Honouring the Un-king-like King
For those among us who like to make a great fuss of visiting royalty, there must be some puzzlement at our lectionary compositors in choosing today’s gospel to honour Christ the King Sunday. Those lectionary scholars have apparently set aside the possibilities of texts which might be seen to be highlighting the greatness of Jesus and instead selected a passage to feature the sadness and pain of the crucifixion.
It doesn’t seem quite so inappropriate when we remember that the Christ the King church feast was only added to the Church calendar in 1925 (and originally as a Catholic feast). The then recent memory of the suffering and sacrifice in World War 1 must have brought home some of the reality of the world’s problems and perhaps it was something of that memory that made the sacrifice of Jesus a more appropriate memory for his radically different form of kingship.
When I thought of that Crucifixion scene it came to me to me just how few seemed to want to stand up for the man who later followers would call the King. There were those (perhaps a majority) who stood and watched and no doubt said very little. Before we judge, just remember many among the crowd would no doubt have been anxious not to come to the attention of the executioners. There were also those who mocked – and I guess there are probably many today who are prepared to mock the modern day Kings and Queens. It was almost if the only ones who really got what Jesus was about were that thief on the neighbouring Cross, the Roman officer at the foot of the Cross and the almost unknown friend who offered to place Jesus in a grave.
The temptation in the context of worship is to be drawn to the convention of using words of praise, often repeated in a series of repeated phrases in our Hymns and Choruses to focus on the power and might of Jesus as the Son of the all powerful God of Creation. Yet the focus in the gospels is that of a very different King who did very un-king-like acts. “We have a King who rides a donkey” or “Kneels at the feet of his friends” takes us part way towards a more accurate recognition.
What is more, there is the question of why the resurrection scene doesn’t fit with what often happens in formal worship in what many call “church” today? There, a thoughtful observer might notice a curious mismatch between the Crucifixion scene and the way modern worshippers often join in singing of “Jesus the King” with fulsome words of praise on one hand while at the same time almost completely side-lining Jesus’ teaching on the other.
As it happens every now and then a scholar emerges to rediscover that even the elevation of Jesus to bestow a royal title is missing what the main thrust of Jesus’ teaching was on about. Putting it bluntly, Jesus made it clear what he expected of his followers and made it abundantly clear he had no pretensions to fame and glory.
Yet as one of New Zealand’s prominent (and seen by some as a radical priest) Glynn Cardy once pointed out:
‘Christ the King’ is stirring stuff in Handel’s Alleluia Chorus, but it hardly fits with the gospel picture of Jesus the man who wouldn’t be king. Instead of singing “King of Kings, Lord of Lords”, it would be much more accurate to sing ‘Rebel of rebels, misfit of misfits’.
Historically, this shift from Jesus recorded words and works to what some might call unthinking and empty words of praise was actually quite rapid. In the two centuries following his death a variety of gospels written subsequently by some of his leading followers did their very best to give Jesus’ image a make-over. Like Paul they seemed more interested in making Jesus acceptable as a great religious figure to the initially hostile Roman Empire, while at the same time, where possible trying to present a message to gain recognition from the now splintered and dispersed Jewish people.
As the years passed a number of scholars have noted the gospels were edited and re-edited to emphasise Jesus’ right to the Emperor’s standard titles like Son of God, Lord, Prince of Peace, King of Kings not to mention titles more commonly used by the religious figures of neighbouring religions like the Zoroastrianism where we get “Born of the Virgin” and “Light of the World”. Perhaps it should be emphasized from more contemporary accounts it is unlikely that such titles were used in Jesus’ lifetime.
There is of course one sense worrying about the titles themselves, is somewhat irrelevant in that most people would claim that they are a poetical or metaphorical well-meaning way of stressing that Jesus is totally exceptional.
The catch is that it also risks making the assumption that the best and even only way to honour Jesus is by words of praise. I say the “catch” because to praise by word and song comes across as something close to hypocrisy if we give Jesus praise and expressions of admiration then go ahead and live lives thereby showing we don’t accept his teaching. In the worst case scenario, expressions of praise would across as empty particularly if our lives appeared to contradict everything he stood for.
As far as I can remember, typical Jesus-type teaching in the gospels includes injunctions like: forgive your enemy seventy times seven, don’t store up riches on earth, welcome the stranger in your midst, cast not the first stone, don’t make a show of your faith, judge not lest you yourself be judged – not to mention heaps of teaching and lived examples showing ways to express empathy with those who are typically rejected by society.
Let us suppose we come across a hypothetical Church where the leaders make a show of their faith, where the leaders get very rich on the donations of the members, where the preaching seems to encourage wars for aggression to increase the self claimed host “Christian” country’s wealth, where appeals for help from those who have the misfortune to be born into the wrong religion are given token attention or even rejected, where those who offend the interest of the self claimed Christian are never forgiven, where the self-claimed Christians seek the limelight, demand unequal trade arrangements, ignore the plight of the poor …… and yet through all that, praise the very one who taught a very different way of living. Is that what it should mean to praise the one we call “Christ the King”
Perhaps we need constant reminders that some of our more recent theological teachers about the historical Jesus insist he was fundamentally opposed to the accumulation of power, wealth, and privilege symbolized by monarchy. Those who are drawn to the trappings of religious paraphernalia and the hierarchical nature of Church leadership would no doubt be uncomfortable to be reminded that it is hard to imagine Jesus in a Bishop’s splendid regalia or setting aside places of honour for the Church leaders at ceremonial feasts.
Whatever else he might have been, Jesus was a anything but a haughty monarch and was reportedly accused of eating with criminals and mixing with the misfits of society. He would probably be described as a pacifist than a supporter of what our American friends call the Second Amendment today but we would be unwise to assume he would condemn the typical targets of fundamentalism eg homosexuals, those born into a non-Christian faith, or those who offended against some ancient edict. From the gospels is hard to imagine Jesus as an imperious ruler on the side of those who wanted to exclude those who are rejected by society.
Jesus was then a man who challenged religious customs by inviting into his apparent ‘extended family’ tax collectors, lepers, casually encountered women, children, Roman “enemies”, and even on occasion priests and Pharisees. Maybe he expected his followers to do the same. Unlike those who like the well-known rugby player who assumes God punishes Australians who voted for “gay marriage” with devastating bush fires, there is little evidence Jesus distinguishes between the clean and unclean, the righteous and unrighteous, the polluted and the pure – and in case you missed it, he specifically enjoined his followers not to judge others. So if we are of a mind to judge perhaps we need to remind ourselves that Jesus cautioned us against such behaviour.
Time after time the deviancy of Jesus’ over the next few decades was ‘corrected’ by the Church. Christianity was re-fashioned to be supportive of ruling classes, class structure, and restoring the position of the male as the leader of the Christian family. Christianity instituted hierarchies of bishops and priests and to this day some Churches use such control to shape people’s religious behaviour.
Again I want to acknowledge Glynn Cardy in drawing the following to our attention. He noted there is a very sober quote from Eusebius describing the assembling of the bishops for the Council of Nicaea in 325. This Council would go on to produce a now famous creed that in effect ignored the ministry, vision, and challenge of Jesus. Any creed on the basics that leaves the believers to imagine what comes between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate” is in effect saying the teachings are little significance.Eusebius writes:
“Detachments of the bodyguard and troops surrounded the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of them the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the Imperial apartments, in which some were the Emperor’s companions at table… One might have thought that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth…”
Is it surprising then that Jesus’ teaching and attitudes should so easily have subsequently been bypassed in the articles of faith in the creed produced in the name of the Council of Nicaea?
My final question is one that I address to myself as well as to my readers. If we do indeed want to honour Jesus as Christ the King would we perhaps be better to put less effort into making suitable expressions of admiration and adoration – and perhaps a little more into following the direction indicated by the one we call Christ the King?