In just a week Advent will dawn, and we shall be hearing again in word and music elements of the birth narratives of Jesus. You and I know what images will come to mind: shepherds, star, Bethlehem inn, magi, the wicked King Herod. I can guarantee you that virtually no one will think about Caesar Augustus, even when he pops up in the well-known second chapter of Luke’s gospel on Christmas Eve.
But Caesar Augustus is quite important to the story of Jesus, especially the story of his birth, and not only for the reason that he might have issued a decree that all the world should be taxed at about the time Jesus was to be born. Caesar held some interesting titles, one of which was “Son of God.” Julius Caesar began to be called “Divine Julius” after his death by assassination. As his adopted son, Octavius, better known as Augustus, became known as the “son of God.” As you might guess or perhaps even know, quite a long and involved tale lies behind all that, but it brings us to a salient point today. In short, Jesus becomes the anti-Caesar. In the first place, he does not arrogate to himself the title “Son of God” but refers to himself frequently by the messianic title “Son of Man.” The Early Church, however, couldn’t leave well enough alone. By the time the gospels get to be written in the second half of the first century, Jesus was already Son of God.
It didn’t stop there. Within a century or two, one of the titles that the caesars used, βασιλευς, Greek for king, became of course a title that the Church bestowed upon Jesus. And that is where the trouble began. And that is the trouble today.
Today, the final Sunday in the Church Year, is popularly known as “Christ the King,” although the Prayer Book nowhere gives it that title. So what, you might ask, is the matter with that? Aside from the problems that a great many people have with the hierarchical and sexist overtones of “king,” there is bigger trouble. It is what I would call the problem of imperial Christianity. Jesus the anti-Caesar morphed into another Caesar. What Jesus called his “kingship not of this world” became within a fairly short while precisely the opposite: a domination-oriented regime specializing in punishing people when they didn’t conform, amassing power for itself, regulating behavior by fanning fears of hell and worse, going to war against perceived enemies, and ultimately torturing people with unspeakable cruelty when they so much as appeared to be threatening the status of those in charge.
Not even Augustus, by all accounts the greatest and most successful of all the Caesars, was entirely comfortable with monarchical titles, referring to himself as the “Princeps,” the first citizen of the republic. Much less did Jesus align himself with either the prevailing power structure or its radicalized and revolutionary political opponents. But what Jesus talked about and taught about more than any other thing, by word and more so by example, was what he called the βασιλεια του θεου, the “kingdom” or “realm” of God. He never described himself as the ruler of the βασιλεια: that was not his point. Rather, Jesus focused on the radical shift in relationships in the βασιλεια, the manner in which its values are turned completely upside down. In the βασιλεια, the last are first and the first last. The child of no power and no account becomes the model for what the kingdom itself is like and what its members can and need to become. As the Magnificat puts is, the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty. The proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts; the humble and meek, exalted.
The slightest attention to all this should give us an unmistakable clue that God’s kingdom is, as Jesus once said to Pontius Pilate, not of this world. For nearly all human endeavor is organized along a different model. One way of putting it is that the world (St. Paul calls it “the flesh”) is run by the unbridled human ego, always interested in protecting itself, always plotting to triumph over this or that adversary, nearly always seeing things in terms of winning and losing. The losers in the world are frequently the saints in the βασιλεια of God. And the winners? They generally exclude themselves from God’s kingdom long before judgment day, so to say.
All this serves to clarify what the Epistle to the Colossians means by these words: “…He has delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption….” The power of darkness is in fact the age of Caesar, encompassing the systems of this world—economic, political, juridical, religious, even systems that ostensibly exist for the benefit of great good—education and health care, for instance. Evil powers infect and corrupt such systems, and we deny that corruption at our peril. Those who live in the kingdom are redeemed and freed precisely because they no longer serve the dark and insidious powers that twist and destroy the creatures of God. And when they do, they repent and return to the Lord, the king.
And speaking of repentance, that is not an incidental element in the life of the βασιλεια. You might wonder why today we hear a portion of the passion narrative. Why on this Sunday that is often associated with triumph and victory do we see a thoroughly humiliated and debased Jesus, crucified as a criminal? Tacked over his head is the ironic sign, “This is the king of the Jews,” a warning to all those who would follow him in renouncing the powers of this world. And what is his response? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Truer words were never spoken. We have no earthly idea of what we are doing most of the time. As smart and clever as human beings are, we keep missing the obvious. Like the railing thief, even the most pious of us sometimes shout out, “What’s the matter? Aren’t you the all-important anointed one, Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the kingdom comes not with swords’ loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, but in such humility as one finds in a simple miserere: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
So what about calling Jesus “king” and the reign of God his “kingdom”? Is that not just too old-fashioned, particularly in a democracy that long ago renounced autocratic rulers and know-it-all leaders? Is “king” not just an antiquated synonym of the idolatrous politicians who hold out the hope of salvation on the one hand but with the other snatch it away in schemes of self-aggrandizement and ego promotion? No, kingship has not passed away. Nor has the possibility of a kingship worthy of the holy Name of Jesus. For king is an archetype deeply embedded in the human soul. The soul knows that there is such a thing as an irony that in true submission is perfect delight. The soul knows that there is a form of king whom to serve is perfect freedom. Though it is an ideal that we rarely if ever see in this life, we know it is there. It does not belong to a particular religion because it belongs to the universe and to the ages. We see it in a St. Francis, in a Nelson Mandela, in a Desmond Tutu, in a Black Elk, in a Harriet Tubman, in a Hildegard of Bingen, in Teresa of Avila, a Rosa Parks. None of them is or was flawless. All were imperfect creatures just like us. All of them we remember because they found a ruler to follow, a ruler known by such names as Truth, Honor, Sacrifice, Kindness, Love.
|Statue of Richard I outside the Houses of Parliament|
In Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, a mysterious character appears here and there in wars and skirmishes, always fighting alongside the troops struggling for justice and warring against the powers and principalities that threaten the good. He is known by the color of his dark armor, simply as “the black knight.” No one knows who he is or where he comes from.
And then one day he reveals himself. He is their king, Richard the Lionheart, who has returned from his foreign wars to fight alongside his followers. That is not a piece of history. It is a deep truth that the soul knows best. We know in our souls that at last, when all now hidden is made known, our eyes will be opened, and we will recognize One who has been beside us struggling with us and for us all along. Call him what you will. He is the Lord of hosts, the king of glory. And he is for real.
|Caravaggio, "Ecce Homo"|
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016