Christ the Servant

Today is Reign of Christ, also known as Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the Christian Calendar. Next week we begin a new year in our cycle of readings with the first Sunday of Advent. I am not the only clergy person who is a bit nervous with all of the triumphalism that often accompanies this holiday. There have been generations of preaching about “King Jesus,” and the ways in which Jesus will reign over all of the earth. My discomfort with the occasion is not in the images of the way of Christ becoming the way of the world, or of Christians pledging loyalty to Jesus above loyalty to any other authority. It comes from the simple fact that there are a lot of faithful Christians who are envisioning Jesus as some kind of temporal political leader.

In contemporary America Christians who get involved in political matters all too frequently compromise their values in search of political power. I have written before of my distress with those who call themselves Christian while refusing to welcome refugees and strangers into our country. There’s no need to return to that topic today. But it isn’t the only way that people of faith compromise their faith and values when they become involved in politics. You don’t have to look beyond the seemingly unwavering support of President Trump by the so called religious right in our country. Here is a man who has been married three times, publicly committed adultery with a porn star, speaks of his son as if he were his wife’s but not his own, and lies without a second thought. Yet he has the backing of religious leaders because they believe he is advancing their political agenda. They are willing to overlook his personal life and his shortcomings because they believe that he is the key to their winning, whatever that may mean.

The reign of Christ does not look like the presidency of Donald Trump. Jesus spoke of it himself. The Gospels report that the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus and asked a favor of him: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” She was envisioning a kind of royal court, with a hierarchy where those who are physically closest to the ruler have the most power. She was seeking glory and recognition and power for her sons. Jesus turns the topic to suffering and sacrifice. He tries to explain to them that the realm of God is not like a worldly political kingdom. The request becomes known to the other disciples, who are indigent and upset. They do not take kindly to the political maneuverings of the mother of their colleagues. Jesus called them to himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not e so among you.” The relationships of those who are close to Christ are not like the relationships of political leaders. The strong man, tyrant who appears to wield the most power in this world is not a model of relationships in God’s realm. Jesus goes on with is teaching: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

If we were truly serious about the celebration of the reign of Christ, we might do so by imitating his behavior - by serving others and giving up our position and privilege and even our very lives for others.

Recently I spent some time visiting in jail. I visited a detainee who was grieving because of the death of her adopted father. I listened to her crying and I conveyed to her the love and care she needed at the moment. I read to her from Romans: “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I read to her from 1 Corinthians: “Love never dies.” I don’t know how much comfort I gave, but she thanked me for my visit. Later that same day, I spoke with a detective, who informed me that she had no legal relationship to the deceased man. He apologized for giving me inaccurate information that stemmed from his being told that she was an adopted daughter. Then he said something that seemed to me to be a bit strange. He apologized for wasting my time. I know this particular detective pretty well. It surprised me that he would think that comforting a grieving person would somehow be a waste of my time.

I am well aware that my title and position grant me some pretty big privileges in our society. I suppose it is no big deal, but I can walk into and out of the jail and visit detainees without taking permission. I have a key card that takes me around the metal detector in the jail. The same card opens a back door when the lobby is closed. The control room operators know my face and open doors for me. The booking sergeants answer my questions. The pod officers greet me and open interview rooms for me even when my visit is not scheduled. Not many people are able to do that. I am treated with deference and respect and often referred to by my title. I’m called “Chaplain,” and “Reverend.”

I squirm a bit at some of the formalities. Despite the privileges I enjoy, I am not somehow better than any other person in that institution. I am a human being, just like the detainees. I feel grief at loss and pain and sorrow and all of the other human emotions. I am not immune from mortality.

Perhaps our holiday needs a new name. Instead of Christ the King, how about Christ the Servant? Instead of fancy vestments and processions, how about a day of service for others? I suspect that it won’t catch on, but for me it seems like a better way to understand how Jesus Christ works in our world.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!