Whose Kingdom, Which Crown?

I love the church year, the liturgical calendar. My father taught me that the christian calendar is an invitation to order our lives according to the life of Jesus. There are times today when I find myself more aware of the seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent, or Christmas than winter, summer, spring or fall.

As a student in seminary, I learned about the lectionary, the series of Bible readings that go with the various Sundays and Feast Days in the liturgical calendar. Though I knew Dad often used these Bible readings for the text that he would preach from on Sundays, I had some resistance to this idea of preaching from assigned texts. Would the Spirit really work in such a prescribed way? What if I felt called to preach on something that the assigned texts did not deal with?, etc.

I started using the lectionary readings in my personal devotions and then in my worship planning. As I did this, I was amazed how often these assigned texts spoke words appropriate to each day. Sometimes they were disquieting words; words I did not want to hear and probably would have avoided otherwise. Sometimes they were words of comfort and peace needed in the midst of pain and confusion. Yet they were all timely words, words needed to be heard in those circumstances.

In the 20 years that I have served as a pastor, I have not always preached from the lectionary. There are times when I may do a sermon series based on a book of the Bible or some theme. There are other times when I have simply felt that the Spirit really was directing me to another passage of Scripture. However, even when I may not be using the lectionary texts on Sunday, I do still use them in my personal devotions and find my life being ordered by the words and rhythms of the life of Jesus. I find that I continue to be amazed at how appropriate these words are for the given seasons of my life. Sometimes the words are comforting, sometimes they are disquieting, and sometimes they are both at the same time.

Christ the King Sunday is one of those days that I find comforting and disquieting at the same time.

I look forward to Christ the King Sunday each year. It is the culmination of the liturgical calendar. Advent and a new christian year will begin the following Sunday. This day at the close of the year is a day to celebrate the reign of Christ; play the organ loud, sing the alleluias, profess our faith with the hymn of Isaac Watts, “Jesus Shall Reign!” I like this stuff (and secretly I look forward to the beginning of Advent, when my wife and son will finally let me put out Christmas decorations.)

Yet in the middle of the crowns and robes and fanfare, there are those often pesky Bible texts. For many of us, the gospel reading comes somewhere near the middle of our worship service. For the three years of the lectionary cycle, all the gospel readings for Christ the King Sunday are taken from the story of Jesus’ Passion. In year one, the story is Jesus’ teaching about finding Jesus in serving others (Mt. 25:31-46). In Matthew’s gospel, this is the last public teaching of Jesus before he is betrayed. In year three, the reading from Luke is Jesus speaking words of forgiveness and promise from the cross (Lk. 23:33-43).

This Sunday, the end of the second year in the lectionary cycle, the gospel reading for Christ the King is from John 18:33-37. It is the scene of Jesus being interviewed by Pilate.

At first glance, the Passion of Jesus seems a strange place to go, if you are wanting to proclaim Christ the King. Each year these gospel readings seem to jar me into a new and fresh awareness of how different the reign of Christ is from the kingdoms of this world. The Matthew reading reminds me that the King we are looking for is found in feeding the hungry, visiting those who are sick or in prison, etc. Luke speaks about how Jesus reigns from a cross and oversees a kingdom of forgiveness.

John speaks a word that seems particularly timely for many Christians today. I think many of us, though we don’t like to admit it and do not like the association, are sitting in the seat of Pilate. We are looking at this Jesus bleeding and vulnerable and saying, “So you are a King?” Pilate has never met a king like this before. This is not what we expected. We like the ¬†bands and the parades. What’s with the suffering and forgiveness? Jesus, where is your kingdom? Amidst the violence and vulnerability of these days, we want a kingdom that is stable and secure not bruised and speaking out words of forgiveness.

Years ago the philosopher Alasidair MacIntyre wrote a book entitled¬†Whose Justice? Which Rationality? McIntyre’s point is that ideas like justice are formed within certain wider traditions or systems of thought. So justice takes on different meanings within different rationalities.

I think Christ the King Sunday invites us to choose between two different kingdoms; not loyalty between different countries or cultures, not the American way versus the rest of the world, not Democrat versus Republican. The choice is between the reign of Christ or any of the various kingdoms of this world.

If we are going to accept his kingdom, we should not expect our heads to be ornamented with the crowns of this world.