Year B, Christ the King
Today is the Feast of Christ the King. It’s not one of our more well-known feast days. There are no greeting cards, no fun traditions and no special decorations or cookies. The feast itself is less than 100 years old. It was 1925 when Pope Pius XI declared that this Sunday would be the Feast of Christ the King. In 1925 Europe was still recovering from the devastating effects of World War I. Italy was leaning much more secular than it previously had. A church that had once experienced great power, saw their power and influence waning.
Until 1870, the pope had authority and control over considerable geographic areas of Italy. That changed in 1870 when the pope and The Roman Catholic Church lost power over all the land they previously held, which meant that while the pope retained spiritual authority, he had no political power. This was a cause of consternation for the Roman Catholic Church. After World War I, Italy was struggling to recover from the war. Mussolini came to power and the Catholic Church found itself negotiating with this new fascist government attempting to retain some authority in Italy and the world. The compromise was the creation of Vatican City as an independent city-state, and recognizing the pope as the head of state. That final compromise came about in 1929, only 4 years after Christ the King feast day was inaugurated.
It’s interesting that this feast day, a day committed to recognizing the supreme authority of Jesus Christ, came in the midst of this political turmoil, a time when the Roman Catholic Church was struggling to hold on to their own authority. Now, you could easily look at the timing and assume that the creation of this feast was a purely political move by the Church. Many have come to that conclusion. But I think it was more than that. The Holy Spirit was in the midst of this.
I believe that the leadership of the church was genuinely scared about the future of Christianity. They had just witnessed the First World War. It was violence and death on a scale that no one had seen. The Church that had once had a voice in the public and political sphere was now being virtually ignored. The pope wanted to remind the people, anyone who was still listening, that God was still almighty, still all powerful. Just because the church did not have an army behind it did not mean that it did not have power. So they did what they knew how to do, they created liturgy to remind people of what real authority and power looked like.
Now I have no idea who picked the readings that would be associated with this feast day. It seems like choosing this reading from The Gospel of John would have been an odd choice for a church trying to reassert their authority. If you asked me to choose a reading to display the power and authority of Jesus, I would have looked for something where Jesus looked impressive, perhaps the feeding of the 5000, or one of the many times he spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, or even one of the resurrection accounts. Those are feel good moments.
But the trial scene?? We typically associate this trial scene with Holy Week. We read it on Good Friday and feel sad because Jesus is about to die and instead of defending himself like any other self-respecting king, he asks questions and responds with confusing answers about where his kingdom is. Jesus was a gifted orator. He was often besting the great theologians of his time. He loved to put powerful people in their place. What happened to that Jesus? That is the Jesus we need when we talk about authority and leadership. We don’t need this slightly docile and evasive Jesus who seemed to cooperate with this Roman leader, who was widely perceived as an ineffective leader.
Or maybe…this was exactly the kind of leader that the pope was trying to remind a beleaguered people after World War I– who were searching for identity and hope in the rubble and ash of their pre-war existence. And frankly, this might be exactly the kind of leader we need now, in a time when the church has virtually no political power and very little cultural influence. We are even losing our authority as a moral guide. Church attendance and participation is at an all-time low and sliding lower every single year. Churches everywhere are scrambling for the perfect program, the cure all that will enable us to thrive again….to matter.
I remember when I was first learning about the Episcopal Church, I was told that there were more US presidents who were Episcopalian than any other denomination. I was appropriately impressed. We were the church of the establishment. If you were an important member of your community, odds were, you went to the Episcopal Church. Alas, what no one told me was that since 1945, only 2 presidents have been Episcopalians, only one in my lifetime. We are no longer the church of the establishment. There are a lot of people who mourn that loss. There are many days when I do, even though I have never actually experienced the church as a powerful church. It would be a lot easier to be part of church whose name people could actually pronounce.
But you know what….I don’t think Jesus ever meant for it to be easy. I think that if Jesus wanted his church to be a church that held worldly power, he probably would not have been born in a barn to a poor unmarried couple. He told Pilate, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep be from being handed over to the Jews.” In saying that, he was not telling Pilate that his kingdom wasn’t this world. Of course it is. He was saying that he did not choose to wield his power in the same way that earthly kings did. Could he have created an army and taken the Romans by force? Of course he could have. He could have raised a dead army to fight. But he chose not to, because that was not what power looked like to him. Power didn’t come from a weapon or a throne, it came from the heart. It came from sacrifice.
Of course I wish that the church had more authority and that we could influence public opinion and behavior. I would like that because we have some important truths to share. In fact, that is one of the things that Jesus said to Pilate, that he came to testify to the truth and that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. My friends, we might not belong to a powerful church, but that does not mean we don’t belong to something or someone powerful. We belong to the truth. We belong to a King who wore a crown of thorns instead of a crown of gold. His throne was not a gilded chair with velvet cushions. It was cross covered in his blood. That is the king who we belong to. I truly believe that the more we can identify with that king, the more authority we will have. It will not be authority given by worldly leaders whose power is fleeting. It will be the authority of the King of kings and the Lord of lords.
While I wish we could just create a new feast day and make that happen, we know that’s not going to work. It didn’t work in 1925 and it won’t work now. What we need to do is go back to our roots…not our 1610 roots, but our 33 AD roots. If we actually follow God’s call to us, a call to sacrifice, a call to love the powerless, the abandoned, and the ignored, then we won’t need to claim authority. We won’t need to sit in the highest positions of power, because then, we will be standing with the people who matter. Then people will listen to us. The world will notice. The world will change because we belong to the truth.