Kingship or Kingdom?

I. An historical perspective

In 1925 Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as an assertion of the Catholic Church’s protest against the rise of fascism and the growing power of communism. There is an interesting background to this development. In 313, the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, forever changing the developmental course of Christianity. The Church now became a great institution of state adopting the images and attributes of political and economic power.

Under Constantine and his Byzantine successors, in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire centered at Constantinople, the Church becomes incorporated as the spiritual aspect of imperial power. In the Western part of the Empire, at Rome now increasingly subject to barbarian invasion, the political center of imperial power collapses and comes to be replaced by the Church as the only center for both political and spiritual power. In Rome, over time the Pope replaces the Emperor. The Pope as the Bishop of Rome, also becomes a king directly ruling a swathe of territory straddling the central part of the Italian Peninsula known as the Papal States. The Papal States existed as an independent state, with the Pope as its kingly ruler, until as late as 1861.

While, the Constantinian Settlement set the Church on a course to become a center of political power rivaling the other great center of power, the Imperial Court, it also resulted in the attributes of earthly kingship being projected onto the image of Christ. In many Churches of the Byzantine style, Christ is depicted in the image of Christ Pantocrator as Emperor of the Universe. Even today we see in some Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches the central image not of the dying Christ on the Cross, but of the Christus Rex, Christ as King, reigning in glory from the Cross. 

Pius XI’s 1925 proclamation of the feast of Christ the King seems to me to stand in this tradition. In the face of the growing power of fascism and communism, Pius XI asserts the old Constantinian power of the Church as the only center of allegiance for Roman Catholics.  Here is an old story of one authoritarian system asserting itself against competing authoritarian rivals. 

Pius’ proclamation also needs to be understood within the Italian context. In 1861, the newly unified Kingdom of Italy proclaimed Rome as its capital. This was greeted by the Vatican as a hostile act amounting to the annexation of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy, leaving only a small enclave surrounding the Vatican itself as the remnant of the once mighty Papal States. Between 1861 and 1929 the Popes considered themselves prisoners of the Italian State and thus refused to leave the Vatican City. The Vatican and the Italian Government signed the Lateran Agreements in 1929 bringing the papal self-confinement to an end inaugurating the situation we know today.

II. A contemporary perspective

In 1994 with the publication of the Common Revised Lectionary most mainline Christian Churches including those of the Anglican Communion adopted Christ the King as the last Sunday of the Christian Year. We are among those first generations of Christians who are acutely conscious of living in a post-Constantinian era. In Pope Francis I many of us hope we are witnessing a beginning of the reversal of the Roman Church’s retreat back into a Constantinian world-view, a marked trend since Vatican II. Therefore, the question for us is, in what sense has the Episcopal Church  adopted the celebration of Christ the King?

III. The struggle between Culture and Gospel

Luke’s Gospel draws our attention to Jesus in the travail of dying on the Cross.  In the Gospels the so-called kingship of Jesus is a way for the Roman authorities to draw attention to the irony of his situation. The Romans are saying: look Jews, here is your King just like your nation, defeated and humiliated. Jesus on the cross is no serious contender with the power of Caesar. Herein lies a difficulty! Christians have often wanted to transform the image of Christ on the cross into a subtle exercise of power as understood within the contexts of their own political landscapes.

I am grateful to Brian Stoffregen in his sermon blog on Text Week for his reference to Robert Capon, who in Hunting the Divine Fox confronts us with our typical American Messiah which bears little resemblance to Luke’s image of Jesus on the cross:

. . . almost nobody resists the temptation to jazz up the humanity of Christ. The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman: “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way.” If that isn’t popular christology, I’ll eat my hat. Jesus gentle, meek, and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than‑human insides bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven. It’s got it all — including, just so you shouldn’t miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane. 

Capon notes that the human race has always been deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. He notes that we don’t want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, because:

… he claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying.” [pp. 90-91; this book has been reprinted, along with two other books under the title The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology] 

Superman Jesus is one way out of our having to take the suffering servant ministry of Jesus revealed through the cross, seriously.  It is our American cultural equivalent to the earlier images of Christ Pantocrator and of Christus Rex, both reigning in triumph and glory, both avoiding the shame and humiliation that Luke and the other Gospel writers show us as the essential elements of Jesus dying on the cross. The challenge for us today is to realize that the celebration of Christ the King is not a celebration of Jesus Superman. Neither is it a celebration of Jesus as secret King (my kingdom is not of this world) who rejects the pain and mess of the real world in preference to some other world that is accessible only in the inner world of the believer.

Christ the King is the celebration of Jesus as Messiah. The theology of Jesus’ kingship is the Jewish theology of the Messiah as God’s promised one, who, in his coming confronts the business-as-usual mentality of human political, social, and economic structures. However, the Jewish theology of the Messiah undergoes a development in the hands of Jesus. Jesus as Messiah does not conform to the Jewish (and we might equally read here American) nationalist expectation of a mighty king coming to fight fire with fire. Jesus as Messiah is God announcing the in-breaking of the Kingdom. Christ as King is not a celebration of kingship as we understand it to be, the projection of earthly images of power residing in a single person. It is the announcement of Kingdom. The Kingdom is made real in those attributes Jesus reveals on the cross; courage, servant-hood, forgiveness, generosity, and inclusion.

Kingdom is a realm of being that makes us very uneasy. The Kingdom of God challenges our easy accommodation with the status quo. The status quo draws on the privileging of power, which is always unequally distributed. From the unequal distribution of power, flow all the forms of oppression that characterizes our contemporary society.

I want to single-out two aspects of the way living in the Kingdom challenges our accommodation with the cultural values around us.  Christ the King is Trinity Cathedral’s in-gathering Sunday. An expectation of the Kingdom of God lies in no longer praying that God’s kingdom will come while we continue to manage our wealth as if it actually belonged, rather than was entrusted, to us. The health and vitality of the common good requires that prosperity is shared and spread around. As a society Americans discover this truth, then forget it, only to have to rediscover it once more as the fabric of society frays under the weight of unrestrained greed. As a culture we currently seem to be in the forgetting part of the cycle.

Therefore it is important that I share with you that in 2013 your generosity benefited good causes at home and abroad to the tune of $33,500. There is not a month that goes by when I am not able to offer financial assistance to those in a tight spot as a result of your continued generosity in support of the Dean’s Discretionary Account. I do want to thank the community for this powerful expression of support for our common good!

Christ the King this year coincides with Speak-out Sunday. Speak-out Sunday is a fitting protest for Christ the King against the shocking prevalence in our society of violence against women. In our society one in four women experience some form of violence against the person. Violence against women is an expression of the injustice of our society. It is an expression of the continued distortions of power between men and women. It is an expression of the economic stress that disproportionately affects the poor. It is an expression of our cultural, victimization of women typified in much of the popular police and crime drama we see on TV and in the cinema. Violence against women results from our society’s distorted images of masculinity. Patriarchal- competitive attitudes pitch men against one another in unjust hierarchies of power. It is often the men who lose-out in this hierarchical struggle for power that are most likely to turn their anger and pain against woman. Women become for many men a symbol of the vulnerability and helplessness they most fear.

Living in the Kingdom means one thing above all others. No-longer can we keep our faith a private affair and ignore the need of our neighbor. Jesus on the cross announces the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. We struggle to accept this because if we do then who knows what God will expect from us? 

Next Sunday is Advent Sunday, heralding a new Church Year. Christ the King announces to us that we are already living in the Kingdom of God. We live this out when we follow Jesus in refusing to conform to the expectations of this world by an easy accommodation with its limited vision of worth and its truncated understanding of justice. In the Kingdom, Christ as King is not content to rule from afar, but rather comes to meet us in the humiliation of our powerlessness. In the Kingdom redemption is the gift offered to all as an expression of God’s deepest and truest nature.

As we celebrate the ending of a wonderful year and prepare with anticipation and excitement for the changes that 2014 promises, my prayer for us is that this Trinity community will become more and more a place where we recognize and make more manifest that Kingdom of God, already within and around us.

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