Christ the King, Normal—Revelation 1:4b-8, Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
When I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs during the ’50s and ‘60s, there was a weekday afternoon children’s TV show called Garfield Goose & Friends. Garfield Goose was styled “King of the United States,” and Frazier Thomas, the program’s human host, was his Prime Minister. Of course, the reason they could get away with such a concept was because the whole notion of a “king of the United States” is utterly ridiculous. Americans fought a war in the 1770s to get rid of a king, and then set up a constitution that makes it pretty darn difficult to create a monarchy in this country. Now, that doesn’t stop us from being consumed by interest in royalty from other countries, especially the descendants of the one we got rid of in 1776! But we like to watch them at a safe distance, across the ocean, where they clearly don’t rule over us.
Still, regard for monarchy is in our DNA, not only as Americans, but simply as human beings, and particularly as Christians. The world in which Christian religion came to life was completely overshadowed by kings and queens and princes and emperors. Everybody had a sovereign, everybody had a lord. And most of the lords had lords, and most of the lords of the lords had lords, and on up the chain, until you got to the one who was a true monarch, either divine in himself, as some of the Roman emperors thought, or else accountable solely and directly to God, as was the case with the Christian monarchs of medieval Europe. That was the way the political fabric of society was organized; that was the way it held together, and while particular kings or princes had to fight off rebellions from time to time, nobody really questioned the underlying system itself.
The feast we celebrate today—the feast of Christ the King—is a sign of our inescapable connection to monarchy. In the first chapter of the Revelation to St John, we are greeted by “him who is, and who was, and who is to come, “ and by “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” And in the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel, we meet “one like a man coming with the clouds from heaven,” whom Christians cannot help but see as a prefigurement of Christ, to whom is “given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” All the poetic imagery in Holy Scripture that is associated with the consummation of our hope and joy as Christians is expressed in the language of monarchy and kingship. We Americans, we who are so averse to having a king, just have to suck it up on a day like this, and realize that the universe is not a democracy; it has a King!
The earliest Christian creed is an acknowledgement of this very fact. In the original Greek, it’s just two words long: Kyrios Iesus. In English, it takes three words: Jesus is Lord, which is another way of saying “Christ is King.” Jesus is Lord. That sort of language rolls off our lips pretty easily because we’re so heavily conditioned by the language of scripture and the language of liturgy. We usually don’t give it a second thought. Besides, our own experience as modern Americans leads us to compartmentalize such expressions in a box—a relatively safe and compact box—on which we slap the label “religion.” Although we would never think of it this way, proclaiming Jesus as Lord, Christ as King, is in the same category as proclaiming Garfield Goose as King of the United States—it sounds good, but there’s no context in which we can know what it actually means.
But if we can try and put ourselves in the position of our Christian brothers and sisters from the first, second, and third centuries—Christians who lived under the long and dark shadow of the Roman Empire—we will see that “Jesus is Lord” is as politically charged a statement as any campaign slogan from the recent election season. It is politically charged because it is, at its core, completely subversive. In the context of the Roman Empire, to say that “Jesus is Lord” is, by implication, to say that Caesar is not Lord. To say that Christ is King is to say that the Emperor is no true king, no true monarch, and to say that is the very definition of sedition, and anyone who makes such a statement is, by definition, a rebel. Is it any wonder why Christians in the first three centuries were systematically persecuted?
Again, it may appear difficult for us to wrap our minds around this as anything important, let alone controversial or rebellious, because there’s nothing or no one in our experience that obviously corresponds directly to what Caesar represented for the subjects of the Roman Empire. But if we dig around a little bit, I think we’ll find that Caesar is alive and well in our world; he just wears disguises and gets called by different names. To a Roman subject, Caesar represented that which is of supreme worth. What do we—we modern democratic Americans—consider to be of supreme worth?
Is it health, or beauty, or youth? The advertising and retail industries would have us believe this. So to say that Jesus is Lord is an act of rebellion against the powers that want us to define ourselves by the way we look or the way we feel.
Is it wealth, or a home that others find impressive, or a car that others envy? Those are certainly the standards by which many of our neighbors judge themselves, so for us to say the Christ is King is to challenge them and undermine their whole understanding of their place in the world. It’s an act of rebellion.
Is Caesar perhaps a political philosophy? Republican, Democrat, or Green? Liberal, Conservative, or Libertarian? Given the amount of money that was spent, and the relationships that were strained, during the last election cycle, it seems evident that this is where many among us place ultimate worth. So for us to say that Jesus is Lord is an act of rebellion against the forces that would define us politically or demographically.
Do some of us perhaps see our country, or democracy itself, as being of ultimate worth? If we do, we need to watch our language, lest we make liars out of ourselves, because we cannot simultaneously say that America is our highest loyalty and that Christ is King.
If Christ is King, then he is the King of all kings. If Jesus is Lord, then he is Lord of all. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not, whoever Caesar may be. If Jesus is Lord, then you and I find our identity not as young or healthy or beautiful or affluent or liberal or conservative or American, but as part of the community of those who follow the one who “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father,” the one to whom we give glory and dominion for ever.
Jesus is Lord. Christ is King. Let us adore him. Amen.