“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Thus said Lord Acton, English Catholic historian, politician, and writer who died in 1902. The power of kingship is certainly no exception to this rule. When the people of Israel no longer wanted God as their ruler but demanded a king like other nations, God warned them what a king would be like. He would build an army, drafting their young men into it. He would use the people as his servants to till his soil, tend his animals, spin and weave and grind. In the process, inevitably a distance would open up between the king and those subject to his rule. The lives they lived would be different. That division was not apparent when God appointed leaders and judges over the people.
Those familiar with the Old Testament will be aware that the first king, Saul, was a disaster and God withdrew his blessing from him. King David, on the other hand, was a ‘man after God’s own heart’. Yet even he was corrupted by the power he wielded. When he saw Bathsheba, he wanted her, and was determined to have her. Even though she was married, and though he had wives of his own, David began an illicit sexual relationship with her which led to her pregnancy and the need for the murder of her husband on David’s orders. King Solomon was praised by God for asking for wisdom in order to rule the people wisely. He was granted that gift as well as wealth. However, despite his renowned wisdom, Solomon married many women from other nations, who worshipped other gods, and allowed himself to be led astray from the one true God. As you read on through the history of Israel, many of the kings were power hungry and did not act in the interests of their people. It’s the same if you read the history of any nation: whether called king, queen, pharaoh, emperor, empress, czar, Caesar or whatever, monarchs have often been a self-seeking and oppressive bunch of people.
Today we are celebrating Christ the King, on this the last Sunday of the Church Year. With the sad history of kingship, you might think it would be wise to eliminate this feast from the church, consigning it to the pile of things that are outmoded and irrelevant, if not downright offensive, to post-modern society. The Feast is actually a relatively recent innovation, being instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It was a time when faith in Christ and belief in his authority as king was waning. Dictatorships by those who did not profess any faith were beginning to influence people; the dictators often wished to have authority over the Church. The Pope wished to remind people that it is Christ who must reign in our lives.
In the 90 years since this Feast was first celebrated, distrust of authority has grown. Individuals wish to be rulers of their own lives, not to be ruled over by others. Many countries no longer have kings or queens; the concept conjures up ideas of tyranny, oppression or even of evil. The idea of a privileged dynasty is rejected in favour of greater equality. In its place has come the elected head of state, although that is no guarantee that power will not go to his or her head. Only this week, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has been in the news. An elected leader, yes, but one who ruled more like a dictator and who seemed to be in the process of creating a dynasty.
This distrust of human governors of various kinds has affected how people look on Jesus. They can usually deal with the idea that he is their brother, friend, example, mentor, saviour or teacher. When it comes to calling him ‘Lord’, ‘Master’, ‘King’, they just can’t bring themselves to say such words. Even when saying the Lord’s Prayer (the title of which may also be an issue for some) I have witnessed people here in this cathedral replace the phrase ‘For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours’ with ‘For the KINDOM’ etc. Just as the title ‘King’ is unacceptable, so is the concept of a kingdom, where a king would rule.
Although those who struggle with these words are no doubt genuinely trying to be honest when avoiding giving Jesus some titles, they have probably not taken into account Jesus’ persistent habit of turning the usual order of things upside down. When addressing the concept of ruling Jesus recognised that rulers lorded it over their subjects. Jesus’ way was different. When James and John wanted special places in heaven, Jesus took the opportunity to teach his way of leadership (for the disciples were indeed destined for leadership positions): “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”
Kingship runs through Jesus’ life and cannot be avoided if we are to see him as he really is. When the angels announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, he was given the title Saviour but also ‘Christ, the Lord’. Christ, the anointed one, the expected king who would take over David’s throne and drive out the Romans. The wise men asked Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” In Holy Week we recall Pilate’s words, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus’ reply, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” As Jesus hung dying, the title above his head was: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”. The cross was Jesus’ throne. Easter demonstrated Jesus’ power and glory as he was resurrected. At his ascension Jesus referred to “all authority in heaven and on earth” which is his. Next week we begin Advent when we look towards Jesus’ Second Coming when he will reign on earth.
Unlike earthly kingship, Jesus’ kingship is not one that opens a gap between himself and his subjects. On the contrary, he chose to humble himself and leave heaven to live as one of us so that he could fully appreciate what it was like to be a human being. He was born in poverty. He worked with his hands as a carpenter. He had no palace to live in, but was an itinerant rabbi, dependent on others for food and shelter. Jesus described his rule not as that of a tyrant, but as God does in our passage from Ezekiel, that of a caring shepherd seeking the lost and the hurt wherever they can be found and bringing them home. He knew hunger and thirst; rejection, abandonment and loneliness. He was imprisoned, insulted, beaten and killed by those over whom he had authority. Though he could have called down legions of angels in his defence, he chose the way of suffering and love as the way to save us from the oppression, not of the Romans, but of sin.
At the final reckoning, which Jesus depicted in the parable of the sheep and the goats, once again he is described as a shepherd. Having suffered all that it means to live a human life, he can accurately discern if his followers have done what is necessary to show themselves to be citizens of his kingdom. They don’t demonstrate this by bowing and curtseying as he passes by but by providing for others in their times of need. Unlike an earthly kingdom, Christ’s kingdom has no defined land borders but extends as far as there are those who have chosen to call him ‘Lord’, ‘King’ and ‘Master’, who enthrone him in their hearts and lives. The common language of Jesus’ kingdom is love and its currency is service. There is no oppression in this kingdom. Justice is tempered with mercy and forgiveness.
It’s not difficult to understand why St Augustine wrote this prayer:
O thou, who art the light of the minds that know thee, the life of the souls that love thee, and the strength of the wills that serve thee; help us so to know thee that we may truly love thee; so to love thee that we may fully serve thee, whom to serve is perfect freedom.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor