Christ the King: The model of Christian Authority

November 25, 2013

Today in the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This is a relatively new addition to the life of the Church. It was originally celebrated by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters since about 1925. It came into the Episcopal Church in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Today this feast is celebrated almost universally, and some branches of the Anglican Church like it so much, they make a little season out of it. They call it the Kingdom Season. Liturgy – both in parishes and across the whole Church –changes glacially, but this feast has spread like wildfire across this Church.

When change like this happens so quickly, it means that the meaning of the feast has somehow touched a nerve. In the case of the Feast of Christ the King, the question is this: where does the true authority in the world reside, and what does the proper exercise of that authority look like? As Christian, we remember today that true authority resides in Jesus Christ, and that authority exercised well follows his model of love, and mercy, and sacrifice.

The name of this feast was already a bit strange when it began in the early part of the 20th century. Monarchy was not really the primary form of government even then. And from our perspective, especially here in the United States, the image of kingship, if we take it seriously, is highly problematic. We are the original anti-kings. The basis of our national identity is in the rejection of monarchy, so why would we willingly use the image of oppression to describe our relationship to God? When we think of kings, we think of armies, and we think of war, and this really isn’t what God is all about. The idea of kingship could lead us to see the Church as an aggressive force.

But this is just about the complete opposite of what we’re trying to do today. The problem is that we often take our experiences and project them onto God, when we should do the reverse. We don’t understand God because we understand human kings; we understand human kings only when they reflect the image of God. And this is why this feast is so important. Our leaders, over and over again, fail to reflect the image of God. This is true of kings, and presidents, and judges, and Members of Congress, and on and on. Our own selfishness, greed, and thirst for power inevitably pollute our best intentions. This is true across political parties and across countries. This is a universal fact of the human condition. Some situations are better than others, but all of them fall short.

There is only one true image of God, and that is Jesus Christ. In the Letter to the Colossians, St. Paul reminds us that, through him, the love of God made us and sustains us. He was before all things, and he will be present when all things are completed. He knows and loves each of us fully, from the beginning to the end. He is the one person we can trust fully.

But the true impact of this idea comes when we look at the gospel passage from this morning. In each of the Gospels, there is a plaque placed above Jesus that reads, “This is the King of the Jews.” The Romans often placed plaques indicating the crime which the person is being punished for, but in Jesus case, the plaque is also true. He is the King of the Jews, and he is the King of all creation. And it is at this point, on the cross, that Jesus shows what it really means to have authority. It means being willing to give up all power and all privilege for others. In this passage from Luke, Jesus stops – in the middle of his suffering – to comfort the thief dying on the cross next to him. This is our King.

This feast began as a reminder to the Church about what authority is supposed to look like, and it is a reminder of how far our own polity falls short. In God’s kingdom, authority is not the naked exercise of power. It is never selfish or greedy. It never degrades us or strips away our humanity. The authority exercised by Christ is one of absolute humility and sacrifice, completely focused on the restoration, redemption, and salvation of others. This is who we follow; this is Christ the King.

– Michael Tuck+

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