King of kings and Lord of lords

This post, like one last month, is based on a meditation I gave at a retreat at Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This collect is offered on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes called Christ the King Sunday*. The lessons and this prayer focus us on the kingship or the complete sovereignty of Jesus Christ. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Kings, rulers, emperors, prime ministers, and even presidents are subject to the power and authority of Jesus Christ.

Jesus mosaic Hagia Sophia

It is not the way I usually hear most of us talking about Jesus. We like friendly Jesus. We like stuffed-animal cuddly Jesus. Or, in the immortal words of Ricky Bobby played by Will Ferrel, “Dear eight-pound, six-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’­t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent.” He insists on praying to Jesus as an adorable baby.

It’s funny to think of someone always praying to a cute baby Jesus, never praying to adult Jesus. But as we laugh at Ricky Bobby, we should acknowledge that we too often domesticate Jesus in our own ways. We pay attention to his teachings that we like, and we move along quickly when we come to the bits that challenge us. I can’t recall ever having heard one of the television preachers or so-called biblical literalists preaching about the teaching that those who would follow Jesus must give up all that they own and then they can become disciples of Jesus. For that matter, not many of us like to ponder Jesus’ harsh words about wealth as we pray to him in finely adorned churches.

To love Jesus, to really love Jesus, we have to be transformed by the whole Gospel, both the parts that come easily to us and parts that challenge us. It is, I think, actually very helpful to think of Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords, because that makes clear that Jesus — and Jesus alone — has his first claim on us.

Many centuries ago, the first Christians got into trouble for professing Jesus as Lord, because to say that Jesus is Lord meant that Caesar was not Lord. If we say that Jesus is first for us, that means that Jesus is first, not nation or family or even our own selves. It is radical, costly — and impossible without God’s help. But it is also deeply joyful and the source of peace amidst trouble to trust in the Kingship and Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is not the sort of king who exhibits tyrannical power. He does not force us or anyone to follow him. He rules with mercy, not with might. Unlike earthly rulers who favor the rich and powerful, King Jesus cares especially for the vulnerable and poor. Jesus does not bear grudges, but stands ready to forgive and redeem all those who repent. This is gracious rule. Literally, a kingdom that is founded on grace.

The hope for God’s kingdom in our time must not be placed in possessions nor might nor power nor anything earthly. Rather, we place our hope in Christ alone, whose rule can bring unity and reconciliation across seemingly impossible divisions. Christ alone can create abundance from scarcity. Christ alone brings hope where there was only fear. Christ alone can redeem us from our sins.

To be sure, the Gospel is crystal clear that our task is not to wait for God to magically fix what we have broken. No, the Gospel tells us that we — individually and collectively — must repent. We must bind up wounds, heal division, beg forgiveness, love the unlovable, and announce Good News. All this we must do for and in Jesus Christ, as citizens of his most gracious kingdom.

In Christ, we have hope for reconciliation between ourselves and God, between ourselves and all other people. Come Lord Jesus, quickly come.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Photo: Mosaic from Hagia Sophia, Istanbul taken by yours truly.

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* The Episcopal Church’s calendar is set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, pages 15-33. In the official calendar, this Sunday is rather functionally entitled the Last Sunday after Pentecost. If all goes well, the calendar in the front of the BCP should agree with the Table of Lessons in the back of the BCP (pages 889ff.), where we find all the assigned scriptures for each feast day. Starting in 2006, the General Convention approved changes to the Table of Lessons so that we would use a customized Episcopal version of the Revised Common Lectionary. The resolution enabling this change had an error, or at least created severe confusion, in that it introduced changes to the Table of Lessons that make it incompatible with our official calendar. It’s understandable that people would believe we officially celebrate “Christ the King Sunday” because the Table of Lessons adds this title. But the more durable official calendar should rule the day, and the Table of Lessons ought to be seen as errant. Perhaps General Convention will fix this so that our lectionary aligns with our calendar. Our inability to get simple things right when we tinker with the prayer book should give us pause as some people try to drive us toward immediate prayer book revision. But I have digressed.

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