by Benjamin M. Stewart
Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship, Director of Advanced Studies
“Jesus is Lord!” That cry echoed in the liturgical gatherings of German Christians in the 1930s, sometimes among the liturgical drapery of Nazi flags. “Jesus is Lord!” …until a voice spoke into the fading echo, “and Hitler is not!” (1)
That was exactly the idea behind Pope Pius XI creating the festival of Christ the King in 1925. Mussolini and Hitler were gaining power, and this festival was designed to proclaim the ultimate authority of Christ over all earthly powers. The words the Pope chose for announcing of the festival wouldn’t be very PC today, but their challenge to the totalitarian state is clear:
The Feast of Christ the King....will call to [rulers'] minds the thought of the last judgment, wherein Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults; for his kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice. (2)
The kings of the earth, this feast declares, answer to Christ the King, especially in doing justice.
The awkward thing is that Jesus of Nazareth was not at all a king. He was an itinerant rabbi and healer with strange teachings and even stranger companions, who was arrested and executed in his early thirties. Unusual biography, but nothing royal about it.
Kingship works by drawing power to itself from its vassals, and then contesting other kingships, power vs. power, might against might. While kings hurl against each other the power to annihilate—apocalyptic forces contesting one another, reacting to each other—Jesus in his engagement with Pilate unveils what Catherine Keller calls a counter-apocalyptic force, something that disrupts the cycle of one apocalyptic threat vs. some other apocalyptic threat.
We heard this in the Gospel text:
Pilate says to Jesus: “Are you a king?” And Jesus says, “You say that I am a king…If I had a kingdom like this world’s kingdoms, my followers would be fighting, raising swords—just like yours.”
“You call me a king,” Jesus says, “but for this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” You call me a king, but I come to testify to the truth.
This is where it gets even more interesting. Pilate, who has inherited the great tradition of Roman and Greek wisdom, suddenly goes all deconstructionist on Jesus, (you can almost hear the French accent) “What is truth?”
Some theologians and ethicists of the two-thirds world have expressed suspicion about how, right around the time that the truth about global systems of injustice began to be widely acknowledged… that was about the time when truth began to get deconstructed, less objective, more open to any number of interpretations. You can see how this could raise suspicions: once the modern age was confronted with the truth of injustice, suddenly people started talking about being post-modern, post-truth.
Jesus came not to contest one system of kingly power against one more, but to testify to the truth—and that seemed to unnerve the king’s man in Jerusalem, Pilate.
Think of the way Jesus typically testified to the truth. Usually it was not from a podium in the forum or the lecture hall, opposing one philosophical system against another. Instead, the truth to which Jesus testified was to be found in flesh and blood, where Jesus laid his hands, or set a table, or stepped through the boundary of some purity code: blessing children; laying hands on the sick; touching those labeled “unclean”; honoring the poor widow; eating and drinking with the tax collectors and prostitutes
Jesus undermined the kings of the world not by opposing them with kingly power but by testifying to the truth of flesh and blood human lives, and to the truth of God’s scandalous and unfailing promise to them and presence with them.
Can you picture Jesus testifying to the truth in the pews of your congregation, in our streets, among the members of your family, even within you? Our churches, our neighborhoods, our world, is full of truth, and full of people waiting to hear, sing, know, and taste the truth that God is with them in their great need, in divine mercy, in their flesh and blood lives.
The way that kings were made in Israel was to anoint them with oil. The only time that Jesus is anointed in the Gospels is when the woman at Bethany joins Jesus at dinner and, over the protests of the disciples, anoints him. But even in this moment that looks something like kingship, Jesus says that this anointing has been for his death, and he shifts the focus from himself onto the anointer: wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.(3) Even in his anointing, Jesus testifies to his solidarity with all the dying world, and to the particular life of this woman of Bethany, who the disciples would have had us overlook, forget, discount.
Kings draw power from their subjects up to themselves, focusing it and clinging to it. Jesus contests this way of kingship by testifying to the truth of diverse lives he encounters—all buffeted and fragmented by the powers of violence, sin, and death—and all promised the scandalous surprise of the enduring faithfulness and mercy of God. Wherever Jesus lays his hands, where he sets a table, even where he is anointed for kingship, the diverse lowly ones are honored and rise up stronger, the image of God being restored in them. And for that gift, refracted millions of times over, we do worship Jesus, even as king.
Jesus is Lord… and Hitler is not. Or we might say today: Jesus is Lord and Bank of America is not. Jesus is Lord and those who shoot our children down in the street (whether they are the police or gang members or someone else)—Jesus is Lord and they are not. Jesus is Lord and supermodel standards of beauty and body image are not. Jesus is Lord and our own shortcomings are not. Jesus is Lord because the kingdoms we construct—from our own individual ones to the largest ones on earth—keep crumbling. Jesus comes not to annihilate our petty kingdoms, but to testify to the truth.
That living Christ testifies to the truth to us even today: the truth of a new covenant made with us, placed in our hands, in Jesus’ body and blood, given into our flesh and blood lives as daily bread. Our hands like a manger, like a throne.
In the hymn of the day, notice the way the hymn ascribes all things to God in Jesus Christ. And yet it does so not by shutting down our field of vision only to an awesome God high above us. Rather it piles on image after image of a wide landscape, testifying to the truth of God’s presence with the least, the dying, the whole creation. To see, as the last verse says, only Jesus, only God, to truly see this Jesus as king, is to see the truth of all, everything, being lifted up by the one who was anointed for us all.
(1) Arthur C. Cochrane, The Church’s Confession Under Hitler, 2nd ed, Pittsburgh Reprint Series 4 (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1976), 211.
(3) Mark 14.9