The Servant King
Today is the Reign of Christ Sunday:––the last Sunday of the church year. It was added to the liturgical calendar in 1925 by Pope Pius the Eleventh, and is a comparatively late addition to the roster of services we mainline churches use as a guide for worship.
Pius called it the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe . . .” And in Catholic theology, calling a worship service a “solemnity” marks it out as an observance of the utmost importance . . . Soon enough, of course, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians picked up on this . . . but in doing so, they chose to employ a “much more modest title” when adopting this service: and that title was, the “Feast of Christ the King,” or “Feast of the Reign of Christ,” if you want to strip out the gender and be a little more politically correct.
Most Anglican, Lutherans, and Presbyterians, that is. In turns out that the Evangelical Lutherans of Sweden––and the Church of Finland––held out for something shorter still; shorter, and much more to the point . . . In these churches, the Feast of Reign of Christ is actually known as “Judgement Sunday,” lest anyone miss the point . . .
The fact is, that in 1925––i.e. at the time this service was created––Pius had been arguing with the Italian, King Victor Emmanuel III about the return of the papal states in northern Italy;––(annexed by the secular authorities in 1870)––and about who was to be sovereign over Vatican City itself . . . So Pius thought that declaring this powerful new Sunday of worship might prove his point. “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,” wrote he at the time, “it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his Empire.”
In other words, “Take that, Victor! I’ve got God on my side, and by the power of God, and his empire, you’re going down, baby!!! . . . You may think you have this fancy new nation, King Victor (Italy as we now know it had only existed since 1870). But wake up! The rudest awakening you’ll ever experience is now on its way, courtesy of ‘God very God.’
Like everyone else, Pius knew exactly how the Nicene creed reads, in part: “For us and for our salvation Christ came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried. And on the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures. He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.”
The Nicene Creed, of course, reflects a declaration made in 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul writes that “we, i.e. we humans, must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body––whether good or evil.”
Not to mention this from Revelation 1: “Look, he, that is Jesus, is coming with the clouds,” ––and here John quotes both Daniel and Zechariah––and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
But in spite of this great war of words, Victor and his administration only agreed––after much negotiation––to giving the Catholic Church sovereignty over Vatican City, but nothing else . . .
The papal states––founded in the 8th century and held until the 19th century, were now Italy’s––and that was that!!
In any case, with Christ the King Sunday, we are now at the end, not only of the liturgical year, but of our reflections on the ministry of Jesus.
The last time Jesus had been seen on earth, of course, the church had only just begun. There were no territorial disputes between the church, and the world, except perhaps in spiritual terms. And as for Jesus’ leaving; his going away; his ascension into heaven; this was a private occasion only witnessed by the disciples.
“Then they gathered around him and asked him,” writes Luke, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Apparently this was rather shocking, watching Jesus rise up into the sky. The disciples had no idea what to say or do––nor would you or I––and were no doubt struck dumb; paralyzed even.
And so God sent some angels over to help them out.
“Suddenly,” Luke goes on, “two men dressed in white stood beside them.”
“Men of Galilee,” said the angels, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
This was one the first and only times that the disciples had heard that Jesus would actually be coming back . . . Theologians call this the Second Coming. They even have a Greek word for it––Parousia (Parousia). It’s a well-known fact that most of them thought this “coming back” was just around the corner. But of course it wasn’t . . .
When I was a much younger person, and a new Christian, people use to talk about the Second Coming of Christ all the time, as if it were just around the corner. In fact one of the very first Christian films I ever saw was called A Thief in the Night. It was made in 1972 and was shown in churches throughout North American for about a decade. A Thief in the Night tells the story of a young lady named Patty Meyers, who wakes up one morning to a radio broadcast announcing the disappearance of millions around the world. “Is this the Rapture?” Patty asks herself. To her shock, Patty finds that her husband has also disappeared. She also discovers that the UN has set up a worldwide system of government to cope with the emergency. It’s called the “United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency,” a.k.a. UNITE. And before Patty knows what’s happening UNITE publishes a decree requiring every last citizen of the world to be marked with a chip or barcode:––either on their hand, or on their forehead (as per the Book of Revelation) without which ordinary commerce in necessities would be heretofore impossible.
Yes, Jesus is going to return . . . Do I know when? No, I don’t. In 2010, a Pew Research Centre survey showed that about 40% of Americans believe that Jesus is likely to return by 2050. What the remaining 60% believe, of course, is unknown. And as for how, all I have is what the aforementioned angels said, vis-à-vis his return:––that it will be in the same manner of his departure.
In any case, for me, the whole matter of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ begs a question––especially now . . . What if Jesus were to return now––right now––in a time of Covid; in a time of profound suffering and despair, What would he do?
Would he get busy throwing lightning bolts and striking thunder (as some dearly hope he will), in order to take out the Victor Emmanuel’s of this world, together with all other tyrants and despots and wicked people? Would this then mark the coming of the Day of the Lord, and inaugurate the Last Judgement?
Perhaps so:––and this has certainly been the traditional view. But judging how Jesus exercised ministry when he was among us, I suspect that he might just do what he once did, when he was among the disciples, in the Upper Room, as recorded in John 13. Namely, remove his outer garments––literally or metaphorically––and dress in servant’s clothing, in order to begin ministering; and serving; and healing.
After all, if anything is true of the Lord Jesus, it’s that he is the Servant King. And as for his Kingdom, it has never had anything to do with “conquest” as we ordinarily understand the term;
except perhaps conquest over evil, and of course death itself. Instead, the Kingdom of God has always been about sacrifice, and service.
“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God,” reads the Gospel of John; “so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
This reflects what Paul had already written about him, in his Epistle to the Philippians: “Christ Jesus, Who, being in very nature God,” wrote Paul, ”did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage . . . Rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness . . .And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
You would think the disciples would be flattered that Jesus should want to wash their feet––strictly, in Ancient Near Eastern terms, the work of servant. Instead they had a hard time with it.
“Lord Jesus,” said Simon Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” But wash them he did. And then, in the most striking fashion possible, he went on to say this: “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (The answer to that question, “no, not really.”) Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do, as I have done for you.
In other words, not only might well Jesus return, himself to minister, and to serve, and to heal, so that we will be encouraged to do the same. Especially now, during a time of Covid; especially now, when there is so much need.
Once upon a time, as you may remember from the Gospels, the disciples James and John had an argument about who should be considered “greatest” in the Kingdom of God. On another occasion, they came to Jesus with a request: “Jesus! Jesus! Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
“Don’t,” I suspect Jesus replied to them, when he heard this. “Don’t do this…!! silly James, and even sillier John, not to mention the rest of you!!! “Instead, whoever wants to be great amongst you, must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you, must be slave of all . . . For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve:––and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus has set an example for what we should do; as he has done for us.
We don’t have to build the Taj Mahal, or cure cancer, or start leaping tall buildings in a single bound. But there’s so much we can do, in Jesus’ Name!!: we who are ordinary, and unknown, and small, and obscure (less being more, and smaller being greater, in the Kingdom of God.)
There’s so much we can do by way of showing mercy, and bringing words of comfort, and bearing burdens––all in Jesus’ Name! Even those trapped at home can do good, by sharing the peace of Christ as a whole way of life; by praying; by holding vigil for the Kingdom of God.
What would Jesus do? This. This. Rather than assuming fame, and glory, and mastery,
Jesus assumed self-effacing humanity, and with it, profound servanthood.
But some people read about profound servanthood of God and think,
––subconsciously, if not consciously––“Wow, the Lord Jesus made himself as nothing––for us . . Hmm . . . He humbled himself and became obedient to death––even death of a cross!––for us . . . ok . . . Yes, the Lord Jesus did not consider equality with God––for he was equal with God, true enough––He did not consider equality with God something to grasp; or hold on to; or use to his own advantage . . .ok . . . fine …. So be it . . . ”
“But you know, that’s the Lord Jesus, and obviously we’re not quite on the same page . . .I don’t know if I’m quite ready for the making myself “as nothing” thing; for the humility thing; I need to be comfortable; I need to feel good about myself. I need my 15 minutes of fame, and glory, and I need it to stretch into a lifetime.”
The irony is, however, is that if you are willing to let God begin to use you to help, and serve, in a time of Covid, you will not begin to feel bad, or worthless, or devalued. In fact you will feel more whole, more centered, and more valued, than ever before!!
Why? Because you will be doing what God is doing, and that is a “healing-in-itself.”
If I may be so bold as to suggest the following, let me suggest the following:
Make this your prayer, today, and in the all the days to come.
“Lord, how can I help?
It seems to be getting darker all the time,
and colder, and more lonely.
Lord, how can I bring light––your light;
And warmth––your warmth;
And presence––your presence.”
How can I serve, as you have served?
How. Lord, hear my prayer.” Amen.
Moreover take to heart this extraordinary hymn. It’s called Brother, Sister, Let Me Serve You.
And it reads as follows, in part:
Brother, sister, let me serve you;
let me be as Christ to you;
and pray that I may have the grace
To let you be my servant too.
We are pilgrims on a journey,
and companions on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow,
till we’ve seen this journey through.
Thanks be to God.