A King Follower or a King Noticer?
By any measure the last two weeks have centred round some fairly dramatic events. We now note a new and very different President of the United States which is either very good or very bad news depending on what you would expect to see such a President do in his new role. Although some of the protestors against Trump’s electoral victory are now chanting and waving placards to proclaim “Not our President” I want to change the argument around and start by asking what it might mean to have a President who is indeed the one the people not only would follow but who they actually do follow.
Think by analogy of all those who for example claim to identify Jesus as their Saviour and King. Didn’t that same King ask his followers to forgive their enemies, to offer kindness to those who persecute them, to be a Good Samaritan to those in danger? If we merely petition the King to do these things on our behalf (which is sometime done in prayers), surely this is rather missing the point.
Do you think it odd that in this day of celebrities no matter how deep the crisis the spotlight always goes on the leaders and the rest of us act as judges on the efforts of our leaders and not on ourselves who are supposed to follow and represent their way of life?
Although we expect action from our leaders, all too often we don’t see ourselves as part of the equation. Since it is Christ the King Sunday today, would you like to speculate as to how many of the drivers who have passed by an accident victim without stopping should be confident in ticking a box which says “Jesus is King?”
Just as we in New Zealand are facing a major disaster in the form of an Earthquake which has devastated the upper East Coast of the South Island of New Zealand others too face their own problems. Those claiming a faith which answers problems might well reflect on how these disasters have made us different from others who respond to the victims.
The question of affirmation of the status of Jesus may seem to you to be a side issue, and I will get to that. First let’s step back a little into rather more familiar territory.
When it comes to any famous leader from history, for those interested in that leader, the natural question that seems to be foremost in everyone’s mind is: what sort of character was that person? However when it comes to Jesus, since the consensus already appears that he was worthy of being called a king, and what’s more a significant proportion of human kind claim that at least in some sense of the word, that to them he is still a king, there are two further questions that have to be asked. The first of these questions is what do we mean when we think of Jesus being the king? The second question is rather more important. Assuming that Jesus is entitled to be thought of as king, how should that affect those who claim he is their king? In other words, how should it affect those calling themselves Christian?
Since much of Christ’s teaching was related to the coming of the Kingdom, it is hardly surprising that the compilers of the lectionary should set aside one Sunday in the Church Year to focus on the notion of Christ the King. At first glance, what is more surprising is that the organisers of the lectionary for this particular Sunday should include a reading about the crucifixion (normally associated with Easter ) and also place this reading just before the season of Advent, when the Church focuses on the significance of the coming of Jesus.
Even if we only had that one incident to go by, the crucifixion with the ironic crown of thorns is a vivid reminder of that Jesus’ kingship was very different from what we usually mean we talk of someone being a king. The gospel stories portray one who placed great store on humility, a Jesus who focused on offering service to others and on seeking justice and fair dealing for those often rejected by society.
In our age where everyone appears certain of whose faith is heretical, it is worth remembering that according to the gospels Jesus was actually in favour of tolerance. He didn’t seem to care who he ate with or in whose company he was found. He ate with tax collectors and known sinners and talked with prostitutes. He appears to have had women in his inner circle despite the social conventions of a male-dominated society; and where no one was allowed within about five feet of lepers he apparently would touch such outcasts in his acts of healing.
A king, Jesus may have been, but as John Dominic Crossan pointed out, Jesus was a king of nuisances and nobodies.
We would also find it hard to associate what we read of Jesus the king with one who might equally have called for armed rebellion. Not only did he seem uninterested in recruiting troops for physical battle but instead chose to enter Jerusalem on a donkey. Kings seeking recognition would be expected to surround themselves with the trappings of office, a significant bodyguard and the usual symbols of power. This king was not one in this mold and reportedly had no servants to cater to his every need. Jesus allegedly only had a single cloak and far from living in a sumptuous palace is said to have had nowhere to lay his head.
It makes little sense to describe a king without looking at the nature of their kingdom. And here we are not talking of geographical boundaries. We are really talking about those who accept the king-ship described in the gospels, wherever they may live – and regardless of what formal association for census purposes or denomination they might theoretically claim.
Perhaps there is a parallel in knowing that Elizabeth is Queen of England is an item of knowledge shared by a good part of the population of the World. That does not mean for example that therefore the citizens of Saudi Arabia, knowing Elizabeth is Queen of the British Empire, also believe she rules over the citizens of Saudi Arabia. By the same token, those agitating for New Zealand to become a republic, despite living in a Commonwealth nation do not in fact see Queen Elizabeth as their acceptable head of State, nor as an advisor worth listening to. Technically they may be citizens of the Commonwealth, yet like some who describe themselves as Christian on the census papers, there is no genuine feeling of association.
If he were a king with characteristics mentioned, how then should Jesus be remembered and celebrated? I can’t help wondering if he might have been appalled by what happened in the few hundred years following his crucifixion as some of his followers set about portraying him as precisely the opposite of what his actions and words proclaimed him to be. He had sought no significant building in his lifetime – yet his followers decided he needed something really significant and built a series of wonderful Churches and Cathedrals in his memory.
The crosses became ornate and encrusted with jewels. Artists first painted Jesus with a simple halo which grew in size as the years passed. Some placed a crown on his head. As far as we can tell from the gospel stories Jesus ate simply, yet his followers organised feasts in his name. The art historians a few years ago showed how with the passing centuries the splendour of the last supper – portrayed by the religious artists of the day at first with simple bread and wine – grew with successive portrayals.
At the same time this reimaging of Christ was emerging, there was an accompanying theological rethink .
Perhaps the most significant of the re-statements occurred when the first Roman Emperor considered sympathetic to Christianity, Constantine, encouraged Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Asia Minor to preside over the Council of Nicaea and have the council come up with a statement about Jesus that took his status way beyond that of King and instead awarded him the title of “Very God of Very God, co-equally and co eternally with God”, which of course is how many supporters of the Trinity still see Jesus today. Without re-entering the apparently unending debate as to whether this is still a meaningful statement, particularly given what we now know about the Universe, and while acknowledging that many Christians of a more liberal persuasion simply reject that proposition, it is clear that different groups of Christians have come to very different decisions about the status of Christ. On the other hand I wonder if the theological status of Jesus is where we should place our attention..
Presumably whatever Jesus was in reality, whether it be a humble teacher, Son of God, or even one coequal with God, we are still left with the question as to what we should do with the description we want. To know for instance that Jesus is king as many hymns are prepared to state, is not the same as thinking of him as a king to be followed in his teaching.
Indeed when some time ago, when Brian Wren analysed many mainstream Christian hymns for the images of the king he discovered that something like 80% of the masculine images of the king implied power over others and something like 60% references to Jesus as king were images of power whereas very few hymns talking of the king used concepts of humility and servant-hood, which would be required if the hymns were to be focused on following Jesus teaching.
The gospels are clear enough. Jesus selects metaphors like the king is the good shepherd, the one caring for the lost, and we are left with the impression that the king is also the personification of the Sermon on the Mount, and the best king is the servant of all. Surely that suggests something of the nature of what might be expected of the follower of the king.
Jesus taught by parable and by example that an ethical response is expected from those who wished to be associated with his way. To take our opening example of the injured man seeking help from the passing motorists, choosing to drive by on the other side, is not living in the spirit of the kingdom. The truck driver who does eventually stop is surely the one who acts in accordance with the golden rule, no matter what his Church affiliation or lack of Church affiliation may turn out to be.
Conversely those who sing words of praise to one they refer to as king are hardly being consistent with their claimed faith if, when tested, they prefer to look the other way.
As we enter Advent, it is an appropriate time to ask ourselves if the King we celebrate and claim to worship is genuinely one we see ourselves to be following not just in our words but in our attitudes and actions. Perhaps for now we should set aside his title and the abstruse theology surrounding the Trinity and instead give our attention to our response to the simple message he brings. Then perhaps instead of affirming “Jesus the King” we might be entitled to venture the words “Jesus our King”.