In 1925, the fires of World War 1 still smoldered in the memory of those who had lived through it. And yet, even with the memory of the suffering and destruction still vivid in the minds of millions on three continents, nationalism and fascism began to grow in Europe, political movements that gained power by dividing people into victors and vanquished, that sought to claim the right to empire as the natural order for humanity.
It was in this context that the Feast of Christ the King was first proclaimed. It is a feast that calls us to remember whose, exactly, we are, and the real power to which we owe our allegiance.
In the gospel for this coming Sunday, Jesus is handed over to the power of empire, but resists its dominance. Jesus literally speaks truth to power. Governments rise and fall as the work of human intention, but the reign of Christ is eternal.
The gospel reading consists of three questions from Pilate. Let’s look at the actual statements of Jesus in our gospel. Notedly, Jesus does not answer a single one of Pilate’s three questions—indicating that Jesus refuses to cower before human power. Instead, he states one positive thing about himself: while turning aside questions about Jesus wielding political power, he does claim for himself the role of witness—a witness who testifies to the truth.
Jesus’s kingdom, however, is not geographically limited to a certain place, or even a certain people, which may be why he refuses to call himself the “King of the Jews.” As Jesus repeatedly reminds us, especially in John’s gospel, the commandments or laws of Jesus’s kingdom are not based on keeping order or expanding power, but instead on love (see John 13:34-35; John 14:15-31; John 15:9-19). And not just on loving God, but on loving each other.
In our world today, we remain adrift, bereft, cynical, and weary. Just like Pilate, we often try to preserve our own empires, our own edifices and walls that we tell ourselves are there for our protection and security. But really, those empires and walls just block out the light, hope, and peace that Jesus, in offering himself to us, offers to the entire world. No exceptions.
One of the key signs that one lives under the oppressive heat of empire is realizing that the values of the powers and principalities depends upon fabrication, defamation, and subterfuge. Injustice prevails by convincing the comfortable that if they dare push back against the injustice, they will only succeed in being at the mercy of the unmerciful. It is not for nothing that one of the ancient pseudonyms for Satan is “the Prince of Lies.” We spend too much of our lives in a kingdom of calumny, and empire of evasion, a realm of revilement, a principality of prevarication. Jesus offers us true freedom, if only we can let go of the fear that causes us to go along to get along.
One of my favorite TV shows is Ted Lasso. In one episode, a smart therapist repeats this mantra: “The truth will set you free. But first, it will [tick] you off.”
Jesus’s truth is not of this variety, though it certainly seeks to set us free. Jesus’s truth is stated earlier when Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Beyond any earthly maneuvers for power, for exploitation, or for domination, this truth will set you free, and give you life and joy and community. That’s the truth of Jesus’s life. He calls us to be the very best versions of ourselves because he knows that is how we were made to be all along. He has faith in us, and calls us to have faith in ourselves that a better way is possible, through the loving, healing, restoring touch of Christ within our inmost being.
This is the truth to which Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection testify: God is love, and those who follow the Way of Jesus walk and live and move in and through and out of love for God but also, and this is the harder part, being animated to live and breathe and speak love for each other. Especially those we believe are outside our comfort zone.
The Way of Jesus was a threat to the power and empires of the world. Yet, periodically, Jesus’s followers have been tempted to claim that Jesus’s kingdom IS of this world, to claim that Jesus loves the same few people he loves and hates the same people we fear or despise. But Jesus is not about power, but service.
As St. Paul insisted over and over again, Jesus emptied himself of all the privilege and power he had had since the beginning of time in order to enter the world as the weakest thing of all: a tiny baby born to a poor mother in a backwater not many people could find on a map, even today. Jesus represents the power of love, the power of trust. And I’m not sure that’s any less rebellious today than it was 2000 years ago.
Do we dare allow Jesus to reign in our hearts in such a radical, incredible way? Do we dare transform ourselves into disciples who celebrate Christ’s kingdom of love and compassion and healing?
It starts with witnessing to the truth, alongside our savior and sovereign.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts prayers and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.