same danger that befell the folks of Jesus’ own day: that of developing the idea of a personal God. That is, a God of our “persona”–a God we’ve created to be “like us” or the way we want him to be–one who “works” for us, –looks out after our interests first and the interests of others later—a genie that we keep in bottle (or a Bible) and who grants our wishes at command. That’s what we’d like from God. That’s what we’d like in a king.

The idea of a “personal God” can be healthy to a degree—the idea that we can have a personal relationship with God, with Jesus. But the idea of a “personal God” pushed too far can result in serious error. He can be a mere idol carved in our image, a projection of our limited needs, fears, and desires. We can assume (because he is just like us) that he loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them.

A personal (too personalized) God can be dangerous, then. Instead of pulling us beyond our limitations, he can make us as cruel and callous, as self-satisfied and partial as he seems to be. Instead of inspiring the compassion that should characterize our faith, he can encourage us to judge, condemn, and marginalize. All of this, not because we strive to be like our God, but because we strive to make our God like us – and the idea of a god created in our image and likeness is not new. It’s historic. It seems to be an irresistible fault in all advanced religions–certainly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It can even come from the secular world, which is always on the lookout for a new “king.”

For instance, in the 1920s, in America, the best-selling nonfiction book was written by a man named Bruce Barton. He said that the founder of modern business was Jesus Christ, since he picked twelve humble men and created an organization that sold the world.

In more recent times, there have been all kinds of new bestsellers claiming the kingdom of sure prosperity for God’s faithful followers through accumulated wealth or the power of positive thinking.

Jesus was emphatic about the point that he was not of this world and not about the things of this world. He tells Pilate, looking him square the eye, “My kingdom is not from here. My domain is not your domain. My way is not your way.”

“In fact, my way inverts your way. My way, at every turn, challenges your way. My way is the way of the Father, “who is in secret,” and whose invisible domain is against all forms of greed and covetousness; all tyranny and oppression; all hate and deceit and abuse; all false gods.”

There is only one God. And that God is not of our creation (of our making and our design).

The most significant thing that happened in the Exodus story was not simply the leading of a band of slaves from bondage to freedom–as important as that was.

But, what was of even greater significance was Moses posing an alternative consciousness to the “royal consciousness” that had enslaved the Hebrew people for four centuries. –It was this new way of thinking–and the taking of the God of Grace as their true “king”–that formed the underlying miracle of the Exodus.

And so it is for us as members of the “New Israel.” The “royal” consciousness of the world has nothing to do with the real Jesus. It was this “royal” thinking–and the principalities and powers that sought to defend it at all costs–that put him to death.

But the cross AND Easter—God’s triumphant love—is what crowns Jesus as King, the true “royal redeemer” at whose name every knee should bend, every head bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is King, is Savior, is Lord, is God’s Son, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.