Befriended by the King – Br. Keith Nelson
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Ephesians 1:15-23 & Matthew 25:31-46
My first encounter with a true mountain range occurred at age sixteen. These mountains were the Austrian Alps, so it was quite the introduction. The summer moon was full, and their peaks were crowned with gleaming snow. Tears of pure wonder streamed down my face. God’s power was written in such large figures and I was so small, but in that smallness I felt significant. I fell to my knees.
My presence in that Austrian valley on that summer night was a wonder in itself. Months before, my high school chamber choir director had announced plans for the choir to go on tour to Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. The price of the trip was unaffordable for me; paying my school tuition already entailed sacrifice for my parents. I took this news in stride, though as the school year progressed, it became clear that I was the only student in the thirty-member choir who would not be going, and my sense of belonging felt fragile. One morning, a telegram (of all things!) arrived at our front door with a cryptic, unsigned message. Someone wanted to pay my way, on the condition that they remain anonymous. The courier awaited my reply. I accepted humbly and gratefully… but the identity of this benevolent stranger continued to puzzle me for weeks. I suspected anyone and everyone. Everything took on the quality of a gift: a gift I did not earn and no longer took for granted. I had been honored by the generosity of a king in disguise.
We hear of Christ’s kingship throughout the liturgical year, but today we pause to adore it. We also contemplate the ways Christ is different from all other Kings: the King of kings and Lord of lords. Somehow, the meaning of kingship finds its fullest expression here.
That is significant, because the archetype of Kingship is written into our collective unconscious. We know its insidious shadows: the wreckage of abuse, tyranny, imperialism, military conquest, enslavement, systemic patriarchy, and misappropriation of power. Yet we know too its brilliant goodness and magnetism, its order, balance, and peace when people of genuine character embody its ideals and lead us to victory. The human mind, imagination, and spirit crave encounters with this archetypal King, seek its image in stories old and new, and project the hope of such kingship on leaders who, however good and true, cannot ultimately fulfill it.
Jesus unequivocally resisted any attempts by the people of his day to adore him as a political messiah or enthrone him as an earthly king. In Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God we find a political metaphor, but in John’s gospel, Jesus makes this vision explicit: “My kingdom is not of this world.”[i] Throughout the gospels and in the more developed imagery and metaphors of the later New Testament writings, we see Jesus increasingly depicted in the role of a king, but a king who subverts all earthly understandings of kingship. Instead, he gathers in his person a great paradox: Only God is King and this God meets us as a Servant. Christian adoration of the crucified, risen, and ascended Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords is rooted in this paradox.
At the heart of kingship is power. We hear about this power in the letter to the Ephesians:
The immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and dominion and power.[ii]
That is a lot of power, and it is power of an entirely other order.
Myriad responses arise in us when we encounter genuine power, when we “behold the King in his beauty.”[iii] How we respond often reveals our own experience of either possessing or lacking power of our own. I’d like to look at three life-giving responses to true power: a response of submission; a response of empowerment; and a response of belonging.
Submission is a powerful word. To submit is “to accept or yield to a superior force, or to the will or authority of another.”[iv] Christ fulfills the deepest longings and ideals in our archetypes of Kingship because he alone embodied perfect submission to God – the King eternal and only source of true Power. Christ did not seize a thrown for himself in defiance of the King, as did Satan. Such force belongs only to the Tyrant, the shadow of authentic kingship. The tyrant forces another into submission and thus defaces the image of God.
Like the obedience Jesus models for us, submission to the power of Christ the King must be a free act of voluntary consent from the depth of our being. We who take a vow of obedience know intuitively what this feels like. It is a response that Christ will never force upon us, but invites and coaxes out with all the blessing and promise stored up for us in the treasury of his royal heart. Through the gateway of this kind of submission lies surrender: the total fulfillment that comes from offering our life to his liberating service. We gladly “give ourselves up to the attraction of his glory” and his glory, rather than our own, becomes the source of our power.[v]
The imagery and language of submission often appeals to those who have known power and privilege and long to make of it a genuine offering to God’s glory. It is easy to see how, unless we have at least made a provisional claim on our own will and authority, we cannot willingly give it away.
Just as Jesus did not seize his right to be king, neither did he abdicate the kingship entrusted to him by refusing to drink the cup of his Passion. Emptied of any self-will, yet supremely possessing his own volition, he offered himself to save us. He did this to make room for us on his throne: a room for us in the heart of his Father. He offered up the gift of his life so that we might possess the crown of our first holiness – the beauty of holiness that belonged to our first parents, a king and a queen enthroned in a garden kingdom and entrusted with its care.
All this points to a second possible response to his kingly power: the free acceptance and appropriation of our own rightly ordered power.
Every human being possesses a dignity and an agency as our inalienable birthright, though this birthright is quickly tarnished by the web of sin and brokenness in the world. The Christian possesses not only this dignity and agency but possesses also a sovereign power by virtue of our baptismal incorporation into Christ our King. We have been made heirs of his household. Royal blood flows in our veins because we drink from the chalice of the King. We are the lesser kings and queens by whom “the peoples of the earth” will, in God’s time, “be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.”[vi] These are potent images, and their potency has intoxicated Christians with access to worldly privilege and power who have bypassed genuine submission to God by presuming to act in God’s place. The royalty of Christians, like that of Christ, is no worldly privilege, no safeguard of entitlement, no banner of status. It is the opposite of these things. It is a fearful calling. In its fulfillment, suffering, risk, and loss are certain. But in these, the disempowered are empowered to take extraordinary leaps of faith. In doing so, like the mother of Jesus in her magnificat, they take their seat beside his thrown.
The free acceptance of Christ’s power is especially appropriate for those who have been strangers to worldly success and privilege. To refuse to exercise our unique spiritual authority is, as our Rule puts it, to use the “name of obedience in order to abdicate responsibility” and to “take refuge in passivity and conformity.”[vii]
A final potential response is simply to embrace our belonging to the King: the reality that neither our submission nor our empowerment derive their worth from grand or heroic actions we perform for the King, but “in our very being, clothed with Christ.”[viii] Julian of Norwich offers the best image I know of for this reality. In a passage about the benefits of Christ’s passion, she writes:
We are not only his through his redemption of us, but also through his Father’s courteous gift, we are his reward, we are his glory, we are his crown – and this was an especial marvel and a most delectable vision, that we are his crown! What I am describing is such great joy to Jesus that he counts as nothing all his affliction and his keen suffering and his cruel and shameful death.[ix]
Julian may have found inspiration in the words of Isaiah’s chapter 62: “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”[x] As the supreme reward for suffering his Passion and Crucifixion, Julian images God the Father giving us to God the Son as his special reward – crowning him for love’s ultimate labor. In that image, we are not just a passive but treasured object: we become the most visible sign of Christ’s reign.
A few years ago, I finally discovered the identity of the mysterious stranger whose generous gift showed me an early glimpse of spiritual kingship. My mom finally consented to my persistence. My benefactor had been my high school best friend, a friend with whom I had gazed at the same alps in that Austrian valley, and whose voice in choir blended with mine. He had been entrusted with resources from his grandmother, and had set up a trust solely for making gifts like the one he had made to me. My friend still does not know that I know, and I would not want it any other way: it is a secret grace that I ponder in my heart and still unearths hidden treasure. When my love grows cold, it spurs me to rise up again to the calling of Christ the King: a King who, humbly and without fanfare, has called us his Friends.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Last Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 29
Solemnity or Major Feast Day: Christ the King
[i] John 18:36
[ii] Ephesians 1:19-21
[iii] Isaiah 33:17
[iv] Oxford Languages.
[v] The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Chapter 1: “The Call of the Society.”
[vi] Collect for Proper 29: Christ the King, BCP p. 236.
[vii] Rule, Chapter 12: “The Spirit of Obedience.”
[viii] Rule, Chapter 45: “Rest and Recreation.”
[ix] Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich. Chapter 22. Translated by Barry Windeatt for Oxford World Classics.
[x] Isaiah 62:3.
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