Advent Sunday | Christ the King

A lecture presented in the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Jerusalem on Advent Sunday, 29 November 2015 by the Very Revd. Canon Dr Gregory C. Jenks, Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem.


This is the first of four lectures to be offered at the Cathedral during Advent, and it has fallen to me to offer the inaugural address. In turn, the following presentations will be by Canon Lawrence Hilditch, Canon David Longe, and the Dean.

Last Sunday many churches in the Western Church—whether in communion with Rome, protesting their independence, or assuming to occupy the middle way—will have observed the feast of Christ the King. In at least some of those places, the festival will have been described as ‘The Reign of Christ’. In my view that is a better option than the more common ‘Christ the King’.

The very concept of monarchy—and especially absolute monarchy with no constitutional balances in place—is problematic in our world. It reflects a pre-modern world order, a world of empire, and a world where might truly is right.

We may not have moved very far away from such a world even today, as this region reminds us so emphatically. But we aspire to live in a world where individuals and their families matter, where the powers of sovereigns and corporations are limited by constitution and convention, and where the democratic ideal is preeminent.

In such a world—incomplete and flawed as it currently may be—there is simply no place for a king with absolute powers.

The incompleteness of our democratic systems and their incapacity to cope with urgent human crises—whether they be climate change, seemingly intractable conflicts in many parts of the world, or the refugees that flee either or both—points to the need for something better yet to arrive. That might almost make the current context an Advent moment, but it is unlikely that many of us will be yearning for a tyrant, however benevolent, to sort out the mess.

There is a more serious theological point in these introductory observations than the relevance of royal language in contemporary liturgies. How are we to speak of the mysteries of God when the language of faith that we have inherited from the past is so mortgaged to a worldview that no longer holds true for any of us? How are we to engage the contemporary world if we keep offering them tired metaphors at best, and oftentimes broken myths as well?

I hope then, that in some small ways, this presentation will assist us to engage with the critical missional task of singing the Lord’s song in a strange (postmodern) world.

I shall pursue that objective by proceeding in a more or less systematic way through four different set of issues, asking in each case what ‘Christ the King’ may have to say to us in each instance.

Jesus of Nazareth

The first set of issues that I would like to explore with you concerns Jesus, the Jewish prophet from Nazareth in the Galilee. What does it mean to describe him as ‘Christ the King’ in the first century and in the twenty-first century?

In first-century terms, to ascribe kingship (basileia in Greek) to Jesus was to create a rival to Caesar. Caesars had many rivals, and many of them had themselves been rivals to a former Caesar before attaining the imperium themselves. So they understood rivals, and they viewed them all with suspicion. When an inscription such as ‘Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews’ was placed above the head of a crucified man, it was not so much a royal title as a charge of treason.

Today ‘Christ the King’ may evoke the comforting words of The King of Love My Shepherd Is derived—gleaned even—from Psalm 23 and John 10, but in the first century such a claim was highly political and a direct challenge to the legitimacy and the potency of the ruling sovereign.

Had Tiberius ever heard of Jesus, he may well have asked as Stalin is said to have asked of the Pope many centuries later, “How many legions does he have?” The dialogue between Pilate and Jesus in John 18:28–19:22 is really exploring exactly these issues.

So many of the terms of religious devotion that we now apply to Jesus derive from ancient politics. This should not be a surprise, since the ancient world in which Christianity was born really only had two domains: the family, and politics. When speaking God’s word to the public sphere, it was necessary to use categories and terminology appropriate to politics, the life of the polis.

In particular, terms such as ‘Son of God’, ‘Lord’ (kyrios in Greek and dominus in Latin), and ‘Savior’ (Soter in Greek) were royal titles. Such titles were to be found in massive inscriptions above city gates and on the tiny coins in a peasant’s pocket.

When used of Jesus by his earliest followers, these were not innocent terms of devotion. They were political declarations, and the emperors understood them as such.

Today marks the beginning of the Year of Luke in our three-year lectionary cycle, so it is especially fitting to pay careful attention to the way Luke began his Gospel. Note, first of all, the careful comments that serve as a prologue to his two-volume work, known to us as The Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles (‘Luke-Acts’):

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:1–4 NRSV)

As Luke sets about the task of publishing his account of “the events that have been fulfilled among us”, he is very conscious that others have written on these topics before him. Those accounts—known to us as the Gospel according to Mark, the Gospel according to Matthew, and the Gospel according to John—were already in circulation by the time this opening paragraph of Luke-Acts was composed. Indeed, the Gospel according to Luke may itself be an enlarged edition of an even earlier Christian gospel known to scholars as the Q Gospel.

Be that as it may, our author knows he is not the first to attempt this task. But he considers his work to be the best available, and clearly wishes his audience not rely on the earlier examples of this genre. He will provide Theophilus—and us—with the definitive Jesus story. An ‘orderly account’. This is the version he would like us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest”; as he doubtless would have said if given the opportunity to read Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.

With those considerations in mind, now let’s observe how he begins his Gospel.

Luke begins with the tale of two boys, one of whom will become the Savior of World.

The two boys are close relatives (cousins), and both have mothers with unusual fertility challenges.

The first is called John, and his parents are aged and childless. Clearly one of them is sterile, but this just heightens the miraculous element. A child born to elderly parents who were unable to conceive when young and healthy is surely a child of promise. Watch this lad. He will count for something when he grows up.

The second boy is called, Jesus. His mother had a very different problem. She was not yet married. But she is also assured by an angel sent by God that she will bear a son, and the sign of the promise to her being true is that her aged and childless cousin is also pregnant.

The story of these two boys is woven into a series of seven scenes:

  • Scene 1 – John’s miraculous conception (Luke 1:5–25)
  • Scene 2 – Jesus’ miraculous conception (Luke 1:26–38)
  • Scene 3 – Mary visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–56)
  • Scene 4 – John’s birth and naming (Luke 1:57–80)
  • Scene 5 – Jesus’ birth and naming (Luke 2:1–21)
  • Scene 6 – Presentation in Temple (Luke 2:22–40)
  • Scene 7 – 12-year old Jesus in Temple (Luke 2:41–52)

The sequence of these episodes and the climatic scene in the Temple are carefully arranged to make a theological point. Perhaps several. By telling the story in this way, Luke has asserted the supremacy of Jesus over John; despite Jesus having been a disciple of John. But that was not the main point.

Luke was writing for Christians living in the Roman Empire about 100 years after the death of Jesus. They also knew a story about two boys, one of whom who found the city of Rome. Here is the account of that founding myth as told by Plutarch, ca 75 CE:

Some again say that Roma, from whom this city was so called, was daughter of Italus and Leucaria; or, by another account, of Telaphus, Hercules’s son, and that she was married to Aeneas, or, according to others again, to Ascanius, Aeneas’s son. Some tell us that Romanus, the son of Ulysses and Circe, built it; some, Romus, the son of Emathion, Diomede having sent him from Troy; and others, Romus, king of the Latins, after driving out the Tyrrhenians, who had come from Thessaly into Lydia, and from thence into Italy. Those very authors, too, who, in accordance with the safest account, make Romulus give the name of the city, yet differ concerning his birth and family. For some say, he was son to Aeneas and Dexithea, daughter of Phorbas, and was, with his brother Remus, in their infancy, carried into Italy, and being on the river when the waters came down in a flood, all the vessels were cast away except only that where the young children were, which being gently landed on a level bank of the river, they were both unexpectedly saved, and from them the place was called Rome. Some say, Roma, daughter of the Trojan lady above mentioned, was married to Latinus, Telemachus’s son, and became mother to Romulus; others that Aemilia, daughter of Aeneas and Lavinia, had him by the god Mars; and others give you mere fables of his origin. For to Tarchetius, they say, king of Alba, who was a most wicked and cruel man, there appeared in his own house a strange vision, a male figure that rose out of a hearth, and stayed there for many days. There was an oracle of Tethys in Tuscany which Tarchetius consulted, and received an answer that a virgin should give herself to the apparition, and that a son should be born of her, highly renowned, eminent for valour, good fortune, and strength of body. Tarchetius told the prophecy to one of his own daughters, and commanded her to do this thing; which she avoiding as an indignity, sent her handmaid. Tarchetius, hearing this, in great anger imprisoned them both, purposing to put them to death, but being deterred from murder by the goddess Vesta in a dream, enjoined them for their punishment the working a web of cloth, in their chains as they were, which when they finished, they should be suffered to marry; but whatever they worked by day, Tarchetius commanded others to unravel in the night.

In the meantime, the waiting-woman was delivered of two boys, whom Tarchetius gave into the hands of one Teratius, with command to destroy them; he, however, carried and laid them by the river side, where a wolf came and continued to suckle them, while birds of various sorts brought little morsels of food, which they put into their mouths; till a cowherd, spying them, was first strangely surprised, but, venturing to draw nearer, took the children up in his arms. Thus they were saved, and when they grew up, set upon Tarchetius and overcame him. This one Promathion says, who compiled a history of Italy.

When Luke chose to begin his account of Jesus with a story about two boys, he knew what he was doing. Not for him the Matthean infancy story with its echoes of Moses and the Exodus. He is ‘ordering’ his account so that his intended audience will get the point, right from the opening scenes.

For Luke, Jesus was the boy destined to be king. This ‘Good News’ will reach all the way to Rome, as it does by the last chapter of Acts.

The kingship of God in the Old Testament

The idea of the ‘kingdom of God’ (basileia tou theou) is deeply rooted in the Hebrew texts of the Christian Old Testament. The phrase is perhaps better translated as ‘reign of God’ since it refers to be rule of God as sovereign over creation, rather than the object of God’s authority. Indeed, in the first-century context, ‘empire of God’ would be a better translation, since basileia was the term used for the Roman Empire in the Greek-speaking East.

Even in the OT, the idea of kingship was problematic. It derives from the world of the city, not the village, and certainly not the world of the pastoral nomads such as Israel imagined her ancestors to have been. The ‘wandering Arameans’ of Deuteronomy 26 had no king, since there was almost other social domain apart from the family. Within the family, the patriarch was the supreme authority. Conflict tended to be between patriarchs, and between aspiring patriarchs.

When kings first appear in the OT story they are the riles of cities in Canaan and—more particularly—the Pharaohs of Egypt. Such rulers are not agents of grace or foretastes of the messianic age. Yet in 1 Samuel 8 the people demand that they have a king to rule over them, because they wished to be like the other nations.

Such a request was a category error.

The covenant people are not to be like the other nations. The very essence of election, promise, and covenant is to be a special people, not a clone of the neighbors.

In time—despite the profound theological critique of kingship offered by 1 Samuel 8 & 12—kingship became the norm for both the northern kingdom and its more rustic southern cousin. Indeed, in the south the concept of kingship was embraced with even more vigor. The Davidic dynasty secured a theological mortgage on the throne, whereas at least in the north the Yahwistic tradition retained the divine prerogative to dismiss a king and choose a new dynasty.

Royal models for leadership within the covenant people remained unpopular in some 0f the circles from which we receive these sacred texts. The prophets were critical of the kings and their cadre of officials. Anti-royal sentiments are clearly preserved and promoted in some parts of Samuel and Kings. The Deuteronomist only wants a king who keeps a copy of the law beside his throne, and takes instruction from a Levitical priest. Ezekiel’s vision of the restored Israel has a prince, but no king.

Despite these reservations, or maybe because of them, the idea of divine kingship became both central to the worship life of the community and also nuanced in some interesting ways. The centrality of the kingship of God is expressed in the many Psalms that proclaim, YHWH melek (The LORD is king). The sovereignty of God over the nations and over creation is especially clear in prophetic texts such as Isaiah.

At the same time, we find that God’s kingship is described in more pastoral terms, even if the warrior God makes a re-appearance in the apocalyptic traditions that dominate the Jewish mindset in the late Second Temple period.

In Ezekiel 34 we find God portrayed as the good shepherd, in contrast to the unfaithful and self-serving clergy of the Temple:

The word of the LORD came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As I live, says the Lord GOD, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?

Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. (Ezek 34:1–24 NRSV)

For Christian readers of these ancient Jewish texts, this resonates with the depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, in John 10:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father. (John 10:11–18 NRSV)

When all the data for divine kingship in the OT is taken into account, we can see a nuancing of the concept from one of awesome power to one of divine care. The pastoral images of the Twenty-Third Psalm displace the warrior God of tribal religion.

The end result is an invitation to imagine power and leadership in very different terms than ‘kingship’ might suggest. If we imagine God to exercise divine power in ways that are primarily about bringing forth life and serving the vulnerable, then we may also discern an invitation to think differently—and act differently—when exercising power or leadership within the church, within the family, or within the wider society,

The View from Below

Having explored some of the issues relating to Jesus and God, it may be timely to think about the significant of this divine kingship language for our understanding of ourselves and our perspective(s) on reality.

I begin with the question of how we see Jesus. What kind of a ‘king’ do we imagine Jesus to be? If nothing else, the affirmation of ‘Christ the king’ invites us to understand the significance of Jesus in God’s cosmic purposes. But we need not trap Jesus or ourselves in a Byzantine imperial worldview.

‘Christ the king’ is also a statement about us, about humanity. It invites us to see that the Human One, the Son of Adam, can be the human face of God. While that may be especially true of Jesus, it is also true for each of us. We can be—and perhaps must be—the human face of God to our family, our neighbors, and even our enemies.

There is a parallel here to the role of Mary, Theotokos, Mother of God. Mary of Nazareth was uniquely the bearer of the Christ Child. But each of us has that calling as well. Similarly, we may see in Jesus the unique historical revelation of God, but each of us may find that we serve as icons of God for those around us.

The kingship that Christ embodies is compassionate and life-giving. It is our calling to embody that selfless love seen first in Jesus, as we make the words of 1 Corinthians 13 our personal charter:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor 13:4–8 NRSV)

In all of this, Christ the king is our model and our pioneer. No longer a source of fear, this ‘king’ encourages us to be all that God knows we can be.

Reflecting on the deeper significance of Christ the King can also invite us to see God differently. As Christ the King, Jesus is not a distant authority figure, but the God who is with us and among us; indeed, one of us: Emmanuel.

Another metaphor that I find attractive as I re-imagine the traditional concept of Christ the King, is the suggestion by Bishop John Taylor that we see God as the Go-Between God. This was the title of a book in which he explored the nature and activity of the Holy Spirit, but it comes to mind when I think about the kind of God revealed in Jesus, the one we celebrate now as Christ the King. In many ways, Jesus was the quintessential Spirit-person, and that shapes and reshapes my understanding of ‘Christ the King.

As Christ the King, Jesus has not peaked. He is not resting on his laurels and enjoying his cosmic retirement after a grueling term of service on the earth. The Spirit of Lord continues to be present and active in the life of the Church, and that is surely an important element of our affirmation that ‘Jesus is Lord’.

In the end, our reflection on Christ the King must also impact how we see ourselves. What does it mean to be a human being, if Jesus of Nazareth is somehow also the ultimate expression of God’s truth in the cosmos?

If the Human One can be proclaimed as Christ the King, then that is one big leap for human awareness. The Orthodox speak of divinization as the inner reality of salvation. That may be another way to approach this same mystery. God becomes a human, so that humans can become divine. Emmanuel is more radical and inclusive than perhaps we realized.

What does it mean for us to be alive and self-aware in this kind of world, where our God becomes one of us and one of us becomes ‘Christ the King’? What value do we place on human life, and always within the context of our own location within the web of creation?

Is being alive and ever engaged in a process of loving transformation into the character of Christ really what matters most to us? More than success? Than wealth? Than power? Than popularity?

Can we fashion lives, families, churches, and societies that practice that truth?

And how would this pan out in the harsh realities of Palestine and Israel now? Where is the kingship of Christ in the streets of the Old City this Advent?

In conclusion …

Finally, let me try to bring all this together with some brief reflections on the significance of ‘Christ the King’ for our world.

In the last week or so, there has been a controversy in the UK about some movie theatres banning the Lord’s Prayer as it was seen to be too ‘political’. This strikes me as an excellent example of how someone can be entirely correct and totally wrong all at the same time.

The movie chains may have misread the ever-shifting cultural dynamics, but I suspect they did not. Given the growing lack of religious literacy in Western societies, a majority of younger people probably have no real sense of the cultural significance of the Lord’s Prayer in British life. But then they probably do not ‘get’ Shakespeare either. And it may be that the Authorized Version of the Bible—which has already lost its correct name to the more American ‘King James Bible’—is now past of our cultural past, rather than having any current cultural significance beyond the ever diminishing circle of practicing Christians. Among the discarded remnants of yesteryear’s religion, we shall find the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments.

On the other hand, and for reasons they may never understand, the movie chains probably got this absolutely correct.

The Lord’s Prayer is a political document. So is the Magnificat that we just sang during Evensong. These are subversive texts. They undermine the cultural assumptions of our pleasure-oriented society. If people took these ancient religious texts seriously they might change the way they vote, and choose to spend their disposable income in different ways. That would be bad for business. But good for the world.

In a sense, no-one who is doing well from the present world order should allow us to teach people the Lord’s Prayer or chant the Magnificat in our cathedrals. If Christ really is the ‘king’, then things had better change around here.

Christians—like our Jewish and Muslim cousins—have a higher loyalty than any corporation or any nation. The Roman emperors were on the money when they sensed that the devotees of Jesus were an existential threat to the Empire; to all empire and every empire. Then and now.

We are advance agents of eternity. We embody the truth that the kingdom of God is drawing nigh, and in some sense is already here among us. We are not content to sell fire insurance for the afterlife, or ring-side seats to Armageddon. We want to change the world now. We want to mortgage the present to God’s future which we glimpse in the affirmation that Christ is king.

This is exactly what those familiar words in the Lord’s Prayer invite us to imagine:

… your kingdom come
your will be done on earth
as in heaven …

©2015 Gregory C. Jenks

Share article

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: