A King of Justice

Christ the King C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

The church has existed for almost two thousand years now, and some of its celebrations have long, storied histories. Immediately, in the 30s CE, the followers of Jesus Christ were gathering on Sundays to celebrate his resurrection. Easter, the single most important holy day in the liturgical year and around which all other holy days are placed, was already well-established as a formal festival by the 150s CE. Christmas, many people’s favorite Christian holy day, is first recorded as a feast day in the 350s CE. These days, and many others, bring with them a sense of tradition, connecting us today with our ancestors in the faith who celebrated the same seasons and days dozens, hundreds, a thousand years ago.

Christ the King, or the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe is… not one of those days.

The celebration of Christ the King Sunday is less than a hundred years old. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical letter Quas primas, written in 1925, but its origin is more properly traced to the 1860s-70s.

In the early 19th century, what we now know as the country of Italy was a patchwork of independent kingdoms, including the Papal States, a vast swath of territories under the direct rule of the Pope in Rome. But there was a strong movement to reunite the Italian peninsula under one king, one kingdom, and that one king would not be the Pope. By the 1860s, nearly all of Italy had been reunited, except for Rome and the Papal States. Obviously, Pope Pious IX would have none of it. In 1869, during the First Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic church formally declared the doctrine of papal infallibility, and it’s difficult to deny that the circumstances in Italy didn’t have some small part to play in that.

But in just a few short years, the Papal States too were conquered, and the city of Rome captured. For the next 50 years, the Popes lived in a small complex of buildings in the city, refusing to recognize the claims of the Italian king. There were attempts at reconciliation, but none that satisfied the papal party. For 50 years, Italy wrestled with the “Roman Question”, the issue of what to do with the former Papal States and the Pope’s claim to Rome.

It was near the end of this time, in 1925 remember, that Pope Pious XI wrote Quas primas, in which he instituted the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. In part of that letter, he said,

“If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”

One year later, in 1926, the Pope and the government of Italy met to finally settle the Roman Question, and in 1929, they signed the Lateran Treaty. The tiny papal state of Vatican City was formally established, and small reparations were made for the loss of the rest of the papal territory.

Christ the King Sunday, then, the last Sunday in the liturgical year, a day on which we explicitly celebrate the sovereignty and the reign of Christ over all of creation; a day on which we remember and declare our true allegiance to God, not to human rulers who come and go; this day actually has its roots in a conflict between two human rulers who argued about which one of them got to rule the city of Rome.

Ironic, isn’t it? And yet, not really unexpected. Ruling confers power, and power is something we human beings crave. And if we can’t have it, we at least want someone who we think thinks like us to have it, so that we can live as rulers through them, getting our way through someone else getting their way that just happens to coincide with our way.

It’s the kind of ruler that the people of Jerusalem wanted Jesus to be when he entered the city on what we now call Palm Sunday, when they shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna in the highest!” and threw down their coats, laying out the “red carpet” for him, so to speak. We use the word as a shout of praise, but in Hebrew, the word “hoshanah” is actually a cry for help and deliverance. When Jesus entered the city, the people shouted “hoshanah!” to him, imploring him to become their king and to save them.

It’s the kind of ruler the soldiers expected when they looked at Jesus on the cross and mocked him, saying, “Surely, if you are the Messiah, the anointed of God, the King of the Judeans; surely, you can save yourself and us!” Surely you have the power and might to be everything the people ever hoped you would be.

And sometimes, perhaps, we do need kings like that. Jeremiah’s prophecy of the shepherds is not about shepherds, but about kings, kings who would lead and guide their flock, the peoples of Israel and Judah, protect them, keep them safe, keep them healthy.

But we know all too well that human beings, put into such positions of power and responsibility, have a tendency to abandon that duty, to become wolves instead of shepherds, picking off the sheep for their own gain, scattering the flick and driving them away. Power is not really a good thing in human hands.

So what about Christ the King? What kind of King would he have been? Would he have been one of the evil shepherds in Jeremiah’s prophecies? Would he have been the military ruler the Jerusalemites wanted, who would overthrow the Roman occupation and reestablish the independent kingdoms of Israel and Judah? Would he have supported the king of Italy or the Pope during the time of the Roman Question (it’s fairly obvious what Pioux XI thought)? Would he rule through fear tactics?

It’s difficult to describe the kind of king Jesus is, because it seems in almost every way he acts just the opposite of a king. He doesn’t appeal to the nobles or the elite; instead, he associates with the sinners, the outcasts, the people reviled and hated by his society and people. He doesn’t preach conquest or greatness; instead, he preaches grace and forgiveness. He doesn’t wield power like a sword; instead, he gives it up, even to allowing himself to be beaten, tortured, and executed.

The conversation between the criminals and Jesus on their crosses is an interesting one. Only the writer of Luke records it. In his version of the crucifixion, more than anything else the innocence of Jesus is stressed—that they were crucifying an innocent man. The second criminal emphasizes this when he chastises the one who was mocking Christ: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” It is this man, this criminal, who recognizes and defends the innocence of Jesus, to whom Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

And maybe, that’s what it’s all about: innocence, what that means, and what that looks like.

The people Christ most often associated with weren’t perfect by any means. Many of them were rightfully and justly shunned by society for their actions. Tax collectors cheated people. Prostitutes made their meager living off of sex. People who were sick were both physical dangers to the community, but also spiritual dangers, since their illness was a result, they believed, of their sin. Even the two criminals hung on crosses next to Jesus were justly condemned for their crimes.

And yet, all of them were outcasts in society, people on the fringes, people forgotten. They lived in a culture under Roman occupation, under the dominion of foreign, human kings. And Jesus went to them, sought them out, like a shepherd looking for the lost, scattered sheep of Jeremiah’s prophecies. He sought them. He found them. He ate with them. He spoke with them. And in the end, just as he did for criminal on the cross, he welcomed them and defended them. He gave them justice.

He welcomed and defended us. He gave us justice.

It’s not the justice we would usually expect. We’re so used to earthly power and kings who wield the sword of retributive justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and so on. But the justice of Christ the king isn’t nearly so vengeful.

When we usually think of justice, we think of our judicial system, which weighs the effects of a crime and determines appropriate retribution to make up for that crime. Thus is justice done and peace between people is kept. But there’s another kind of justice, the justice of the cross, a justice that brings people back into relationships with each other and tries to heal wounds: restorative justice.

The best known example of restorative justice is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, formed after the end of the apartheid era to deal with the pain and suffering of human rights abuses. Whether it was truly successful or not is still debated, but the courage it took to take a different approach toward justice has been a reminder decades later of the power of restorative justice, justice that intends to heal instead of punish.

When God chose to do justice, God turned away from wrathful judgment and punishment, and instead chose the incarnation, building and rebuilding relationships, healing the broken, mending the wounded, and ultimately dying on a cross as an ultimate sign of love, or dedication to that relationship. This is the justice of God, the kingship of Christ: bringing healing and wholeness to the lost and forsaken, even at the cost of Jesus’s own life.

For whom do we then bring justice? The poor, who are constantly marginalized? The people living under oppression? Those in need? Refugees fleeing the death and destruction in their homelands? The transgender community, who on this day remember the members of their community who have been murdered this year?

Reflecting the love of God made manifest in Christ Jesus, who laid down everything we know about being a king and took up a cross instead, we say: Yes.

Every year, November 20 is observed as the Transgender Day of Remembrance. On this day, the names of members of the transgender community who have been killed by anti-transgender violence are read aloud and remembered. The featured image on this post is the most popular version of the transgender flag. Today, we pray for and remember those who lost their lives as a result of transphobia and trans-hatred.


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