First a bit of history. While we take Reign of Christ for granted as always being there, it is actually a new feast for the church. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in the aftermath of WW1 as a response to what he perceived to be growing nationalism and secularism. To counter societies and individuals fidelity to nation states, markets, and military might Pius XI wanted to refocus people’s faithfulness and trust to the reign of Christ or Christ the King. Now the sceptic would say this was simply a failing church’s attempt to regain market share in the quickly changing socio-religio landscape of its day. And perhaps that’s all it was but I think the need for us to focus on the Kingdom of God is very necessary, though there are some challenges.
One difficulty is that we don’t have kings and kingdoms any more. We just don’t think that way about our politics. In the ancient world everyone knew what it meant to refer to Jesus as king. Jesus’ listeners could better understand what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. This kind of talk was part of the very fabric that held their worlds together. This is not so for us and therefore it’s hard for us to think of Christ as king. Our royalty are celebrities with little or no actual political power. They are mere figureheads, socialites even, and that is definitely not what the New Testament writers want us to think about Jesus.
Another difficulty is that we often miss the nuance and radical nature of what Jesus and is disciples meant when using terms like king, kingdom, and lord. To say that Jesus is king or lord was a political as well as religious statement. It was not only to affirm Jesus but to deny anyone else as king. To say “Jesus is Lord” was to admit that Caesar is not. To proclaim the kingdom of God was to set up another kingdom in place of the existing Roman Empire. It was treason and treason means death.
Then, like now, a lot of people didn’t get it. It was foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others. How could this poor, uneducated, nobody from the back-waters of the Empire compete with Caesar and all of Rome’s glory? It just didn’t make sense. And it still doesn’t really; especially if we think of kings and kingdoms in terms of power and influence.
The title of this blog is inspired by the book Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals by evangelical rebels Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw (its a great book and a great piece of graphic artistry). They play with the idea of Jesus as an elected official, a political leader, the leader of the free world. Now it doesn’t make much sense to talk about Jesus as prime minister, anymore than it does to think of him as king, if we think of prime ministers and presidents the way we view them in our culture. What would a political campaign by Jesus look like? Reports of teen pregnancy and the fact that he was once a refugee would make good fodder for attack ads. His stump speech includes good news for the poor, oppressed, prisoners and a stinging critique of the religious and political establishment of his day. He didn’t kiss babies, shake hands, or make promises to special interest groups. Instead he avoided crowds and asked people to take up their crosses (instruments of torture, not shiny pendants) and follow him. His coronation, or inauguration, happened on a hill, between thieves, dying a horrible death. His speech from the throne was one of forgiveness: “Father forgive them . . .” For the church this is why Jesus is worthy to be called king, this is where the kingdom comes. As John Howard Yoder says, “The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.” This is as far removed from Rome, Capitol Hill, or Parliament Hill as you can get.
We would never elect someone like Jesus. Actually he would never run for office. I think he would be repulsed by our political process and refuse to have anything to do with it. But what does it mean when we claim him as king and proclaim him Lord? How are we to understand the kingdom of God in a world where nation states, multi-national corporations and lobbyists make the rules? New Testament scholar Marcus Borg says the kingdom of God means a heart for justice. Perhaps in our fiscally obsessed world it’s easier to think of the economy of God. But that still leaves us with tougher questions. What does it look like to follow this king Jesus in the 21st century? What does it look like to live in his kingdom, his economy, by his rules? The early Christians knew this is not just a personal experience and goes beyond naming Jesus as Lord and saviour of our lives. This year at the Feast of the Reign of Christ let us not only name Jesus as king of our lives, but also live like he is king of our politics, economics, our public lives.