We say the “Pledge of Allegiance” at civic events. In the time of Jesus the standard phrase for pledging allegiance to the Roman government was, “Caesar is lord!” Being unwilling to say that when required was a formula for getting into a heap of trouble.
The first Christians knew that Caesar (the conventional name for the Roman Emperor) wasn’t “lord,” though. The real ruler of society and history had been condemned and crucified by Rome. So the first profession of Christian faith was designed to strike head-on against the pretentious claims of Rome: The Christians said, “Caesar isn’t lord! Jesus is lord!” The predictable result was, of course, persecution by the civil government for treason. (For commentary, read the Book of Revelation.) That proclamation – Jesus is lord! – is the foundation of today’s feast. It’s not about a “title” of Christ: “king,” as well as “Christ, good shepherd,” “Christ, Son of the Father,” etc. It’s a statement of who’s in charge: Christ is king: no one, and no thing, else has the right to claim ultimate authority.
The question, “Who is lord?” didn’t pass into irrelevance when that early persecution stopped. Every society and every individual has to answer that question in multiple ways (although it’s probably not posed in such stark terms as the Romans did). Who has the ultimate power? In our country, you might say “The Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, is lord.” In less-happy countries it might be, “Whoever has control of the biggest and most heavily-armed militia is lord.” But there’s an even more radical way to approach the question, one the first Christians knew about and we’ve largely lost sight of.
When the first Christians talked about “principalities and powers” (think of how often St. Paul used terms like that), they understood that the real ultimate power was partly visible (think Roman legions with swords and shields, whipping-posts and crosses, courts and banners and bureaucrats), and partly invisible: the sense of legitimacy and even inevitability that the Roman government tried to convey. That invisible part was the “spiritual power” behind the bureaucrat or the emperor of the moment. The true “Caesar” that was lord was partly visible (the human being wearing the crown at the time), and partly invisible (the entire panoply, legend, and mystique of Roman rule). The Christians knew that to say, “Jesus is lord” with conviction and effect they had to put both into their proper place – as subordinate to Jesus.
We need to re-learn the skill of asking, “What are the invisible powers and principalities that falsely claim to be lord today?” if we’re to celebrate today’s feast of “Christ, the king” (as opposed to “anyone/anything else, the supposed king”). What tries to appear so inevitable, so unable-to-be-opposed, so in-charge, that it rules over the way things work, over every other value and principle (and, of course, Jesus)? (Note that the powers are not evil: they have their place. But their place is never at the pinnacle – that’s idolatry.)
Looking around, I’d nominate two powers that make a false claim to be “lord”: “economic progress” and “the right to use ‘principled’ violence as a last resort.” The Christian tradition has evolved two skills to put these into their proper place (which is, subordinate to Christ and His teachings): voluntary poverty in service of the poor, in opposition to “economic progress”; and nonviolent resistance in opposition to “principled violence.” But there’s also an everyday impact if we get this right.
As we celebrate the feast of “Christ, the king” we might want to think about our own situations, values, and hopes. Do our daily decisions reflect a stance of “Jesus is lord” when we consider a purchase, or are we unduly affected by the tendrils of “progress” and want the latest tv or smartphone or fashion? When we face conflicts with others, do we remember “Jesus is lord,” or do we resort to abusive language (or even threatened or real violence)?
Today’s feast can, if we let it, reach down into our daily decisions. But two things are key: First, to recognize just what it means (and has meant through history) to say, “Jesus is lord / Christ is king”; and second, to appreciate the other contenders for that central role that may have invisibly and insidiously made a claim on our hearts and our decisions. Until next week, peace!