Christ the King / Reign of Christ C
November 24, 2013
When visiting Oklahoma at this time of year (right before Thanksgiving), you can already see lavish displays of Christmas piety around town. On the street right behind my parents’ house, there is one residential display with Christmas lights all over the house … and a large, neon cross on the front lawn. In this part of the country, people insist on putting the “Christ” in Christmas, even when it’s not Thanksgiving yet.
This week is traditionally the feast of Christ the King, one of my least favorite church traditions (see “Christ the Non-King” for greater elaboration on that topic). It’s not that I have a problem with putting Christ at the center of my life – I am ordained, after all. It’s that I still don’t believe that He meant to be a king – at least not in our earthly power-mongering, command-and-control sense of the word. If we mean Christ to be “king”, and we remain true to the teachings of Christ, we have to completely alter our notions of what kingship is, or ought to be.
The Gospel reading for this week (often read leading up to Easter) is the scene of Christ’s crucifixion, with Jesus surrounded by two “criminals” (also crucified) on either side of Him. One of the criminals (reflecting the opinion of the Romans and Jewish leaders of the time) taunts him: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). When the Messiah came, Jews at that time were expecting a powerful military leader – a king – who would collectively redeem Israel as a nation from the bondage of Rome. A Messiah who ended up humiliated and crucified was a bad joke at best.
The second criminal rebukes the first criminal for his comments, turns to Jesus and says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom [basileia]” (vv.42). Jesus responds “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise [paradeisos]” (vv.43). Jesus gave many discourses on the Kingdom [basileia] of God, but He used metaphors that did not look anything like what the people of His day – or ours – would have expected (i.e., a monarchy with dominion over others). In the Lukan Gospel, He used images and statements like “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20); “[The Kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed [i.e., a weed] that someone took and sowed in the garden” (Luke 13:19); “[The Kingdom of God] is like yeast [i.e., a ritually unclean substance] that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Luke 13:21). So Jesus’ “kingship” is in a Kingdom that is like a noxious weed, or an unclean substance, where the poor rule. This is certainly not “kingship” in any usual sense of the word.
I actually think that Thanksgiving is a far more optimal time to put the “Christ” in our daily activities, versus Christmas – which has been completely coopted by the commercial sector into a non-stop marketplace to buy, buy, buy (much like the Temple that Jesus cleansed of the money-changers in Matt.21:12). The fact that Christmas has overtaken Thanksgiving in mass media advertising is very telling. The act of sharing food with people who are outside of our family, who are unlike us (much as with the mythic story of the Native Americans and pilgrims), in an uncommercial act of generosity, is not very marketable.
However, in the Gospel of John, when Jesus asks Simon Peter to testify to his love for Jesus, He adds “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15). In case Simon Peter missed the point, Jesus repeats this statement two more times: “Tend my sheep” … “Feed my sheep” (vv.16-17). Jesus did not ask Simon Peter to prove his love by buying a bunch of presents at Wal-Mart or by sticking a big, neon cross on his front lawn. He asked Simon Peter to feed his sheep (the most vulnerable of His followers). What better time to acknowledge the “kingship” of Christ and feed the Lord’s sheep than on Thanksgiving? Unfortunately, the people who tend to most loudly acknowledge Christ as King tend to be the ones planting the neon crosses on the front lawn a week before Thanksgiving and conveniently forgetting about anyone outside of their own families on Thanksgiving Day. Then before Christmas, they will be busily buying up all the sales they can hit and – if they’re particularly pious – slapping a card with the baby Jesus’ face on them, all the while shrilly insisting that everyone use the term “Christmas” instead of “holiday”.
This Thanksgiving, let’s celebrate Christ the way Christ wanted to be celebrated – by feeding the poor, the broken hearted, and the outsiders at our tables. Let’s put away the Christmas lights and neon crosses for just another week while we pause to give thanks and celebrate gratitude for what we have, instead of frantically going out and shopping for what we don’t have. And let’s celebrate the “kingship” of Christ in a “Kingdom” that looks nothing like any Kingdom we have ever seen.