The kingdom of God is justice and peace/and joy in the Holy Spirit/Come, Lord, and open in us/the gates of your kingdom.
I sang these words with a small group of Friends at a recent retreat. They come from a Taize chant called “The Kingdom of God.” If you’re not familiar with Taize, the simple lyrics are repeated in a rhythmic fashion as the words sink deeper into your being with each repetition. As I chanted these words, the longing for this thing called “the kingdom of God” arose with me. I wanted the gates of God’s kingdom to open within me and open in the world. It also triggered a memory…
I was a freshman in college home for the summer. I had been coming to terms with an increasing sense of leading, experiencing what the people in my faith communities referred to as a “call to ministry.” My studies in social work were rewarding and refreshingly practical. But I was being drawn toward a career in which I could have spiritual conversations with people and somehow use my scholarly personality. I began making this calling known to people in my life, including my pastor. So when Pastor Ron called and told me he had a ministry opportunity for me, I quickly returned his call with great anticipation. My heart sank and my anxiety spiked as he told me about this great opportunity; he wanted me to teach a junior high boys Bible study… It turned out to be a good experience and they were (mostly) great kids. In fact, one particular conversation has stayed with me. We were going through the book of Matthew and we came upon the passage that defined so much of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus shared his core message and invitation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” So often we hear this as a commanding call from a screaming street evangelist. In order to draw out other ways of hearing these words, I invited the boys to read them with the tone of voice they imagined Jesus using when he spoke them. What I heard surprised me. It wasn’t anger, judgment, or coercion. No, what came through was a quality of longing. Jesus longed for the people he encountered to “repent,”–to open their hearts and minds, to enter the great turning–so they could experience God’s kingdom. It was Jesus’ longing and the passion of God. “Fear not, little flock,” said Jesus. “It’s actually God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
Even for those of us who have an intuitive sense that the kingdom of God is something to long and pray and work for, we are often confused about what in the world it even means. I won’t attempt to define it exhaustively (and exhausting-ly) here; there are many great books and volumes that seek to do so. It has to do with God’s loving rule being realized on the Earth as all things are renewed and set right again. There is a debate going back to ancient Israel, and revealed in the Bible itself, about whether having a king was a good or bad thing. Some believed that God alone should rule the people and wise leaders could tend to decentralized tribes. They believed that Israel’s history went wrong when they demanded a king so they could be like other nations. Others saw the monarchy as the golden age of Israel, believing King David led the nation to greatness and justice. Some saw the monarchy as a betrayal and rejection of God’s direct rule while others saw it as part and parcel of God’s rule.
I see similar dynamics at work in political discourse between people of faith today. Some believe we need a strong leader who will take the throne to restore order, protect believers, and “make America great again.” A small group even go so far as to say the President is God’s “anointed,” a messianic figure who is chosen to save America as a chosen nation. On the other far end of the spectrum are those who believe any kind of power is evil. All institutions are instruments of injustice and exploitation. They do not see positive possibilities for Congress, Presidents, Parliament, or Prime Ministers. The only acceptable use of power is to take back the means of rule so it can be given back to the workers. I happen to believe that there is a lot of real estate between those two extremes upon which we can rebuild and repair our communities.
This Sunday was Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s actually fairly new. Pope Pius XI instituted the feast in 1925 in response to the rise of dictatorships across Europe. Additionally, government leadership in Mexico began demanding exclusive devotion and allegiance from their citizens, to which the faithful responded by marching in parades declaring “Cristo Rey!”–“Christ is king.” There seems to be a resurgence of authoritarian government around the globe. So, it is important that we remember the proclamation of those Mexican siblings in the faith. It is important that we contemplate the meaning of this “kingdom of God” business.
As a Christian, my guide for faith and practice is Jesus the Christ. Jesus was many things; he was a prophet, teacher, healer, and movement leader. He didn’t really set himself up as a king, at least not in the ways many thought he should. The passages that refer to him as king are largely offered with a sense of prophet irony. What Jesus taught was how we can come under the loving rule of God; he taught us to pray “thy kingdom come” to God, not himself. And yet, in time, followers of Jesus began to talk about Jesus as enthroned, as king, as son of God. One of the reasons for this was to provide an alternative to the political powers that claimed ultimate authority. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. But naming Christ as King was not to say he was like other rulers. Even as Jesus was called king, he transformed what it meant to use power and authority. Jesus embodied a different kind of kingship. For this reason, some have proposed we refer to the kingdom of God as the “commonwealth of God” or the “kin-dom of God” and even the “unkingdom of God.” These alternatives can be helpful and I use them, but there is an archetypal and theological power to images of king and kingdom that I don’t want to lose. You see, Jesus was both king and healer. And kings, at their best, are healers indeed.
King and healer are two words that rarely go together. A king rules, commands, leads. A healer seems like a gentle figure, compassionate and caring. Yet Jesus brings them together in a new way that actually reclaims and fulfills an ancient vision. This tradition of the healer-king goes back to ancient Israel as well as the myths of many nations around the world. They assert that the health of the land and the people is connected to the health of the king. These ancient mythical themes are retold beautifully in the Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The story goes that there was a period in Middle Earth when there was no king and the land of Gondor had become a wasteland. It took a long period of struggle and perseverance but when Aragorn eventually takes the throne as the rightful ruler, the land begins to heal. It helped that he had great wisdom in the healing arts, learning how to see into people and situations and bring out their goodness. He reunited Men, Dwarves, and Elves, initiating a new era of peace and prosperity. Thus, one of his titles became Envinyatar, the one who renews hope and reunites the people. At one point, the people recognize Aragorn as the correct king with these words: “The hands of the King are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.”
This brings to mind the practice of “royal touch” that was popular for several hundred years in Europe, especially among the monarchs of England and France. It was believed that the touch of the king would bring healing and blessing to his subjects. Often on a special feast day, the king would offer the royal touch of blessing and healing to thousands of people. When the subject reached the king, they would receive the sign of the cross and the king would place his hand on the wound. As the king touched the place of affliction, he would speak: “The King touches you, God heals you.”
Whatever impact of the actual rituals, practices like the royal touch point to an important truth, as do stories like Lord of the Rings. They remind us that rulers must be healers. When they are not, the people and the land itself are damaged. When politicians walk the halls of power but aren’t willing to see and touch the wounds of the people, there will be no healing or peace or renewal. We need leaders who are healers. We need people stepping into positions of influence in our local communities and state and federal government who are willing to bless the people and nurture a spirit of renewed hope and unity.
Christ the King Sunday reminds us that Jesus is enthroned above all principalities and powers and as the Divine Center he holds all things together. We are invited to enter into this kin-dom of God which is “justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Sounds great to me. But I think it also challenges us to learn from Jesus’ way of being a healer-king, both in our own leadership and in the kinds of people we elect to govern our town, state, and country (not to mention our congregations and denominations). The abundance we seek to recover will not come by leaders who divide and deceive and scapegoat. Maybe the old storytellers were right: “The hands of the King are the hands of a healer, so shall the rightful King be known.”