By Christian Bergmann
The strangest thing we have ever called Christ is king. Nothing of his life seems, at first glance, to be the life of a king: he was born in dire poverty, the majority of his life was spent in obscurity, and when he finally burst onto the scene as an itinerant rabbi, he was brutally put to death as a slave and rebel. Hardly a successful career.
I think we need to spend time contemplating the strangeness of Jesus’ kingship. This is especially important for us moderns, influenced as we are – perhaps unwittingly – by an understanding of history handed down to us by nineteenth-century thinkers. One such thinker, Thomas Carlyle, wrote that history was about ‘heroes’. The great changes of history came in the form of great men who performed marvellous. To be frank, if this is what makes history then there is no room for Jesus in it. And this is what Carlyle realised: heroism was about pride, courage, nobility, greatness, and strength. The Christian life, on the other hand, was a matter of meekness, humility, forgiveness, compassion, and love.
Yet, the Christian claim is that history changed forever not with the great and heroic deeds of a political ruler like the others, but with a king crucified. A king who preached a different kingdom.
During Christ’s dramatic confrontation with Pontius Pilate, Jesus is asked: “Are you the king of the Jews?” He replies: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Now, we can easily interpret this as meaning a ‘spiritual kingdom’ that doesn’t really have anything to do with the day-to-day affairs of the world, but that wouldn’t be to understand Jesus at all. What Jesus means is that his kingdom is one that isn’t run like other kingdoms; it isn’t expanded through conquest and power; it isn’t about the kind of heroic political leadership that leaves its mark upon history. No. Jesus’ kingdom is expanded through self-giving love, as his journey to the cross will testify; it is spread through the practices of humility and compassion and submission to the authority of the one who made heaven and earth.
In a way, this shouldn’t surprise us. God has always called his people to a different way of life. The Jewish people didn’t always have a king. They had judges and prophets, but never kings. God was always supposed to be their king. But there comes in the Old Testament a dramatic and pivotal moment where the people become discontent and demand that Samuel the prophet provide them with a king. They wanted to be, in the words of the Scriptures, “like the nations” (1 Samuel 8:20). This is biblical code for: This is a very bad idea.
You see, God never wanted his people to be like all the other nations. He called them to a different way of life. God suggests as much when he finally concedes. He tells them that if they have a king, then they will also be severely taxed and their children will be conscripted into military service. This was not the kind of kingdom they were supposed to be.
That Jesus confronts us with a kingdom radically different to every other kingdom, then, should not surprise us. Maybe this feast day of Christ the King we should spend some time contemplating this fact: how does my life differ from the life of “the nations”? Does my life look like it is lived in submission to the crucified king? Do I embody the values of compassion, of self-giving love, of meekness and humility? Or, like those in the Old Testament, do I want to just be like everyone else?