The end WWI saw the fall of many royal families across Europe, and a rising number of nationalist movements. In 1925, Pope Pius XI, responding to this newly-shaped world published the encyclical Quas Primas, (Latin: in the first) in which he created the feast of Christ the King Sunday, which we mark today. The Pope had a number of things on his mind when he published this letter to the Roman Catholic bishops. What has carried down to us today, as this feast has been adopted in many mainline Protestant churches, is this reminder that, as Christians, our first and primary allegiance must be to Christ. This call precedes any national identity, and necessarily reconfigures our priorities.
If we claim Christ “the King,” we are choosing to follow one who disregarded long-standing tribal identities, who sought healing for those on the farthest margins, and who questioned even the rules of his faith tradition, when they got in the way of healing, feeding, and worshipping.
I wish it was called something that reminds us a bit more of the irony of the title, maybe “the feast of Christ, the Lord of the upside-down kingdom,” lest we get confused about what kind of royalty we’re talking about here.
Pilate, asking Jesus political questions, is looking for political answers that fit his frameworks for power and authority. They are having a kind of parallel conversation: Jesus is not looking for what Pilate understands as a “kingdom” – his revolution is built on pretty much the opposite of everything that shaped the Roman empire. Jesus’ building blocks, his strategic plans, his roadmaps, and his foot soldiers (so to speak) are all rooted in something very different: they are built of the power of love– the power of love: from which flows justice, wrapped in mercy; strength, knit of compassion; and boldness, empowered by understanding that God, and not Caesar, is the ultimate arbiter of our lives.
With this kind of ultimate authority comes a freedom unknown in any earthly realm: no one needs to fear the healing, merciful, unshackling power of God’s love. God does not seek to overthrow our self-centeredness or lack of love with might, but instead to turn us around to grace, with breath-taking experiences of abundance where we least expect it; of overwhelming gratitude when we get those glimpses of what the gift of life really means; and of mercy—in our everyday interactions with others, and when we risk love and sometimes more to stand up for Gospel values.
When Pope Pius wrote his encyclical, one of his concerns was that ALL people should call on Christ as king and Lord. This had, as it turns out, political implications for him as the head of the Papal States. Now, I have no aspirations for any kind of religious office that involves a funny hat, but I can tell you that I’m a lot less concerned with the whole world becoming Christian, and a lot more convinced that it’s past due time for Christians to simply act as though Jesus is the Christ, and thus the model after whom we ought to pattern our lives.
This, too, has political implications: it means that before we are Americans, or Brits, or Nigerians or Germans or Russians or Italians or Mexicans or any human-constructed political entity, we are first citizens of God’s reign. And this places responsibilities of allegiance on our hearts. It ought to shape decisions that mark our lives, every day: how do we treat the earth? how is our food raised? How do we know, treat, and love our neighbors? How do we see those labeled “other”? Especially those from other places, other racial groups, or those with views or practices we find challenging?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who famously went to his death for plotting the assassination of Adolf Hitler, wrote, taught and died for his belief that Christians have a higher allegiance than nationality, and that his fealty to God meant acting to stop tremendous evil. Meanwhile, here in this country, today, people are being housed like little more than cattle, families are being stripped apart for being foreigners and those who have come here from countries deemed something by our president that I won’t dignify with repeating are persecuted largely for the color of their skin.
In Durham, NC, this week, a man who has been living in his church until he can receive a fair immigration hearing went as required to report to immigration officials. Entering the court building, he was tackled by plain-clothes officers, handcuffed, and taken to jail. He was reporting in to fulfill requirements leading to the hearing for his appeal.
We’ve been down this road before: we have imprisoned entire racial and ethnic groups, kidnapped and enslaved the offspring of many nations, with their surviving generations continuing to be abused and killed for the color of their skin, and we build political capital off the backs of the oppressed. Multitudes have lived and continue to live well off the proceeds of these transactions.
But, through the lens of God’s love, all are diminished by the reducing of some as “other,” as “not worthy.” Through the lens of God’s love, the first questions to measure a community, a state, a nation, ought to be, “how does love direct us to love and serve all?” How does mercy tend her children here? Does justice offer a fair hearing for everyone?Or, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, following Jesus Christ means opting for costly grace, and saying no to the cheap goods:
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like [a huckster’s] wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “[you] were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
Costly grace is Emmanuel – God with us, the Prince of Peace, Christ the King. Our allegiance to this King costs us everything, and gives us back life in the fullest.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, first published in German as Nachfolge in 1937, is widely available in an array of publication formats.