The Reign of Christ
Christ the King, 22 November, 2015
Sarah Bachelard, founder and director of Benedictus Contemplative Church.
I've been curious about the origins of the Feast we celebrate today — Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ. A few years ago, I discovered (thanks to Wikipedia) that it was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, 'in response to growing nationalism and secularism'. The context for its proclamation, then, seems to have been uncannily prescient. The horrors of the First World War were past, but clearly there was still much amiss within and between the family of nations. With hindsight, we know exactly what horrors the nationalism and fascism that was, even then, growing in Europe were to bring upon our world. The Pope, it seemed, had been valiantly trying to bring to remembrance the truth that it's not human ideologies, states, or nations that are the ultimate rulers and judges of human life — but Christ. We are ultimately answerable to the reign or the 'kingship' of Christ — not to the tyrants and dictators of our world.
This rather wonderful and prophetic image was a little tarnished for me when I read the actual encyclical by which Pius XI proclaimed the Feast. A large part of his concern seemed to be the declining influence of the church and growing anti-clericalism. By proclaiming Christ as King, he was also making a bid for the significance of the church as Christ's representative on earth. There is at least a hint of the thought that the church is in rivalry with earthly powers for the same kind of recognition and influence they enjoy — and more than a hint of the boast that my king is bigger than your king, so there.
But this is precisely the move that Jesus does not want us to make: 'My kingdom is not from this world', he says to Pilate. 'If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here' (John 18:36). Christ's kingdom, in other words, is not in rivalry with earthly kingdoms: it can't be measured by the same criteria, it doesn't operate in the same way. So much for the aspirations of a worldly and ambitious church.
Yet neither does this mean opting out, leaving 'the world' to its own devices. Jesus' words are sometimes seized on by politicians and others arguing that the church should have nothing to say about how this world is run. On this view, the church's proclamation should be confined to the vision of 'heaven' and the life to come ... not with poverty, taxation policy, and the distribution of wealth. But Jesus' whole life and ministry speaks against this reading. The kingdom of God is not in rivalry with the kingdoms of the world, competing on the same plane for control, wealth and territory. But neither is it located in some parallel universe that doesn't intersect at all with the regimes and social structures so powerfully shaping our lives. And this means the reign of Christ does present a kind of threat to the powers that be. Pilate is not wrong to sense that Jesus is dangerous to him and unsettling of business as usual.
But how? How does the power of the reign of Christ work? And what does it unsettle and then make possible?
The context of our reading gives a clue. Jesus has been handed over to the authorities by those who seek his death. His preaching and popularity have become dangerous to the delicate balance of power between the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman occupying force. According to John's gospel, the final straw was the raising of Lazarus. After this event, John writes: 'the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, "what are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation."' To which responded Caiaphas, 'who was high priest that year ... "You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed."' (John 11:47-50). And so the machinery of betrayal, arrest and judicial execution are mobilized against him.
And that, ultimately, is how the kingdoms and social systems of this world work. It is how power, a sense of identity, "goodness" and a certain kind of social order is maintained. Beneath more or less benign exteriors, there lurks always the possibility that the one will be sacrificed for the many, the outsider for the sake of the insiders. A whistleblower is hung out to dry by the corporation; a minister is shunned when his marriage falters; a family closes ranks against its 'black sheep'; a threatened boss bullies an employee, and others — fearing for their livelihoods — will not speak out. Or it might be a minority and more vulnerable group which is collectively denigrated, marginalized, or persecuted so as to shore up 'our' identity — as 'team Australia', for example.
Theologian James Alison has pointed out that this sacrificial mechanism operates not only in response to perceived threats to a system's security or identity. All too often, the system gets going in the first place by its creation of outsiders, people against whom the inside defines itself and secures its sense of its own 'goodness' and superiority. We see this on the international scene: ISIS generating its identity over against the 'infidel' West, and the West—sadly—duly reciprocating. But we see it locally as well. In our school playgrounds, the 'cool' group generates its identity over against the 'nerds' by comparison with whom its coolness is defined. In our social arrangements—there's 'people like us' and ... there's the others. It's in our churches too — the catholics defined against the evangelicals, those with clean moral slates assured of their righteousness by comparison with all the 'sinners' out there. And whether the righteous kindly patronise the unrighteous or cast them out in the name of good order, it's the same mechanism underneath it all. Thus are the kingdoms of this world.
The kingdom of God operates differently. From this kingdom, no one need be excluded. There are no necessary outsiders; everyone is invited to the feast. This kingdom is sustained by what it's for, not what it's against. Jesus went out of his way to include those who had been excluded from the religious system of his day — the sinners, the unclean, the disabled and suspect. Zaccheus, the tax collector, is called down from his tree, the Gerasene demoniac is restored to his community, the woman with the haemorrhage is stopped for, noticed and healed. Jesus reveals and enacts that God is towards us only ever as inviting us in, making a place for us, seeking our wholeness. And that means that Jesus is not afraid of being in relation with those deemed outsiders. He wants to be with them, and he can, because his identity, his goodness, his belonging doesn't depend on being approved of by the 'world' and its systems. He is sourced elsewhere. He has come from the Father, and is going to the Father.
And in the end, this is precisely what makes Jesus a profound threat to the world's way of ordering things. He can't, he won't, be controlled by the usual mechanisms; he is free and unafraid. Living beyond our 'systems', he can see the truth of how things so often operate — all the ways we hurt and diminish one another by casting each other out in subtle and not so subtle ways. As he says to Pilate: 'For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.' And not only does he reveal this truth — he breaks the power of the mechanism itself. He is handed over to be killed — too dangerous to have around. The kingdoms of the world appear to triumph. But by raising him from death, God vindicates his proclamation and practice, and so empowers us to live out that same freedom and resource. St Paul has got a whiff of it: 'if God is for us, who is against us? ... It is God who justifies, who is to condemn?' (Rom.8:31-34).
The more we receive our identity — not from the systems of this world and the various in-groups we try to belong to, but from God who is life and healing for all — the more we are able to offer the same undefended welcome and solidarity as Jesus. We can't be threatened in the same way, which means we become citizens of the peaceable kingdom — emboldened to offer hospitality, to speak prophetically as bearers of God's promised blessing. We become able truly to sing with the psalmist, 'the Lord is King, let the earth rejoice.'
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.