The treatment of kings had a lot to do in shaping the ways we think about Jesus and about how we worship. In fact, one reason that the organ was the first instrument used in Christian worship is related to the kingship of Christ: in antiquity the organ was a royal instrument, and when the Europe was coming out of the Middle Ages, the royal instrument found it way from the imperial court into monasteries supported by kings, then into Cathedral churches and by the Fourteenth Century organs were in almost every Western Church. The language of how people addressed kings found its way into prayers, and even the popular image of God as a grey haired man looking down from above is a holdover from that time.
Of course, ordinary kingship today doesn’t matter a lot to how we live our lives, and even folks in England and Spain, for example, don’t have kings or queens that make laws or dictate policy that affect their everyday lives. Royalty today is almost always about ceremony, pageantry and entertainment. In some respects, royalty in this country are movie stars, but it doesn’t seem to be a good idea to treat Jesus the way we treat movie stars.
Perhaps a better idea is to go to the Scriptures, particularly the Gospel reading. The parable of the sheep and goats is rather interesting. Matthew always blends the story of the early church into his Gospel, and this verse from the instruction for the Jewish Passover meal may help us in understanding what Jesus is saying here. The Passover meal is based around a roast lamb, and the instruction for the lamb taken from the book of Exodus says:
“The lamb must be a year-old male and without blemish. You may take it from either the sheep or the goats.” (Ex 12:5)
Both sheep and goats were acceptable as the centerpiece of the Passover meal. It makes sense, since today’s nomads have both sheep and goats in their herds, and they need to be separated at nights since the goats need protection from the cold. This is turns what we may think about this parable around: the easiest interpretation is that the sheep are the Christians and the goats are folks who are not. This instruction turns that around. This parable isn’t about insiders and outsiders; all of these people are on the inside.
Perhaps what is at stake for us today is how we reverence Christ the King. Jesus is not our king in an earthly sense, and this comes out earlier in the Gospel according to Matthew, in Chapter 20. James and John have come forward to ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left, much as attendants do to royalty, and Jesus asks them if they can drink the cup he drinks from. After they answer yes, Jesus tells them that they will share his kingdom but the seats at his right and left are not his to give. Well, the rest of the disciples get upset at this dialogue, and Jesus tells them:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25b-8)
So maybe we need to reinterpret our imagery of the kingship of Jesus. Jesus isn’t a King who sits on a throne looking for submission, but a poor person, a hungry person, someone who is homeless or has nothing to eat. Lifting Jesus up as King is serving those in need, lifting up the poor, the hungry, the sick, the homeless, and that will be the measure of whether we have really said “Yes” to Jesus. Saying “Yes” to Jesus isn’t only about what we say on our lips or the hymns we sing, but what we do.
The Church has been a place where Jesus has been raised up in the poor, the hungry, those lost in despair. This is a place where the hungry are fed through the Lord’s Cupboard, and where people go forth to visit the sick. This is a place where clothes and supplies are sent to those in need in many places. This is a place where there are people who reach out to help those in prison, and those in need of justice, such as farmers. The challenge that Jesus gives us today is to drink the cup he has to offer. The challenge is to take Jesus as the model of our lives, to seek not power but powerlessness.
There are many stories of those who sought to hold power, one just played out in Zimbabwe this week as Robert Mugabe was forced out of power. He tried to cling to it, even when it was truly gone after the army took over. The story as been played out many times over history, of one ruler after another trying desperately to hold onto power even after it was gone, after respect was gone. Whatever positives they may have accomplished go unremembered in the collapse. This has also been true in business, sports, any place where holding on to power is the goal. We see the will to power all around us, it’s in the news almost every day. It is always futile: we only have power over ourselves, and we should even consider giving that up, as Jesus did.
Today we have perhaps our most challenging task in honoring Christ our King. We not only give him our praise and our prayers, but we also eat and drink his body and blood. We are called to honor Christ our King by making him a home within our bodies, and by becoming what we eat. We are called honor Christ our King by making him part of us, to carry him with us every day, everywhere.