A good friend who is a college professor called me recently; she expressed frustration about issues around plagiarism and cheating. As she described the scenario to me, I heard two things; the student appeared to be somewhat defensive, and my friend was ready to lay down the law, hard. Curious about the power dynamics, I asked her about what might happen if, instead of starting with force, what if she began with a question. If nothing else, my friend would gain the element of surprise, as the student was likely geared for a fight. Skeptical, but open, she agreed.
A few days later she texted me, reporting that the meeting went differently than expected – for both parties. In the end, a little bit of trust and hope were established. That’s power for you! It can be used for good or ill. This dynamic offers us a look at Jesus’ use of power on the Solemnity Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe that we celebrate today,
Look at this definition of power: 1.Ability to cause or prevent an action, make things happen; the discretion to act or not act. Opposite of disability, it differs from a right in that it has no accompanying duties. 2.Law: (1) An instrument transferring or vesting legal authorization. (2) The ability conferred on a person by law to determine and alter (by his or her own will) the rights, duties, liabilities, and other legal relations, of himself or others.
It’s striking to me that the first part of the definition establishes that power is the opposite of disability. This is a good time to look at Jesus born in a manger, living what appeared to be an ordinary life, and then crucified upon the cross. Here we see that the real power of the Christ comes from the very opposite of how many of us understand power.
It is easy to believe that the right leader will fix everything. Some of us want a big, badass boss who will reign hellfire and scare everyone so that only a limited number share in the spoils. Some of us want a more benevolent boss who will make the bounty available to all. Watch about 10 minutes worth of political news to see this play out every single day.
Jesus was never going to be the typical king. He is born in a dusty, out of the way place, to two seemingly nondescript parents. Not long after, three kings come to this place to pay this child homage, and Herod, the king in power wants to find and destroy him. Imagine that… a king afraid of an impoverished baby, lying among the animals? What kind of king was that?
We know all this stuff – we read it, we pray with it, we study it. Yet, we find ourselves often wanting “our side” to win. We pray for our King Jesus to prevail and show all those “others” who don’t follow the rules to be shamed into submission or kicked out. I don’t care if you are the most conservative person who longs for a smaller, purer church, or the most liberal person who wants no barriers – or the rest of us who occupy the big gulf in the middle… We are all likely in for a surprise. Jesus is not a political operative, he has come to save us all. That’s kind of an unusual king.
On this final Sunday of the liturgical year, we are reminded that through Christ, everything can be transformed. Our “King” is not like any other king before or after. He is demanding, but not always in the ways that we expect. We are baptized as “priest, prophet, and king.” No, we are not in charge, but we are now privileged in a new way. The power of Christ that is bestowed upon us at baptism, like any other power, must used for good. And not just any good – this is for God’s kingdom, the highest good of all. That is why, like any other privilege, with baptism and our own kingship, we bear an enormous responsibility.
Jesus shows us the way of his power all the time, helping us to grow in that responsibility. Jesus offers us the power of humility, mercy, and love; a power that may be challenging to live and understand. The apostles were always confused by it, worrying about who was going to sit where, and who was for or against, and so forth. We face the very same problems. That’s why some people see popes (as well as presidents and kings) as great saviors or horrible despots. That’s when I refer back to line from an Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” There is a lot of truth to that, difficult truth, that Christ our King asks us to change. Christ our King came for all – and what a pain that can be!
In this Church we are welcomed, we are instructed, we are fed, we are gathered, we are loved – and we are empowered. What will we do with our power? Will we, like our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe use it to empty ourselves for others, dying along the way? Or will we like many other kings, use our power to destroy the innocent, because we fear that very emptying and dying. What will we do? The power of life and death is in our own hands. We use it most powerfully when we follow Christ the King. What kind of king will you be?