Like many of you, I have been following the response of the French community to the recent attack in Paris. As one might imagine, much of response has been grief and fear. Yet there are also people speaking from a place of hope and faith. Not all of them are calling it faith, but it sounds a lot like faith to me. There is one interview that went viral. It was viewed more than 15 million times on facebook alone. In it a reporter is speaking to a man and his son who cannot be more than 4 years old. The son is saying that he is afraid they will have to move because there are bad guys with guns. The father, whose name his Angel, tells his son that it is ok, because they have flowers. The son wisely responds that flowers cannot do anything. The father says that they can and points to all the flowers and candles that people have placed in the midst of the rubble and ash of their city. The child then asks, “So the flowers and the candles protect us?” The father tells him they do. Then the child smiles, not a big smile, but one that makes you think that maybe he understands something—something that even we as adults cannot.
Today is Christ the King Sunday and it is a Sunday that many people approach with ambivalence. On the one hand, we know that Jesus was referred to as a king in the scriptures. But we are also a nation that was founded when we rebelled against the very notion of having a king. We are a democracy because we didn’t trust monarchies. God wasn’t a big fan of earthly kings either. In the Old Testament, God encouraged the people not to have a king. He warned them that kings would not serve them. A king would only take advantage of the people. They needed to rely on God, not some earthly power. So it seems odd, that we have come to use this king language for Jesus. He didn’t really act like a king.
Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in 1925. It was right after World War I and he felt that with the rise of nationalism and dictatorships, people needed to be reminded that regardless of the apparent power of our earthly leaders, there was only one king that mattered, the king of kings…Christ the King. While I admire the effort, I am not sure it was the most effective strategy. When we try to compare Jesus to our earthly understanding of kings, he will never really compare. Even in the time that Jesus lived, many of his followers wanted him to be a king, the kind of king that would help them overthrow the Roman government, the kind of king who would display his glory and power in battle. He was never that king.
Had that been his desire, Jesus could have been that king. He could have done anything that he wanted. He had the power to defeat the Romans, but he chose not to wield his power in that way. Obviously, that had been done before. The Israel people had some wonderful kings, like King David, who made them victors in war. But that kind of power was ephemeral. It did not last. Jesus was the kind of king who would live amongst those who were suffering, who would insist that we love our enemies, even when they hate us and mean us harm. He was the kind of king who would demand that his followers put down their swords when he was taken away by armed guards. He was the kind of king who refused to wield his power over those who were weaker, even when those people were people like Pilate, who thought they had the power to kill him.
That is why we have this Gospel reading for Christ the King Sunday. This is one of the scenes in the trial of Jesus. He was being accused of blasphemy because he claimed to be God. This was not a punishable offence according to the Romans, but claiming to be king was. Claiming to be a king was an offense and threat to the Roman Emperor. Part of what Pilate was trying to determine was whether this man was really a threat. It would appear that Pilate did not think he was much of a threat. And how could he be? He had no army. His own followers had betrayed him. Even his people had turned against him. There was no way that he was a threat to the Roman Emperor. Despite all of this, Pilate decided that he needed to be crucified.
What is interesting to me is that Pilate insisted on putting a sign on Jesus’ cross that proclaimed him as king of the Jews. In many ways, it was one of the most profound acknowledgments of the power of Jesus. A Roman leader officially acknowledged him as a king. Jesus was a different kind of king. He was a king who suffered for the sins of the world and that was never more evident than when he died on the cross under a sign that proclaimed him “King of the Jews.”
Many people felt that this was a defeat for Jesus and his followers. A real king, a powerful God would never allow himself to be crucified. However, because we know the end of the story, we know that Jesus did in fact display ultimate power when he died on the cross. He displayed power over death. Once you have conquered death, no one can claim power over you.
I don’t know why this video of a father and his son has been viewed over 15 million times. At first, it just seems like a display of innocence and hope in the midst of evil and suffering. I think it is more than that. Obviously, we know that any gun can destroy all the flowers and candles of this world. What a gun cannot destroy is what the flowers and the candles represent. It’s the hope that comes with people wanting to remember and honor those who have died. It’s people who respond to hatred with love. It is faith that evil cannot have the last word; that candles will always burn when we mourn those who we have lost; that flowers will bloom even in the most dismal of places. It’s a king who conquers not with violent displays of power, but with sacrificial love and vulnerability. When we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, we are not celebrating a king who sat on a throne with a crown of gold, but a king who was nailed to a cross with a crown of thorns. This is the king we honor.
During Holy Week, we have a bare cross that stands in our cemetery. It has a sign that reads, “King of the Jews.” On Easter Sunday we have another cross that we cover with flowers. A symbol of fear, hatred, and pain becomes a beautiful vision of joy and triumph. We don’t just do that because it’s pretty. We could just take the cross down and stick with the flowers if all we wanted was something pretty. Instead we cover that hate with love. We transform death into life because that was what Jesus did. We stand here as a church…so that candles will always burn for the loved ones we have lost, flowers will always bloom even on the darkest and coldest of days, and the cross will always stand as a reminder that we have a king who refused to sit on a throne and instead lives among us.