They say timing is everything. And certainly this feast of Christ the King comes at a most fortuitous time. I suspect there’s no need to catalogue the forces of evil and sin we encounter in headlines and in human hearts. Every day, news reports – whether from halfway around the globe, or right next door– raise the question: Are we living in the end times?
This question about end times leads to another question: Have we ever been in greater need of the King of Love?
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The feast of Christ the King is less than a century old, established in 1925. So the formality is relatively recent. But the understanding of Jesus as king, rooted in scripture, goes back millennia. There have been many rulers of Israel, many Kings of the Jews. Saul. Solomon. Jesus’ royal ancestor, David. Yet none of these promise salvation. In Jesus, we encounter a very different kind of king.
Most kings are anointed by priests. Yet Jesus is anointed by Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.
Most kings have wealth. But Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourself treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”
Most kings live in great pomp and luxury, separated from their subjects. But Jesus asks, “Who is greater, the one who is at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”
Most kings assemble great armies and use force and killing to get their own way. Yet Jesus does not take life, but gives life, his own life, saying “Father, forgive them.”
Most kings are acclaimed, even worshipped, by their subjects. But Jesus offers divine love as the model to follow: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus does not claim this title of king for himself. He sets out to gather up disciples. Andrew. Simon Peter. Philip. Then he encounters Nathanael, who exclaims, “You are the King of Israel!” As he will later do with Pilate, Jesus neither accepts nor denies the title. Rather he points to the future, when “you will see greater things than these.”
The title King of the Jews comes most definitively from what might be an unexpected source: the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea and no friend of the Jews. “Are you king of the Jews?” he asks Jesus. Not getting a satisfactory answer, Pilate uses his own, earthly authority to declare Jesus’ kingship. He presents Jesus to the angry crowd: “Behold your king!”
Here is one commentator’s provocative, haunting perspective on the scene:
“With his ‘Ecce Homo,’ [Pilate presents] a mocked king, crowned with thorns, covered with welts and spittle, to a crowd clamoring for his crucifixion. ‘Behold the human condition,’ says Pilate, ‘this is what fallen man is—a pitiful caricature of the divine image.’ This is the king of the Jews.”
Covering all the bases, Pilate has an inscription written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek and put on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” When the chief priests object, he shuts them down. “What I have written I have written.”
Pilate uses his authority not to rescue Jesus from certain death, but –perhaps unwittingly — to declare his kingship in words that have lasted millennia.
It may be for this reason that Pilate was venerated in some early Christian traditions. The Ethiopian Church venerates Pilate and his wife on June 19. In our tradition, Pilate is the only human other than Mary, the mother of God, named in the Nicene creed. The classic depiction of Christ on the cross, whether suffering and broken or clothed in splendid apparel as Christus Rex, typically includes Pilate’s inscription.
King of the Jews is not a title Jesus claimed for himself. He does not preach himself as king; rather he preaches the kingdom of God. He says again and again “the kingdom of God is like…” using parables and images to convey what we must imagine and pray for. Thy kingdom come.
Who does Jesus say he is? He is the bread that nurtures (sustains life). He is the light that illuminates. He is the shepherd who guides and protects. He is the door to enter. He is the promised and awaited resurrection. He is the way, the path to walk. He is the living vine entwined around our hearts, in which we abide. He is a king like no other.
Our king sits amidst children and blesses them; he speaks with compassion to the scorned and outcast. Our king feeds the hungry; he welcomes the stranger; he heals with his touch. Our king teaches us to pray. Our king, risen, ascended, glorified, still bears on his brow the marks of a crude crown’s sharp thorns; his unprotected side shows the scar of a soldier’s cruel blade.
Our king is anointed not in great pomp by the hierarchy of a religious or cultural or political institution, but by a kneeling, weeping woman. Our king’s gold comes not from the state treasury or the temple’s holdings, but from a mysterious, unnamed stranger from afar, come to see a newborn babe. Our king is born with price on his head; his only triumphal procession leads directly to his arrest, trial, and execution. Our King’s subjects and friends scatter into the shadows as he prays and weeps and breathes his last.
Are you the king of the Jews? This question is not answered but sealed at cross, when another man suffering the ordeal of crucifixion implores Jesus, “Remember me, Lord, when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies with one of his final breaths, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
As the church year draws to a close, we step back and see the arc of Jesus’ life as conveyed over the past twelve months. The narrative is bookended by the wood of the manger and the wood of the cross. By Nathanael’s acclamation and Pilate’s inscription. Through his cross and passion the King of the Jews becomes the King of our hearts.
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Are these the end times? Surely the people of Israel asked the same question as they endured enslavement and exile. Without doubt, this question has been asked throughout history in times of war, famine, disaster, plague, injustice, terror. It’s a potent reminder that all time on this earth is the end time, the fallen place where we must dwell until we, like Christ, are lifted up to be at last with the King who has gone to prepare a place for us, who awaits us in the kingdom which has no end.
 “… Augustine hailed Pilate as a convert. Eventually, certain churches, including the Greek Orthodox and Coptic faiths, named Pilate and his wife saints. And when Pilate first shows up in Christian art in the mid-fourth century, he is juxtaposed with Abraham, Daniel and other great believers.” How Pilate became a Saint by Robin M. Jensen. Biblical Review 19:06, December 2003. Biblical Archeological Society archives