April 10, 2022 (Palm/Passion Sunday)
On the last Sunday of the church year, right before the beginning of Advent, we’re called on to observe “Christ the King Sunday.” It’s a relatively new observance, having been placed on the church calendar only in the 1920s. It was put there by Pope Pius XI, in reaction to the hyper-nationalism that touched off the horrors of the First World War, hoping to remind Christians where our true allegiance belongs.
With the liturgical renewal movement of the mid-20th century, many Protestants began to use the liturgical calendar and observe some of the special days in the church year that we may or may not even have known about before. That means the feast of Christ the King—or, in the interests of inclusive language, Reign of Christ—is very new to us, and I don’t think we’ve entirely made our peace with it.
That’s especially true for American Protestants because, in this country, Christ the King Sunday falls on the Sunday either right before or right after Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a special occasion inside and outside the church, probably the only truly religious holiday we have in this country that can be shared by people of all faiths, and quite frankly it’s a much less controversial holiday to celebrate on a Sunday morning. Nobody is going to be offended by, or even argue with, the suggestion that we do well to stop now and then and give thanks for all the blessings God has given us.
Christ the King is a different matter.
First of all, there is the reality that we Americans ran off our last king clear back in the 1700s. We didn’t do that on a whim; we did it because we believed that king was acting as a tyrant. So we began our life as a country deeply distrustful of kings, and we cherish our independence from that kind of political system, value very highly our freedom to participate in our government. And now we’re asked to celebrate Jesus Christ as our king?
We’re not really excited about the notion that the Kingdom of God isn’t a democracy. And that nationalism that ran rampant around the time of the First World War hasn’t ever really gone away; and we have a tendency (as, to be fair, Christians have ever since Constantine back in the 300s) to intermingle our nationalism and our faith in ways of which I’m not sure Jesus would approve.
Christ the King is a very challenging day in the church year. In addition to being challenging to us American Christians because we ran our last king off in the 1700s, the texts assigned for that Sunday present us with a paradox. Some years we’re assigned one of the Passion narratives from the Gospels; sometimes the reading is the parable of the Last Judgment from Matthew 25—the separating of the sheep from the goats based on how they treated Jesus when he was hungry, thirsty, sick, or imprisoned. These readings show us a completely different kind of king from the human ones we know about.
But today is not Christ the King Sunday. Today is Palm Sunday—or, in keeping with the reading we have before us today, Passion Sunday. Why all this talk about a Sunday that is almost seven months away?
Well, as I mentioned, we often hear a Passion narrative on Christ the King Sunday, and the one from John’s Gospel is one of those that is assigned for that day.
But as I argued last week, it’s not strictly accurate to call John’s version of the story a Passion. In the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—Jesus goes to his arrest completely passive, completely under someone else’s control. When he is brought before the authorities for a series of sham trials, he doesn’t even try to defend himself. That’s his passion: the time when he gives up any control of his life to others, and they arrest him, mock him, torture him, and kill him.
But John, the last of the Gospels to be written, after a few more years have passed in which the church has pondered the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ongoing presence among them, tells the story a bit differently.
In John, Jesus carries his own cross.
That detail alone says a great deal about how the Fourth Gospel tells the story about the last hours of Jesus’ life. As we heard last week, John does not describe Jesus praying in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. No calling on God to let the cup of suffering to pass from his lips, no eventual surrender to God’s will. Instead, Jesus’ prayer is for God to be glorified through what is about to happen, for the protection of his disciples, for their continued unity, and so forth.
When Jesus speaks from the cross, it isn’t the horrible quote from Psalm 22 that some folks have—wrongly, I think—taken literally to say that God indeed did abandon Jesus as he died. Instead, what he says first is, “I am thirsty,” and John tells us Jesus says this to fulfill a prophecy. And then he says, “It is finished,” or perhaps more properly, “It is accomplished,” which could well be an allusion to Isaiah 55:10-11:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth…
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
And before that we have John’s version of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, which made up our readings the last two Sundays.
Pilate believes himself to be in control of the situation, as the supreme representative in Judea of Roman imperial power. It should have been incredibly easy for Pilate to dispose of a Galilean peasant who was supposedly claiming to be the King of the Jews. Clearly this man wasn’t any kind of king as Pilate understood the term: Where was his army? How could he challenge Roman power with just a band of twelve ordinary men and a few women—most of whom had deserted him, and one of whom had betrayed him?
It shouldn’t have taken any time or effort at all for the Roman justice system to put an end to such a pretender. But that isn’t how it worked out. Instead, Pilate, over the course of the trial account, looks more and more powerless.
First he seems to be at the beck and call of the religious leadership, leaders who pretty much held their religious posts with the consent of the Empire and could be replaced at will. He runs back and forth between them and his own official residence, and ultimately is badgered and blackmailed into doing their bidding.
Really, when it comes right down to it, the only time he seems to be the captain of the ship is when he defies the religious leaders’ request to change the sign he had tacked on the cross above Jesus’ head. He has written, in Latin, Greek, and Aramaic, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (The Latin version of that, incidentally, is why in pictures of Jesus on the cross the sign usually just has the initials INRI— Iesus Nazarensis, Rex Iudaeorum.)
The leaders say, “No, he’s not our king; change the sign because he only claims to be our king.”
And Pilate says, I said what I said, and I meant what I meant. He’s King of the Jews, one hundred percent…as my darling husband would add.
But even there Pilate isn’t in charge.
In John, Jesus carries his own cross—contrary even to the comments in my NRSV study Bible, which says, well, he carried his own cross until the authorities made Simon of Cyrene carry it. Simon of Cyrene does not appear in John’s version of the story.
In John, when Jesus appears before Pilate, it’s Jesus, not Pilate, who finally sits in judgment.
In John, when Jesus goes to the cross, it’s not because he’s given up his own will, his own desire—instead, this is Jesus’ choice.
Jesus carries his own cross; he’s thoroughly in control all the way through.
Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders think they’ve demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that this Jesus is the farthest thing from a king that the world has ever known. And maybe they’re right: Jesus certainly isn’t the sort of king with which the world is familiar. But in John’s passion story that isn’t really a passion story, everything points to him being king nevertheless.
The Empire and the powers-that-be think they’ve put an end once and for all to an insignificant pretender to a throne long since destroyed. But in this they’re wrong.
Since no earthly hands placed the crown on his head, no earthly hands can remove it. And even as he is lifted up on the cross, he remains King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
 This is one more reason, in my opinion, why we have no business blaming “the Jews”—especially those living today—for Jesus’ death. If Jesus was in charge of what happened to him, then even the frightened and deluded religious leaders of his day are ultimately not to blame.