Just as last week’s text relativized every human ruling institution, so this text relativizes and critiques every human ruler. The contrasts with normal human power could not be starker. Human claims of wisdom, genius and competence will always disappoint us.
Each Christ the King Sunday features a trial scene. In Matthew 25, the nations are on trial in the Great Judgment. In John 19, Pilate is on trial even though he thinks the reverse is the case. Here in Luke 23, Jesus is on trial on the cross. One thief is the chief prosecutor who finds Jesus wanting. The other thief speaks for the defense and protests Jesus’ innocence. That thief joins Jesus in Paradise.
Is this an image of daily life in Christ? I have no trouble accusing him of disappointing me. I’m ready to throw him over almost at a whim. I am less likely to remember who he truly is and to plead for my own remembrance.
The whole crowd convcts Jesus as a failure, a fraud, and a fool. The criticism is that he cannot even save himself. This is how the world understands power in the end–the capacity to spare myself from death–the rest of you be damned. In the reign of Christ, Jesus saves others by giving himself, not saving himself…and invites us to do the same. This is made clear, for example, in Colossians 1:14. This is what it means to be the image of the invisible God (see Colossians 1:15).
It cannot be that Christ begins to rule on earth as in heaven at the Crucifixion. Jesus Christ is revealed as the ruler he has always been–from eternity.
For The Lord of the Rings fans, I offer this illustration. Aragorn does not become the king of Gondor when Morder is defeated. He is revealed as the king he has always been. So Tolkien titles Volume 3 of the LOTR trilogy, The Return of the King.
So I do not make Jesus king of my life. I acknowledge his reign (or not) in faith, hope and love. It’s not whether Jesus is my sovereign or not. It’s whether I live like a subject or not. Jesus does not become the Cosmic Christ of Colossians. He is revealed as what the Son is from all eternity. The cross is an uncovering, not a promotion.
If the Crucifixion reveals Jesus as the sovereign the Son has always been, this means that the Triune God always rules this way.
So, what is the relationship of the Christian to power? It is nonviolent critique based on the Reign of Christ as the canon for all exercises of power. So Christians can never identify any human rule or power as fulfilling God’s reign. Liberal democracy is not the end of history. Donald Trump is not the reincarnation of Cyrus as Messiah. Christianity is not by definition the apotheosis of human culture. Whitness is not next to godliness (find a new job, Stephen Miller!).
I would be hard-pressed to say such things from a pulpit, even though I should. I wrestle far too much with my need for approval to take that risk in venues more face to face than this. But I know that braver preachers than I can speak the truth to power in love.
As we watch the ongoing impeachment inquiry, we have a standard for judging all the parties involved–the reign of Christ. It is clear to me that our current president has abused the powers of his office for purposes of personal aggrandizement. It is clear to me that his opponents made a political calculation about the utility of going after him at this point. It is clear that previous administrations and candidates have had their own black eyes and blind spots (I have no time for “what about” defenses–just offering a description).
There are worse human rulers and better human rulers. Right now in several countries we are on the “worse” end of the continuum. But on Reign of Christ Sunday I hope I might hear words that lead us to place our trust in the Triune God who makes wars to cease, etc.
Back to listening to the hearings…