Fit for a King

It seems fitting that, in the month leading up to Christ the King Sunday today, Jesus has been king of the music charts. Literally: Kanye West, one of the most famous hip-hop artists on the planet, dropped an album about a month ago that was entitled, simply, Jesus is King, and it ruled the charts as soon as it landed.

In fact, it was so huge that, on its first day, it accounted for nine of the top ten most-streamed songs on Spotify, arguably the dominant online music streaming service, despite not even being available until the afternoon! So that means that literally millions of people dropped everything to listen not to just the lead track, but the entire album, in an era when online streaming has made the very idea of an album as a unified work of art that should be listened to in one sitting almost extinct.

As you might guess from the title, the entire album is very explicitly Christian in its music style and lyrical content, and Kanye has said that the purpose of the album is to preach the gospel to people who are not Christian. And he’s certainly connected with an astonishing audience through the album: it set a record for not only debuting at the #1 slot of Billboard’s Top Gospel and Top Christian album charts, but also Top R&B and Hip-Hop, Top Rap, and the overall Top 200 chart.

Predictably, all of this immediately set off a wide series of reactions. Many Christians, particularly in evangelical circles, praised the way in which West was clearly reaching an audience well beyond those whom the church usually reached, without making any apologies for his faith or his call for others to “follow God,” which is the title of the most popular track.

But many others have been more skeptical and critical, arguing that Kanye may be saying that Jesus is king, but what he’s really doing is what he’s always done: self-promotion, only this time with the trappings of religion. I actually think there’s merit to both of those reactions. Based on what I’ve read and heard from him about all this, I’m inclined to think Kanye is serious about this album being an intentional act of Christian evangelism, to proclaim to the world that Jesus is king. But he’s making the mistake of associating kingship with spectacle: the energy of his beats, the size and sound of his choir and his crowds, and centered on his own charisma and talent as a writer and performer, as a follower and a leader.

Let’s be fair, though: he’s hardly the first person to make that kind of mistake. Many a preacher has had a difficult time distinguishing between promoting the gospel and promoting themselves; many a church has confused size and spectacle with impact. Many, many Christians confuse the theological confession that “Jesus is king” with very worldly notions of authority and dominance, wealth and extravagance. Which is understandable, I suppose; for most of human history, those have been defining attributes of kings.

The main question about kings has simply been whether they use that power and wealth for the good of the people or for their own purposes. In fact, one of the main reasons we exist as a country was our sense that kings were inherently self-serving. Everyone remembers the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But most of the actual Declaration is a long series of complaints and charges about how the British king has abused his power and authority to systematically trample on those rights, leaving the people of the American Colonies no option but to declare independence and form their own government.

That resistance to the very idea of kingship has bled over into theology, as well, with some Christians wanting to get away from imagery about kings and kingdoms altogether when it comes to God. In fact, recently some have advocated that the church should start using language of the “kin-dom of God” rather than the kingdom of God, substituting language of kinship, or family, for kingdom language with all of its overtones of hierarchy and dominance.

But while I can appreciate that critique, and particularly from those who have suffered the most from systems of hierarchy and dominance in our society, I think abandoning notions of Christ’s kingship entirely would be a real mistake. For one thing, Jesus was not crucified because he was accused of preaching about the kinship of human beings in the family of God. As we heard vividly in our New Testament lesson this morning, he was crucified because he was accused of preaching about the kingdom of God, that God has ultimate authority over the peoples and nations of the earth, and that he claimed to be a king himself.

And the Roman Empire certainly wasn’t breaking any stereotypes when it came to its notions about kingship; they were all about dominance and hierarchy. For them, it wasn’t enough simply to execute Jesus in the most publicly shameful way possible, crucifixion; no, they put an inscription over his head that said, “This is the King of the Jews,” and their soldiers taunted him on the cross by saying, “if you’re the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

The Empire was making it very, very clear that this is what will happen to anybody who tries to supplant Caesar as the “King of the Jews”. The resurrection of Christ after his death on the cross, then, is God making it very, very clear that Jesus is, in fact, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, with power even over death itself. In other words, there really is a hierarchy here, albeit a benevolent one; Jesus is king, and has no competition for his authority or our ultimate loyalty and obedience.

That doesn’t mean that the kings and kingdoms of this world don’t try, though. In 1930s Germany, as the Nazis swept to power, one of their moves was to co-opt the Protestant Churches through what they called the “German Christian movement.” That included the removal of any pastors who were not Nazi sympathizers, preaching Jesus as an Aryan hero defined by his superior strength and bloodline, even the exclusion of the Old Testament from the Bible because it was, of course, Jewish.

Sadly, many German pastors were all too willing to go along with all this. Those who resisted, though, formed what became known as the Confessing Church, which argued that the integrity of the gospel was being compromised by the German Christians and they therefore had to confess, or speak the truth about, the Christian faith in response.

In 1934, they wrote and adopted the Barmen Declaration of Faith to do just that. Its core argument is that Christ is the Lord of our entire lives as Christians and that the Church belongs solely to Christ, and so there are no parts of us that belong to other lords. Now, given that Hitler had just started referring to himself as the Fuhrer, the “Leader of the German People,” that was both a bold and a prophetic statement to make.

And Hitler didn’t miss the meaning. Within a few years, almost everyone who signed the Barmen Declaration had been arrested, and most of them died in captivity before the war ended. But their core conviction that “Jesus is king” gave them both the resources and responsibility to resist the heresy of the German Christians who were trying to sanctify the evils of Nazism, not through flash and spectacle, not through dominance or coercion, but through a steady and clear-eyed commitment to serving and obeying Christ alone, no matter the cost.

One of the biggest mistakes that human beings make is confusing power with dominance and/or spectacle. But that’s simply not the case, and it doesn’t require circumstances as dire as 1930s Germany to see it. Right now one of the most powerful media figures in the history of the United States is having a big cultural moment because he’s the focus of a major motion picture that just debuted this week. His name is Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers.

Not a single person on earth would suggest that Mr. Rogers engaged in dominance or spectacle, and yet he was one of the most powerful people in television. His power came from his unrelenting kindness and love towards everyone, but especially children, which convinced generations of them that they were special simply because of who they are, and that meant that we should treat their neighbors with kindness and love because they are special, too.

And because he so clearly believed that with his whole being, he was able to do things that nobody else could or would have done: single-handedly saving public television funding on Capitol Hill in just six minutes of testimony, which converted a hard-nosed and impatient committee chairman into a believer in the power of television to help children; transforming a room of Hollywood elites showing off for each other at the Emmy Awards into a room full of grateful, teary-eyed children in just ten seconds by using his acceptance speech to invite them to think of the people who helped them become who they are; and over the years addressing topics on his program that were thought to be taboo for children such as death, divorce, even nuclear war, but which he felt could not be avoided if he was serious in his mission to nurture and care for children.

In fact, he was so unwavering in his gentle yet firm loving approach that, ironically, some people began to suspect that he must be hiding something. There are popular urban legends that before he created his show, Mr. Rogers was a highly-skilled army sniper with a lengthy kill list, and that he wore his trademark cardigan sweaters to hide the Special Forces tattoos that covered his arms. That, of course, is complete nonsense, but the legends persist because enough people have such a hard time accepting that he really was exactly who he seemed to be: someone who exercised great power not through dominance and violence but through unwavering selfless love.

It is true, however, that his body held a hidden message. Throughout his adult life, he weighed precisely 143 pounds, and checked his weight every day to make sure it never went up or down even one pound, because to him, 1-4-3 was code for how many letters it takes to say “I love you.” In other words, he made sure that he was literally incarnating love for others in his life and his service to God.

As a Presbyterian minister ordained to do his children’s program as his ministry, he understood that simply saying “Jesus is king” doesn’t really do very much in itself; in fact, he never mentioned Jesus once on his program. Rather, he knew that the real power is in living out that conviction by imitating Christ’s love for all in how we treat others through our words and actions, every day, and encouraging others to do the same regardless of when the powers of this world tells us to do otherwise.

So on this Christ the King Sunday, let us commit ourselves anew, each in our own special way, to embodying Christ’s love in our own lives and ministry, so that others will not simply hear us say “Jesus is king,” but will see it for themselves in all that we do, and join in helping to build Christ’s kingdom of love in their own lives, as well.

 

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