Christ the King Sunday began in Europe during the 1930s. It was a time when fascism was on the rise…Spain, Italy, Germany…gaining some popularity even in Great Britain and here in the United States. Citizens, wearied by World War I and weak governments and the great Depression, began to march with locked knees and raised their hands in stiff-armed salute to dictators of power. So the Church designated this last Sunday of the Church Year as a day to remind the faithful that while they may pledge allegiance to their fatherland, ultimately they bend the knee to no one but God…to no one but God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the King.
Ah, but we Americans have a strange love-hate relationship with authority and bending the knee. We have a kind of gut-level revulsion to those photographs of our President bowing to a foreign head of state. Even if it is construed as a social custom devoid of any act of obeisance, still, a voice in the American soul says, “We fought a revolution specifically to break away from royalty. Our President should not bow to kings and queens. Let them bow to him.”
Oh, but let the Queen of England coming visiting, and suddenly we’re studying up on how to curtsey and bow. Let royals walk down the aisle to be married, and we almost break into a chorus of “Land of Hope and Glory.” There’s just something about figures who have power and authority. We love em! We hate em!
Power is a difficult word for us. We say power is bad, “power corrupts,” even as ordinary, everyday folks like ourselves seek to have power and use it. But power itself is neither good nor bad; it’s the use of power that becomes the issue. So maybe the better question is to ask, what authority governs us in the use of power?
If we are our own authority, as the ambitious Pontius Pilate was, or if we give ourselves over to some celebrity idol or an idol of another sort (an uncomfortable thought, coming on the heels of the annual bacchanal of Black Friday), well, given our sinful tendency to abuse power whenever we have it, Truth is the only thing which is going to benefit us. If the authority under which we act is Christ Jesus, at work through His Word by His Spirit, then our uses of power, tainted as they are by sin…in Christ, our exercise of power will more likely be for the good of this world.
All of which brings us to this text today. There are many ways to tell the story of what happened on Good Friday. For St. John, it’s about truth and power. Good Friday involved a collision between religion and politics, and The Truth. While Pontius Pilate and the chief priests conspired to solve their mutual problem while still managing to remain enemies, it was Jesus who stood center stage like a mirror in which everyone around Him could see themselves for who they were.
We Christians are often no different from them in our desire to avoid that mirror! We prefer to think that Good Friday is really a story about the Romans and the Jews. And as long as they’re the villains in the crucifixion, we’re off the hook−or so we think. But this story is not confined to a time long ago, in a land far away.
One of the many things St. John’s account of Good Friday tells us, is that Jesus was not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by the power of law and order working together with the power of religion…a deadly mix.
Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Having temple police is always a bad sign. When Christians and churches begin wrestling with Washington about power, watch out. Someone is on the verge of having no king but Caesar.
Good Friday can happen anywhere at any time. And we are as likely to be the perpetrators as the victims. Oh, I doubt that any of us would end up playing an Annas or Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate. They may have been the ones who gave Jesus the death sentence, but a large part of Jesus had already died before those villains ever got hold of Him. Jesus was already being killed off by Judas, then Peter, then all those disciples who ran to find a good hiding place until everything had blown over. It wasn’t the enemies of Jesus who did Him in…it was His friends.
Whenever someone famous gets in trouble, one of the first things the media focuses on is the man’s friends. What do those friends say and do? Do they support him or do they tell reporters that, sadly, they had seen trouble coming for some time?
One of the worst things a friend can say is what Peter said. “Oh, we weren’t friends, exactly. Acquaintances might be a better word. Actually, we just worked together. For the same company, I mean. Not together together, ya know? Just near each other. My desk was near His, you see. I really don’t know Him at all.” Ugh, with friends like Peter…
No one knows what Judas said. In St. John’s Gospel he doesn’t say a word. But where he stands says enough. After Judas had led the 200 some soldiers and temple police to the secret place in the garden where Jesus was praying, Judas stands with the people of power. Even when Jesus stepped forward to identify Himself, Judas doesn’t budge. He’s on the side with the weapons and the handcuffs, and he intends to stay there.
Maybe Judas had just fallen out of love with Jesus. It happens. One day you think Jesus is wonderful, and the next day He says or does something that makes you think twice. He reminds you of the great difference between the two of you, and you start hating Him for that—that difference—hating Him enough to begin thinking of some way to hurt Him…or at least, to put some distance between the two of you!
According to St. John, Jesus died because He told the truth to everyone He met. He is the Truth, the perfect mirror in which people…including us…see themselves in God’s light. And what happened next still goes on happening today. In the presence of His integrity, our own masks are exposed. In the presence of His constancy, our cowardice and easy compromises are brought to light. In the presence of His fierce love for God and for us, our ambivalence toward Him and our neighbor is revealed.
Take Him out of the room, as Pilate does, and all those things become relative. “Hey!, I’m not any worse than you are, nor you from me.” Oh, but leave Him in the room, and there is no place to hide. He is the Light of the world. He is Truth made flesh. In His presence, people either bend the knee in repentance before Him, to receive His pardon, or they do everything in their power to escape Him and extinguish His light.
And you don’t need a cross and some nails for that task. There are a thousand ways to do away with Jesus. Some of them are as obvious as choosing where you will stand when the showdown comes between the weak and the strong, the showdown between Caesar and Christ. Other ways are as subtle as keeping your mouth shut when someone bullies another…especially in matters of the faith. Or when someone asks you if you know Him.
This Gospel Reading today is part of the Reading on Good Friday. Today we read it just two days after Black Friday. Oh…two very different sorts of Fridays! And now, the Advent of our Lord is upon us, the season which reminds us that when He comes again it will be as Judge, and not as a helpless Baby.
So before we go dashing into celebrating the joy of the Christ Child’s birth, perhaps we should give heed to the grace of Christ our King. For we do stand under His authority for our use of His gifts. Yet He is the sort of King who gave His life as sacrifice for our abuses. That is the kingly gift we dare never take for granted.
The right use of power, that is, power used under the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, can build up and strengthen our families, our communities, our nation. But in the Church…ah…in the Body of all those who bend the knee before Christ the King, power always belongs to God! He alone has the power to bring down and to lift up. So in the Church, we live by His grace and truth, not by power. We live by the gifts that come to us from the crucified hands of our gracious King.
So in the Advent season, now so soon upon us, let us pray for the gift of wisdom to discern how our King would have us use the power He does place into our hands…to use it for good. But by all means, let us pray for the greater wisdom which recognizes that a just use of power in this world can only come on bended knee before Christ our King.