Christ the King
A Reflection on The Power We Hesitate to Surrender
This past Sunday was Christ the King Sunday. It is also named The Sunday Next Before Advent. Choose your own adventure: the metaphorical or very literal route. Thanks, Prayer Book! Whatever you call it, as the season of Ordinary Time ends it is customary to reflect upon the kingship of Jesus.
Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed king of Israel, the King of all creation, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. This isn’t a foreign confession for followers of Jesus. But the church calendar provides an opportunity to stop and think about it. Because if we are going to call Jesus King and Lord, it has real ramifications for how we live our lives.
A Pointed Question
I want to meditate on a question Jesus asks at the end of the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke. After sketching a vision of the kingdom of God, Jesus turns to those who are listening and asks,“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”
If we call Jesus Lord, if we recognize him as God and King, it means we submit to his authority. We cannot be armchair theologians who merely play with nice ideas about Jesus. We reconfigure our lives around him. Our allegiance changes. Above all else, we do what he tells us to do. Because that’s what it means for him to be King.
But take note of how Jesus frames the question, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” Jesus points to the likelihood that we will not follow through on doing what he tell us to do. In his book Alphabet of Grace, Frederick Buechner confesses this inclination within himself. It resonates with my experience and I suspect it will with yours too. Here’s what Buechner writes:
I am a part-time novelist who happens also to be a part-time Christian … Christian when certain things seem real and important to me, and the rest of the time not Christian in any sense that I can believe matters much to Christ or anybody else. Any Christian who is not a hero, Léon Bloy wrote, is a pig, which is a harder way of saying the same thing. From time to time I find a kind of heroism momentarily possible—a seeing, doing, telling of Christly truth—but most of the time I am indistinguishable from the rest of the herd that jostles and snuffles at the great trough of life. Part-time novelist, Christian, pig.
I want to recoil a little bit. It’s like Buechner puts his finger on a wound. It stings. True confession often does. Can we deny this same inclination in our own hearts? I don’t think so. We gravitate toward a “light” version of Jesus, a “fat free” Messiah, a Christianity with 1/3 of the commitment—a convenient faith.
Lord, have mercy.
The Issue of Power
Why can we declare Jesus is Lord but not live as if Jesus is Lord?
We are reluctant to surrender power to someone to reign over us. We presume that nobody knows how to live our lives better than we do. Our cultures says nobody knows what is “true” for our lived experience except ourselves. We are products of our age, individuals of the Enlightenment, people who are accustomed to freedom as complete autonomy. But how has this worked out for us? Studies show that we consistently and frequently choose what isn’t best for our own happiness. It’s quite the predicament. We don't want to give our power away to someone else and we don’t know how to wield it very well for ourselves.
This suspicion of power can be traced to the Garden and the primordial temptation. While many things are at play in the scene between the serpent, Adam, and Eve, one dimension of the temptation is power. The power of becoming “like gods” and ruling life as one sees fit. The serpent sowed doubt about God’s use of power and simultaneously tempted Eve and Adam to lay siege of power. But in surrendering to this temptation (an abuse of power by the serpent/Devil) humanity has since been abused by power and culpable of abusing power too.
The fall illuminates how deeply rooted our suspicion of power is. If Jesus is King and expects us to do as he says, the question is: Can we trust him how he wields power? The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a parable to help disarm our suspicion. It’s called the King and the Maiden. It goes like this:
Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents.
And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden who lived in a poor village in his kingdom. How could he declare his love for her? In an odd sort of way, his kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist-no one dared resist him. But would she love him?
She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind? Would she be happy at his side? How could he know for sure? If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross the gulf between them. For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.
The king, convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend to her. Clothed as a beggar, he approached her cottage with a worn cloak fluttering loose about him. This was not just a disguise— the king took on a totally new identity—He had renounced his throne to declare his love and to win hers.
What Kierkegaard expressed in a parable is the ancient hymn recited by the apostle Paul in Philippians 2:5-11:
Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped [or exploited], but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
This is not how earthly princes and kings wield power. This is not coercive power. This is not abusive power. This is the power of the sacrificial love of God.
Only a revelation of Christ’s love can disarm our reticence to come under any power. Only his love can foster in us a genuine love and trust in him—a willing surrender to how the King uses power.
Wagging Our Tails
An alternative to being part-time Christians is to become joyful sheepdogs—only a modest upgrade to being a “pigs at the troff of life,” I know. Evelyn Underhill uses this metaphor in a wonderful way. Here’s what she writes:
The sheepdog was the docile and faithful agent of another mind. He used his whole intelligence and initiative, but always in obedience to his master’s directive will; and was ever prompt at self-effacement. The little mountain sheep he had to deal with were exceedingly tiresome, expert in doubting and twisting and going the wrong way as any naughty little boy. Even so, the dog went steadily on with it; his tail never ceased to wag … But the sheepdog would not have kept that peculiar and intimate relationship unless he had sat down and looked at the shepherd a good deal.
If we do not do what Jesus asks of us it is often because we have not “sat down and looked at the shepherd a good deal.” This is basically what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, the Spirit transforms us into the image of Christ as we contemplate/behold his glory. When we see that the face of God in Christ shines upon us with delight, we do what Jesus says out of the joy of his love for us. He is the Prince who left the throne, the King who became nothing for us. His love alone can stir us with joy to be like sheepdogs with wagging tails eager to do his will.
We will struggle with being part-time Christians. But if this is your struggle (as it is mine), it is a sign of grace at work. Because why else would you be concern about your spiritual malaise and part-time commitment? This is the work of Christ’s love dwelling in your heart. At the very-least, then, we can be part-time Christians who are eager for Jesus to overcome our reluctance to do what he says. Perhaps we can even become quarter-time Christians whose tails wag at the prospect at doing his will a little more consistently? The good news is we have a full-time King whose love is unwavering toward us, whose Spirit gives us both the desire and will to do his good pleasure. We’re in the good, trustworthy hands of our Shepherd-King.
As we turn the page from Ordinary Time to Advent, may we be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ and may joy motivate us to stay ever closer to the One who draws ever closer to us.