It’s profoundly ironic that we’ve created a Sunday called Christ the King (the gospel for the day is Luke 23:33-43) to celebrate Jesus, who went out of his way to avoid being made a king. We sing, “Crown him with many crowns, . . . and hail him as thy matchless king,” despite reading that when the crowd was about to make him a king, Jesus absconded to a place by himself and rejoined his disciples only under the cover of darkness (John 6:15-17).
Did the crowd understand the life and teachings of Jesus? Did his disciples? Do we? Certainly Jesus understood the crowd. He knew they were after him not because he pointed toward the emergence of a new and different reality; they were chasing him because he had filled their bellies and they wanted him to do it again. They wanted him to do what kings do: take care of them, make their lives stable and secure in a hostile world, protect them from serious harm, and make their future predictable. But Jesus would have none of it.
When he began his ministry, and the growing crowd wanted him to cure them and make them whole, his response was to leave them and go elsewhere so he could do what he came to do: proclaim his message, the gospel (Mark 1:32-39). More than once, when people were cured in his presence, he told them, “Your faith has made you well” (e.g., Mark 5:34, 10:52; Luke 17:19). His role was to bear witness to a new depth of life that was available to everyone, not to do for them what they could and must do for themselves.
We have within us the power to enter the depth and wholeness of life we dream about, but we doubt ourselves and give that power to Jesus. We make him king, responsible for taking care of us, for making our lives stable and secure, for securing our future. We give to him the power to straighten out our relationship with God. We make his sacrifice on the cross the one that counts, forgetting that he said the only sacrifice that counts is our taking up our cross and following his example (Luke 9:23).
On this Christ the King Sunday, I think Jesus invites us to turn our attention from him and his crucifixion, from any discussion of his kingship, to “the people [who] stood by, watching” (Luke 23:35a). Why were they watching? Were they, like those Roman soldiers, waiting to see if he would come down off his cross and save himself from everything bad that was happening to him (vv. 36-37)? Would he prove he was their king, the one who had power to save them and make them well?
The gospel is not about Jesus. The gospel Jesus proclaimed is about God and about what God is doing in the world: reconciling all of us regardless of our sin and brokenness (2 Cor. 5:19). The gospel is that God has opened to us the full depth and power of our humanity, and Jesus invites us to live there, in our full depth and power.
This story, and indeed the whole gospel of Jesus Christ, is not about the character or titles we attribute to Jesus; it’s about the engagement with life that he elicits from us. It’s not about his position or power; it’s about the defining choice every one of us makes in every moment of life. Will we choose to fully engage with each moment of life and use the power God has invested in us, or will we choose to stand by as mere spectators as the divine drama of life plays out before us?
A lot of people in the church are almost Christian. They act in a godly way; they pray and attend worship on Sunday morning; they perform acts of charity; they give generously; they avoid the obvious sins. And like the wealthy ruler who followed all the rules, they lack one thing (Mark 10:17-32; Matt. 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-25). They have not yet surrendered the last remaining depth of their life to the will of God. They have pledged but have not yet given their complete, uncompromising allegiance to the will of God in the world.
You know the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We intend to lead Christian lives, but we hold something back for ourselves. In the critical moment – and every moment is the critical one – our choice is based on our interests rather than on the priorities of the reign of God. But there is nothing valid that will excuse us from the allegiance we have pledged to the way of Christ. Perhaps it is not we who stand by, watching, as the drama of Jesus’ life plays out. Perhaps it is Christ who now stands watching us, to see how we will choose.
Do we fully engage in the drama of life that sweeps around us? Do we love our neighbors, even our enemies, as we love ourselves, not in word only but in deed and in truth, as Christ loved us? Is your relationship with God your one, overriding motive and priority in all you do? Do you, as a member of the body of Christ, live as if you are the one in whom “all the fullness of God [is] pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19)?
Questions for reflection
- What does the title “king” mean to you? How would you define it? What role does a king play in a society, a nation, the world? What power does a king hold?
- What happens to the power individuals or groups of individuals hold when they invest part of their power in someone identified as their king?
- What does it mean to give Jesus the title “king”? What does that title imply about the role he is expected to play? What power does a “King Jesus” hold? When you identify him as king, what part of your own power do you transfer to him? What happens to you as a result?
- Why were the people standing by, watching? What did they expect to see? What did they want to see? What power did they have in that moment? What power did they not have?
- To what do you give power in your life? What do you expect of the people and things to which you give power? What difference would it make – positive and negative – if you were to reclaim some or all of the power you’ve given away? Why do you not reclaim your power in such situations?
- What power do you invest in Jesus that he might not want you to give him, that he might want you to reclaim as your own? Imagine the conversation you might have with Jesus about this.