by Pastor Doug Kings
Recently I’ve been watching the latest (and next to last) season of The Crown on Netflix. The multi-year program is the semi-fictional account of the life and reign of the late Queen Elizabeth II. The center of this season has been the final marital breakdown and divorce of the Prince and Princess of Wales.
The recurring themes of The Crown are the obvious ones. Questions like what role does a monarch play in a democracy, how can the ancient traditions of monarchy be brought into the modern world, and how do all the “lesser royals”, including the heir apparent, keep from going crazy when they frankly have so little to do.
Queen Elizabeth is portrayed as having some awareness of these issues but not much insight into what is to be done about them. Her husband and eldest son show more practical concern than she does (it was Prince Philip who made the case for televising Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation). Where Elizabeth is completely befuddled is knowing what to do about all the disintegrating marriages in her family. The resulting sorrow and heartbreak are the most moving parts of the series and an overarching sadness pervades the story.
I thought of all this as we approached the last Sunday of the church year, designated in many churches as Christ the King. I decided a couple years ago I would no longer observe this festival. Last Sunday was simply designated as “The Last Sunday after Pentecost” and it served as our Thanksgiving worship service.
Christ the King has been on the liturgical calendar for less than a century, compared with most festivals which are over a thousand years old. It was made a feast day by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally in October, it was moved to the last Sunday of the church year in 1969, which is about the time many Protestant churches adopted it.
Ostensibly Pius XI’s goal was to challenge the growing power of authoritarian governments. “Christ is the true king, not you,” in other words. But it’s also true that he was in a long running struggle with the Italian government to save some remnant of Catholic Church political power. A short time later, Mussolini agreed to the establishment of the Vatican State, the postage stamp size “country” in the middle of Rome, ruled by the Catholic Church.
That part of the story is mostly forgotten and was not even thought of when Protestants adopted Christ the King for their usage. Today, it is understood as a hope-filled look to the future establishment of God’s rule on earth, and a challenge to forces of domination today by the example of Christ’s power of service and compassion, symbolized by the cross.
But as the adage goes, saying it doesn’t necessarily make it so. Words have meaning, and the symbol of “Christ the King” simply doesn’t communicate the day’s laudable message intended by liturgical officials. “Christ the king” is not a biblical idea, for the obvious reason that the common understanding of “king” does not fit either the earthly Jesus or the risen Christ.
The Windsors are a pathetic last gasp of England’s centuries long monarchy. They retain the wealth and soap opera lives but now lack their ancestors’ power to use and abuse. Most of Europe’s monarchies ended in the violence of war or revolution. The few remaining kings and queens know their role is largely public relations, promoting tourism and national business.
Presumably such kings are not what are in mind when thinking of Christ the king. But what then? Those revolutions (including our own) happened for a reason. Overall, kings have an abominable record. The ideal of just and benevolent monarchy lacks one thing: actual examples!
You can learn all you need to know about the Bible’s view of kings by reading the story in the 8th chapter of Samuel. Tired of their Judges, the elders of Israel come to Samuel demanding he appoint a king, so they can be like the countries around them. Samuel knows this will be a disaster and angrily describes the calamities that will befall them. But they won’t listen, and God tells Samuel to go ahead, give them a king, but don’t take it personally, “for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me”. The biblical saga that follows demonstrates again and again the truth of Samuel’s warning.
In the New Testament, Jesus never refers to himself as a king. His response to Pilate’s question if he is a king is basically, “you can call me whatever you want.” Even more telling is the story in John 6. After feeding the crowd with the loaves and fishes, they want to make Jesus king, but he runs away. Paul (actually writing before the gospels) also never calls Jesus a king.
What is prominent in both the gospels and Paul is the phrase basileia tou theou, or “kingdom of God.” But for Jesus this is really a miniature parable, and is the subject of most of his parables. The kingdom is at hand, Jesus says, it is in your midst, it is within you, it is spread upon the earth but people don’t see it.
This kingdom has no earthly equivalent but is an ironic, anti-kingdom, if you will. It is the end of all external rule, giving way to an internal and all-pervasive truth and life. Jesus and Paul both called it love, empowered by the Spirit.
No image of “king”, whether from the past or present, could ever invoke such an astonishing mystery, the “good news” which Jesus proclaimed. “Christ the king” invokes confusion at best, if not an outright contradiction of Jesus’ message. Like most monarchs, it needs to go.
Blessings in your life and ministry.