Christ the King?

This is the text of a sermon I preached at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Lancaster, New York.

Today is the Sunday when we in the church celebrate Christ the King. We’ve been doing it since 1925, when the feast was established. It might be one of the things Jesus would most want us to stop doing.

The celebration was begun for what seemed good reasons. Secularism in the world was increasing in the 1920s, and non-Christian (or nominally Christian) dictators and fascist regimes were gaining power, very much like what’s happening today here and abroad. Christians were increasingly attracted to these leaders, and respect for Christ and the church was waning. This new feast seemed needed to affirm and celebrate Christ’s real authority in life. So most Protestant and Anglican churches joined the Roman church in celebrating it.

There is something to be said for it. At a critical point in his ministry – just before his transfiguration, as the gospels tell it – Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is, and they report several answers. Then he asks them, “But who do you say that I am” (Matt. 16:13-15; Luke 9:18-20, emphasis mine)?

Maturing in faith requires that we stop living a faith based on what we hear about Christ from others and start living a faith based on our own experience of Christ. Each of us must discover and express in our living who Christ is for us. I can well imagine Jesus looking us straight in the eye and asking, “But who do you say that I am?” Maybe that’s why Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (Matt. 16:20); it was something each person has to affirm uniquely and personally.

There are other identities Jesus clearly wanted to avoid. According to John’s gospel, after Jesus fed the crowd with five barley loaves and two fish, they were so enthusiastic they wanted to force him to be their king. When he got wind of it, he withdrew from the scene (John 6:1-15). They wanted him to be king because of what they would gain from it – blessing, protection, a secure and predictable future. They had no interest in the new and radically different life he invited them to start living in their day (John 6:25-26).

Is our celebration of Christ the King our way of doing the same thing, of turning Jesus into a dispenser of blessing, protection, a predictable and secure future, life after death, so we don’t have to start living a different life today? Isn’t that definition what Jesus still wants to avoid? But how did Jesus understand himself and his ministry? What titles, if not “king,” would he use for himself?

Just after he avoided being crowned by the crowd, he called himself “the bread of life,” the manifestation of what it means to do God’s will, a will that feeds and sustains us like the bread we eat (John 6:35-38). He called himself “the good shepherd,” one who would guide us into living the kind of life God creates us to live (John 10:7-15). He called himself “the way,” the embodiment of the choices we each must make in order to live in authentic, original relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation.

And he used the term “Son of Man” (Luke 9:22 etc.), a term Jesus would have found throughout the Hebrew scriptures, which had several meanings. It could have referred to any human being, especially one who expressed God’s desire and will (Ezek. 2:1). It could have meant a heavenly being who would come from beyond at the end of the age (Dan. 7:13). It could have meant a messiah who would come to intervene in history to save God’s people, like King Cyrus of Persia, for example (Isa. 45:1).

Or the “Son of Man” term that Jesus used could have referred to some essentially human quality that was in Jesus and is in every person, the divine quality that was revealed in Jesus at his transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) and that is waiting to be revealed and liberated in each of us. By “Son of Man,” Jesus could have been referring to the original self that God imprinted on him at his birth and that God imprints on each one of us.

Here’s what Thomas Moore wrote about this original self. Moore is a former monk and professor of religion and psychology and is the author of Care of the Soul, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, and The Education of the Heart.

Far beneath the many thick layers of indoctrination about who we are and who we should be lies an original self, a person who came into this world full of possibility and destined for joyful unveiling and manifestation. . . . Chronically trying to be someone other than this original self, persuaded that we are not adequate and should fit some norm of health or correctness, we may find a cool distance gradually separating us from that deep and eternal person, that God-given personality, and we may forget both who we were and who we might be. [Thomas Moore, Original Self: Living with Paradox and Originality (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), v.]

As we celebrate what the church calls the Feast of Christ the King, if we would truly honor the life and teachings of Jesus, perhaps we could look at him not as a king but as the best metaphor for our Christian journey toward the true self. Perhaps we might meditate deeply on our own true selves, discover and embrace the reality of our calling by God, and let God transform our true selves into sources of new life for others. It’s a life-long journey, but we are not alone. We have the example and companionship of the truest self of all, Jesus, whom we call Christ.

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