I’ve been a royal watcher for a long time, a family interest handed down over generations long before the TV show “The Crown” came to be. Princess Diana was my age. I was in college when I watched her wedding in a room full of excited friends. The Queen is just about my mother’s age. As a little American girl in the 1930s, she collected books about Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose. Mom followed their lives in newsreels at the movie theatre, and worried about their safety during World War II. She admired their parents for staying at Buckingham Palace during the Blitz, when most people with privilege fled to the safety of country houses or other countries.
That’s the idea my mother gave me about what a King or a Queen should be, someone who cared enough about the people to stay with them and accept the risks they faced.
But that is not what the people had in mind when they put a sign up over Jesus on that long ago day, a sign that read “King of the Jews.”
A King had all the power in the the country where he ruled. A King would tell the soldiers what to do instead of being bullied by them. A King would take control, and have his way. A King would win.
A King could save himself.
When Diana’s older son, William, got married, I had another watch party with friends. We ordered scones from a local bakery and woke up before dawn so we wouldn’t miss a moment of the Today Show’s coverage. We appreciated the fluffy cardigan worn by his bride and hoped her fashion influence would bring back sleeves on wedding dresses. Together we remembered his mother’s wedding, her amazing dress, and the carriages and the crowds gathered along the route to St. Paul’s Cathedral. People slept outside to save their spots, just as they would for her funeral later.
It’s almost a sport to watch a royal family.
It was a kind of sport, too, to watch criminals carrying their crosses through the streets of Jerusalem. Dragging the heavy crosspiece, they heard the jeering of the crowds. Crucifixion was intended to be as humiliating as it was painful, emotional torture and physical torture both. The means chosen to punish Jesus was deliberate and particular. He upset the norms of power, and the authorities needed for him to lose more than his life. They needed him to lose his influence.
So they sent Jesus to the cross to die.
And on the way the crowd taunted him.
“If you are the King, save yourself!”
Of course, not everyone jeered. In the crowd, hoping to see but not be seen, were royal watchers of a different kind. They followed Jesus from the place where he ate the Last Supper and on to the Garden of Gethsemane, and after his arrest they moved to the courtyard of the High Priest’s house and to Pontius Pilate and to Herod and then back to Pilate again. They saw him and knew he had been beaten. They saw him and watched as faithful, heartbroken witnesses. By the time they reached the place known as the Skull, they must have stopped wondering if there would be a sudden escape and an earthly victory.
We know this story because the Royal Watch went on, even to the last moment of the crucifixion. The faithful women followed Jesus to the cross. We can only imagine how much it hurt to see and hear it all. They heard the crowd in Jerusalem yell “Crucify him” as gleefully as the crowd at Buckingham Palace urged Prince Charles to kiss Princess Diana.
It was a spectacle.
If you are the King, save yourself!
It’s a challenge, a dare.
Show us what you can do, man, because they are going to kill you otherwise.
It’s a dare from some, and a demand from others.
There were people in the crowd who believed their Messiah would be the kind of King they knew of in their world, a ruler who used authority to command the people. They believed he would defeat their enemies and uphold what was good.
In the 1920s, Pope Pius XI saw dangerous forces arising in the world and saw their power being assembled in part through the churches. He looked at dictators like Hitler, and fallible human leaders with royal titles, and knew the people needed a different lens on leadership.
The letter to the Colossians reminds us of the qualities that matter when we think of Christ as King:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.Luke 23:40-41
The Pope established Christ the King Sunday as a way of declaring that no human being could be in charge of the church. Christ is the King, he said. Christ rules over the churches. No human king, no Emperor, and most especially no dictator can take his place.
No wonder we might wonder about the kind of king Jesus was.
If you are the King, save yourself.
And save us.
What else does it mean to us to think of Christ as King? Our reading from Jeremiah points to both a shepherd’s care for the flock, and to justice:
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.Jeremiah 23:5
Here’s what my royal-watching mother taught me. She would be 94 this year, if she were still living, and she grew up thinking a lot about kings and just as much about Jesus. And somehow she drew the association in the other direction. It wasn’t that she thought of Jesus as a King like the kings in storybooks or the Old Testament, or the legends of the Round Table.
Instead she thought a really good king ought to be like Jesus. He ought to care about the people, more than most of us would ever bother.
Maybe that’s why I wanted to think, in those more innocent times in my own life, that the royal people we got up early to watch get married on international television were special and good.
That didn’t turn out to be true. Just this week, the Today Show and other news outlets covered the scandal about Prince Andrew’s association with the sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. The royals I’ve watched have turned out, again and again, to be just people. They may be people who ride in carriages and set fashion trends, but they also turned out to be people who have emotional issues and make terrible decisions.
They turned out to be people who don’t get a happy ending.
Our little snippet of the gospel for today doesn’t end happily, but it does end mercifully.
The two men hanging on the crosses to either side of Jesus are actual criminals. They say so themselves.
One of them speaks roughly to Jesus, and the other tells him to stop.
“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.”Luke 23:40-41
And then he shows us that he knows, somehow, just what kind of king Jesus is.
“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.”
And Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
That’s the kind of King I want, the King who gathers the least of us into his castle:
- the ones who have made mistakes,
- the ones who are suffering,
- the ones who are afraid to die,
- the ones who have no more reason to live,
- the ones who hunger and thirst for more than food and water.
I want a King who forgives us when we do not know what we are doing.
And that’s the King we have.
- He is so much a part of God that he was before all things and is in all things.
- He is so much one of us that he died a human death for our sake.
- He reigns over us with love and mercy.
They’re not talking about him on the Today Show, but I’m going to keep watching for him. I hope you will, too.
In the name of the King who rules over us with love, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I shared this sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday at Grace United Church of Christ in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, where I will be preaching for the rest of 2019. This is an update of a sermon I published in Lectionary Homiletics in 2013.