by Janice Heidlberger
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."
A king who is crucified. A king who is raised from the dead. A king who raises the dead. That’s what kind of king Jesus is. A king who looks at power and dominion with different eyes. A king who turns power and dominion and death on its head. A king who reconciles, who instills love into the midst of hate. That’s what kind of king Jesus is.
This past weekend I spent some time with my family—my mom and dad, and my brother. In part of our conversation, my dad told me about that time he and mom went out to California, to visit Sequoia National Forest. While they were there, they heard about this place called Noble Stump. They saw signs and ads and decided to go see it. He’ll never forget what he saw, or the story about the stump. Noble Stump is the stump of a giant Sequoia tree located in the south and western hills of the Sierra Nevadas. It’s about half way between LA and San Francisco, and then inland to the ancient mountains and their national forests of sequoia and redwood trees. When you approach this stump, you can feel it saying something back to you. Just by its massive size and breadth. It’s something that gets in your bones. The thing about redwood, said my dad, is that it doesn’t decompose. Eventually it petrifies. And then you get places like the Petrified National Forest. But Noble Stump just sits there, and says to all who venture to behold it’s majesty: “You don’t know what you’ve got, …’til it’s gone.” It’s a place of repentance.
The tree, named after a General Noble, was cut down in 1892 and carted across the continent to Chicago for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. To ship it, they couldn’t keep it whole. They had to cut the tree into pieces, and then loaded it onto trains or however they did it, and then rebuilt the tree on site at the worlds fair in Chicago. When the exposition began, people who saw the Noble Tree didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe it was really from one tree. The tree they cut down was one of the largest ever, among the top 30. It had a ground perimeter of 95 feet. It takes 20 people holding hands stretched out to circle the tree. So I heard my dad tell this story and I thought, “Well look who’s king now!” The great ideas our human species comes up with sometimes. We…, who never seem to cease to wanna “be” God.
This Noble Stump made me think of the texts for this week of Christ the King festival. In one sense, this is a festival which is younger than the demise of this tree. It’s the newest of the church year festivals. But it’s also the oldest. As the newest, this festival was first instituted by Pope Pius the eleventh on December 11, 1925. The festival is only 87 years old. The idea of the festival becomes clear from the texts for this week. Jesus stands before Pilate, who asks him: “Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus answers him with, “Did you get this idea on your own, or did someone else give you this idea?” And here we can see Christ the King to be one of the oldest festivals of the church year. Pilate is asking Jesus a question that harkens back to the end of judges, to the anointing of King David over the northern and southern Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. During the brief time in this people’s history when their king was not that of their occupying oppressor, the bigger empire to the north or east or south. Newest and oldest. The last worship service of the church year places us in the last episode of Jesus’ life, in the headquarters with Pilate, on trial, before torture, crucifixion and burial. And three days later Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. This story of God raising Jesus from the dead, to rule as the living Christ over every time and place, is the oldest story of the church, the very reason the church came to exist in the first place.
When Pius the eleventh instituted Christ the King Sunday into the Roman Catholic lectionary in 1925, what else was going on in the western world? Well, a certain World War I veteran by the name of Adolf Hitler was rising to power, gaining huge popular support in renouncing the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty which effectively ended the first World War required that Germany accept responsibility for causing the war. It required Germany to disarm, to make substantial territorial concessions, and to pay heavy reparations to certain countries, in sums that put the all the people of Germany, whatever their background or race, into a system of hyperinflation, starvation, and destitution. It was not a pretty picture. You had a National Government power saying it was God. You had people saying they are God. The timing of Pius’ saying Christ the King is God—the year 1925, was not accidental. And we’ll leave this part of the story at that for today, for we know many of the details of how Pius and the Catholics and the Lutherans lived by that or sold out in the end to self-idolatries and national-idolatries, and xenophobic hatred.
So today, what does it mean to think of Christ as King? At this last worship service of the church year, as we enter the season of watching and waiting, what does it mean to think of Christ as King? I think, like a visit to the Noble stump, Christ as King does not lead us where we might think we’re headed. Nobility does not look the way we might think. Nobility looks like Jesus on trial before Pilate. The sovereign, noble Lord, Christ the King, stands before Pilate a simple man, answering Pilate with simple answers. Not the answers we might expect, but answers like "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" And like, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
I wonder, when Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews?" why doesn’t Jesus answer: Yes or No. …No, Jesus asks Pilate where his question comes from. And I wonder, when Pilate asks Jesus, “What have you done?” Why doesn’t Jesus answer: Nothing. Or list something. Instead Jesus explains why he’s been handed over to Pilate; “My kingdom is not from this world.” So Pilate asks Jesus, “So you are a king?” … of another world? And we are led off in a totally other direction as readers. Thinking God’s world, the world of Christ the King is not this world, so it’s okay to go cutting down God’s noble trees and carting them across continents, just for show and tell! What a story!
No, when we think of Christ as King, we don’t end up with the definition of nobility that we were expecting. Instead we end up with an itinerant farmboy preacher from the hills who washes feet. Instead we end up with a King who bloody and beaten, hangs half naked from a cross, publicly tortured, for speaking truth to power and not backing down from that truth. Instead we end up with a King who shines brighter than the Sun with truth and justice, a Light for all nations, which the darkness cannot overcome. Instead we end up with a noble King who lifted up on the cross draws all people to himself, that they might be reconciled to God and one another, that they might become children of this servant-slave King of Kings. Instead we end up with a King who is raised from the dead, a King who raises the dead, restoring light and life where there is despair and desolation. Instead we end up with a King, the Word made flesh who says to you: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”