Christ the King, Caesar the Final Boss
Updated: Nov 21, 2021
I’m going to show my hand here a little bit and say that I play a lot of video games—I have always played a lot of video games, and I still play a lot of video games. I think my mom always hoped that I would grow out of it, but given how much the work of graduate school—how much the work of being a pastor—is reading, writing, thinking, communicating, peopling, it’s quite nice to have a different mode for my imagination to play out in.
One of the franchises I’ve been spending a lot of time with lately is called Final Fantasy; it’s called Final Fantasy because the company that produced it back in the late 80s was going bankrupt and they understood this game to be their Final hurrah. As it turns out, the game did smashingly, saved the company, and now you can play “Final” Fantasy 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, all the way up to 15. Each game is independent of the others but they all have basically the same premise—there is a king or a leader or a mogul who wants to gather up all the power and authority and might unto himself and become like a god and rule the whole world. And the reign of this godlike king is a reign of terror, punishing sedition with extermination, with throngs of loyal cronies enforcing his sovereignty throughout the territories, while a ragtag group of heroes figure out how to stop him.
The final encounter with this demigod video game villain always figures like something very much out of the book of Daniel, having successfully gathered up all the superhuman power of the world, you enter the final throne room and see: “his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him… To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nationals, and languages should serve him.” And this supervillain always delivers a dramatic monologue akin to the—I am the Alpha and the Omega—from the book of Revelation.
You see, for whatever kind of character this king or tycoon or despot starts out as, what begins as narcissistic aspirations of grandeur is slowly kindled into a sense of entitlement to worldwide godlike dominion. Of course these video game stories are embellished with magic and monsters--this villain doesn't just become like god but actually becomes God. And of course, exaggeration and fantasy sells video games, tv, movies, books, but a day like this, our commemoration of Christ the King Sunday, is an appropriate and really quite realistic occasion for us to pause and to wonder just who are our modern day kings—be they titans of industry, military or media moguls, or world leaders—to wonder just how far their quest for power has exaggerated into video game or biblical or Marvel Cinematic Universe proportions, to wonder just how much they consider themselves to be mouthpieces of God or like gods themselves, the arbiters of good and evil, life and death, the architects of our collective futures. On a day like today, Christ the King Sunday, it is appropriate to wonder what threat it is to our modern day kings for Christians to claim the kingship of Christ instead.
Our Gospel reading this morning from John sees Jesus put to trial before Pilate—the Roman governor of Judea—on the accusation that Jesus is claiming to be a king, an authority, over and above that of Caesar’s. Jesus claiming an kingship over a people is a problem because they already have a king, and it may be interpreted as sedition or insurrection against Caesar, or at the very least flagrancy against the ego of the most powerful man in the whole world which I imagine is not a very wise move if you want to keep your head.
Pilate says that he finds no warrant for arrest and appeals to the plaintiffs who double down on their accusation, they say ”If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” The Roman soldiers weave him a crown of thorns and dress him in purple, and Pilate presents Jesus back to the crowd: “Here is your King! Shall I crucify your King?” and crowd cheers “Crucify him, crucify him; we have no king but the emperor.” We have no king but the emperor.
This trial highlights one of the prevailing themes of the Gospels which is that Jesus challenges authority—not just the authority of kings, but the authority of religious leaders, of civil leaders, of the wealthy and the powerful. Jesus’ identity as King is not so simple as to claim authority over the Roman Empire but to muddy the waters of kingship itself. When he is asked “So you are a king?”, Jesus answers “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Kingship is one thing, but the Truth is another and Jesus’ challenge is always to ask “by whose authority do you teach? by whose authority do you lead?“ His work is less to claim authority for authority’s sake but to testify to the Truth that legitimates authority and to muddy the waters of the authority that he sees at work in the broken and hurting world that he walks among.
We still live in a broken and hurting world; we still have a savior who testifies to the Truth and who challenges authority and whose footsteps we try to walk in. But it’s tough to figure out what that means—whose authority is being challenged—because kingship is anachronistic to us. We don’t really have kings anymore, nor do we have clear through lines for figures like Pharoah or Nebuchadnezzar or Herod or Pilate or Caesar, the kings of biblical time. But we get to wonder—who might be our modern day kings? Whose authority and dominion and power and influence is shaped like the kings of old? If not Pharoah, who do we see in our world presiding—for his or her own personal gain and glory—over the effective enslavement of thousands of laboring people? If not Nebuchadnezzar, who do we see building monument—90ft tall gold statue or otherwise—to their wealth and demanding respect shown to it? If not Pilate, who do we see wielding the power of life and death in their hands, acting with impunity as the arbiter of innocence and guilt, good and evil? Who are these people in our world today, and by whose authority do they act?
The authority by which these kings of old acted and lead was often not an authority at all, but rather the longing after wealth or glory, the thrill and the power of military conquest, or a warped sense of divine right that placed them squarely in the position of God’s right hand, or even God himself. And this is, if you really look around at our world, a King-shaped problem that we still face today. Christ‘s Kingship is an invitation to us to imagine what our world would be like if Christ was really King over it, if it was by the Truth that he testified to that we organized ourselves, if that Truth was the authority by which we acted and were led. What kind of a King would Christ be and what kind of a world would that be that we got to live in?
From what we know of Jesus, he was the kind of guy who thought that there was always enough food for hungry people, and that it was no imposition to make sure they were all fed (even if it was his day off). We know that he went out of his way to be with the sick, the lonely, the isolated—to hear our their problems and to respond to them. We know that he preached against gratuitous displays of wealth—the rich young ruler, the rich man & Lazarus, the widow’s mite—and instructed his apostles to take nothing with them and accept the hospitality that was offered. We know that his authority showed not in might or power, but in weakness, and even goes so far as to say that the meek will inherit the earth. Generosity, compassion, gentleness, the things that characterize the Truth of God and the authority to which Jesus refers us over and over and over. Christ’s Kingship would make the Pilates and Caesars and Herods and Pharoahs and Nebuchadnezzars of our world really quite upset, but it would make this world a whole lot more pleasant for a lot of people who are simply forgotten in this Kingdom of Man.
If you remember, the very first sin way back in the third chapter of the book of Genesis was Adam and Eve’s falling for the snake’s temptation to become like God. The very first sin—and the shape of all sins after it—was to become the arbiter of Good and Evil, not to let God be God. It’s the sin of video game supervillains; it’s the sin of biblical kings; and it’s the sin that still plagues us today. Christ the King Sunday is our occasion—necessary, prescient, urgent—to remember that we are not God, nor is any person of wealth, power, or status, and the Truth by which we are called to imagine another better kingdom, the kingdom of God rather than of Man, is one born of generosity and compassion and gentleness. And as Christians, we are that ragtag group of heroes meant to get us just a little bit closer to that new Kingdom. And what a relief it would be to get there.