Christ the King

[Homily delivered at the All Saints Church of Christ on November 21, 2021 by William “Caleb” Rogers, a student at Lipscomb University and frequent preacher at All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. The lectionary texts for the day were Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37.]

Today is the Feast of Christ the King. Our Gospel today, of course, records Jesus’ conversation with Pilate regarding the use of that term.

Because today’s Gospel comes out of order, let’s catch up: Judas has betrayed Jesus, the Romans have come to arrest Jesus, and Peter has cut off someone’s ear in a misguided effort to defend Jesus—more on that one in a minute.

After Jesus is arrested, John plays two games of hot potato. First, the narrative switches back and forth between Jesus’ fate and Peter’s betrayal of Jesus.

Second, the Jewish authorities and the Romans can’t seem to decide what to do about Jesus—or who should do it. Both groups have an interest in getting rid of Jesus—the Romans could do with one less agitator challenging the established social order and stirring up talk of rebellion and revolt, and the Jews could do with one less agitator challenging the established social order and stirring up talk of rebellion and revolt. The Roman calculus is simple—they’re in charge, and insurrection (real or imagined) is bad for business. The Jews have a little more complicated position—while they certainly wouldn’t mind a successful revolt, they’d like to avoid arousing the ire of the Romans. “If you come at the king, you best not miss,” and all that. Further, the specific Jewish authorities in question here are also established leaders whom Jesus is challenging—it’s bad for their business if Jesus is telling folks that the high priests and scribes are full of it.

But, these two groups also have reason to not want to kill Jesus. First, the Jews can’t do so themselves—they’re barred from executing people themselves, so they need the Romans to do the dirty work for them. Second, the Romans (especially Pilate) seem to view this as an internal Jewish dispute. At the end of chapter 18 and the beginning of chapter 19, Pilate expresses real desire to not execute Jesus. It’s not until the Jews tell Pilate that Jesus is challenging Caesar—the 1st century equivalent of asking to see Pilate’s manager—that Pilate gives in.

So, Jesus’ arrest and indictment take the form of this elaborate dance between the Jews and the Romans—Jesus is arrested by a combined force, then taken to one Jewish official, then another, then finally to Pilate. Neither of the Jewish officials get much of anything to stick, so they bring him to Pilate. Pilate ask them what the deal is, and their response boils down to: “We’d like to kill this guy, but we’re not allowed to, so pretty please kill him for us. Also we can’t tell you why.”

Pilate is a senior Roman official, and one usually didn’t get to be a senior Roman official by doing whatever the local leaders asked without asking questions. So, Pilate decides to figure out what’s going on.

Which brings us to our Gospel today: Pilate is trying to figure out what the deal is between Jesus and the Jews. Pilate doesn’t get it. Jesus’ identity and purpose is too foreign for Pilate to understand. Instead of understanding that Jesus is king-unlike-the-other-kings, Pilate remains blind. Ultimately—not in today’s reading but soon after—Pilate chooses the easy way out. He believes the Jews who say Jesus wants to replace Caesar as a worldly ruler and hands Him over to death.

Today, on Christ the King Sunday, we are called to recognize Jesus as King. Not in the way Pilate would have had it—not in the way Romans or Jews or Americans might understand kingship—but a true King, one whose rule transcends time and nations and peoples.

In today’s Gospel, Pilate and Jesus have a conversation about kings. Pilate asks Jesus if he’s the king of the Jews—apparently trying to figure out whether the Jewish leaders have charged Jesus correctly. Jesus doesn’t give Pilate a straight answer, but it’s not because he’s trying to confuse Pilate. Rather, Jesus can’t answer Pilate’s question honestly because Pilate doesn’t understand the question he’s asking.

Clearly, Jesus is King of the Jews, but not in the way Pilate means the question. Pilate’s conception of kingship—worldly power maintained by coercion and violence—doesn’t map onto who Jesus is or what Jesus is doing. If Jesus were that sort of king, he says, his followers would be putting up more of a fight to save him.

Pilate’s misconception isn’t unique to him—earlier in this chapter, as Jesus is arrested, Peter tries to put up a fight. He draws his sword and cuts off a servant’s ear. Jesus, though, reprimands Peter for that. Violence is not Jesus’ path to power.

Instead, Jesus says, his kingdom is not of this world. It’s a kingdom rooted not in a specific place or a specific people but in “truth.”

And here, “truth” doesn’t mean “right belief” or “correct doctrine.” Truth is right relationship with God through Jesus. Membership in Jesus’ kingdom isn’t based on living in an area the Romans control or being born into the Jewish ethnic group or having your parents be Roman citizens. Membership in Jesus’ kingdom is about relating to God and God’s son and God’s world in the way we were created to.

Which leads us, I think, to an important point about Christ the King Sunday. I was watching a movie with Jacob on Friday—The King, starring Timothee Chalamet and Robert Pattinson. It’s based on Shakespeare’s Henry plays. Toward the end of the movie, Henry V is talking to his soon-to-be wife, Catherine, a princess of France, whose hand he won by invading and defeating France.

As it turns out, Henry’s justifications for invading France were all unfounded—planted by one of his advisors to further Henry’s popularity. Catherine explains this to Henry, who, grasping at straws, says, “Why should you question my intent? Your father’s rule is illegitimate. He has no right claim to his throne.” Catherine responds, “All monarchy is illegitimate. You yourself are the son of a usurper.”

Which, of course, is true. Henry’s father, Henry IV, ascended to power by dethroning Richard II because of a personal slight. Every kingdom—monarchy, democracy, and authoritarian regime alike—is illegitimate. They are created because of the whims and selfishness of powerful men and sustained through force and violence. Our own beloved country, such as it is, was founded because some wealthy smugglers didn’t like that their tax burden was marginally higher. We fought a war in this country because wealthy southern aristocrats wanted to enforce slavery on the nation in perpetuity. 

Today, right here, our nation condemns hundreds of thousands of people to homelessness in favor of regressive land-use policies that further enrich the wealthy. Our kingdom has consigned millions to preventable disease and death because the profits of medical companies and doctors are more important. Our kingdom’s laws turn away refugees at our borders. Our kingdom holds harmless white men who kill for pleasure and imprisons black men for being poor.

This is why Jesus can’t give Pilate a straight answer—no king is like Jesus because none of the kings Pilate knew about could be like Jesus.

Those kings held—and hold—power because of force and coercion and violence, because of continued popular support, because a majority of their people enjoyed how the king is cruel to a minority of the people. Those kings are illegitimate.

Christ, the ruler of the universe, is the only legitimate king. Christ’s rule comes not from chance or whim or sin but from Christ’s very nature.

Christ’s kingdom is different from the other kingdoms because membership is open to all. Citizenship in the kingdom of God is not limited to those who were born in the right place, or to the right parents, or with the right qualifications. To enter the kingdom of God, you don’t need to hire a lawyer to navigate the US Customs and Immigration Service.

The feast of Christ the King is a new one. Pope Pius XI established it in 1926, concerned by the rise in nationalism in Europe. In the document promulgating this new feast, he wrote, “This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross.”

When Pius established the feast of Christ the King, it was in late October, the Sunday before the Feast of All Saints. Now, it comes on the last Sunday before the beginning of advent. In both cases, the feast is explicitly eschatological—it looks forward to a future kingdom.

Christ’s kingdom has not yet come in fullness. Our nations still have borders; kingdoms oppress their peoples and the world cries out for justice.

And yet, it would be a mistake to assume that the Feast of Christ the King has no meaning for us. Jesus tells us that his kingdom is not of this world, and that’s true—Christ’s kingdom is nothing like the kingdoms of this world. Revelation, though, tells us that Christ’s kingdom is already in this world.

“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” Made—past tense.

And in Psalms: “The Lord is King; he has put on splendid apparel; the Lord has put on his apparel and girded himself with strength.” Is—present tense, not future.

And in Daniel: “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” Was and is—this has already happened.

Clearly we still live with the vestiges of the kingdoms of this world. The government still punishes you more for feeding the hungry without a license than it does for shooting someone. The kingdoms of this world will still, in the words of Wendell Berry, ask you “to die for profit.” Pilate, after all, did send Jesus to be crucified.

But, of course, crucifixion didn’t do much to stop the coming of Christ’s Kingdom.

Today, on the feast of Christ the King, let us remember that the Kingdom of God is already among us:

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the kingdoms of the earth will wail.”


2 Responses to “Christ the King”

  1.   Bill Bryson Says:

    John Mark,

    I grieve that for most of us who claim allegiance to Jesus the King; worshiping him is our “antidote” to following him.

    I’m impressed that this student (I assume he’s young) has this perspective and willing to call our own into account.

    Peace and all good

  2.   Phillip Hicks Says:


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