If you're a fan of historical dramas, you're probably familiar with the sort of power that was once wielded by kings and queens. In Britain, we have a strange fascination with Henry VIII, who had such great power and influence that he was able to split the ancient Church in two, just so he could marry his lover (and then four more women after that).
We're also dazzled by the awesome strength of Queen Elizabeth I, who controlled armies, commissioned great explorers and commanded the fear and respect of the rest of the world. In the past, these rulers had absolute control and – sometimes – the utter deference and love of their subjects.
The words 'king' and 'queen' have a very different association in 2017. The monarchs that remain, certainly in the West, are more figureheads than rulers, and many live under the threat of redundancy. The real 'kings' today are our presidents, prime ministers and chancellors – the men and women who run our nations day to day. In some cases, they actually behave much like those medieval kings and queens, spouting warmongering rhetoric and demonstrating a certain self-obsession. While we've certainly had some great presidents in recent years – Nelson Mandela for instance – the current crop of global leaders, fronted by men like Donald Trump, Kim Jong-Un and until recently, Robert Mugabe, have given rise to the notion that we're now in the midst of a global leadership crisis.
As Christians though, we serve another, even more powerful and much more significant king, and one who behaves very differently. When we choose to follow Jesus, we join a movement – a kingdom even – which is led by someone a lot greater even than Donald Trump (although you can imagine him disputing that on Twitter). In a time of leadership crisis, we can look up to an unfailing, brilliant leader who showed us how to live not just with words but by example. Jesus is our friend, yes, but he is also our king. We are his subjects.
And I wonder whether sometimes, we don't fully realise that. Or we take it for granted. Maybe it doesn't mean an awful lot to us when we're sitting at our desks on Monday morning. Maybe when we're running the kids around, or sitting down with a friend for coffee, or going in to school for six hours of lessons – it doesn't mean an awful lot to us that Jesus is our King.
In Ephesians 1: 20-23, Paul writes that God (having raised Jesus from the dead), 'seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.' Jesus is the King, over all other kings and rulers, over the present and the future, and over the church. But still, isn't that just a bit of a theoretical statement? A doctrine to assent to; a phrase to make sure we throw into our worship songs?
I think the final verse there suggests that if we recognise Jesus as our king, then there's actually a very practical response – a responsibility even. Because Jesus' subjects aren't just passive worshippers, but a body of moving parts, of which he is the head. The Church, Jesus' royal order, is somehow 'the fullness of him who fills everything in every way." We're not the king, but we are his agents in the world; we figuratively speaking bear the royal colours, just not the crown.
Again, I think we've sometimes reduced Christ's kingship to a worship song lyric. In fact, I think it requires a much more active response from us. So what is that exactly?
If we look at one of the most famous Christ-the-King passages, in Matthew 25, we read about the risen and enthroned King Jesus, dividing people into metaphorical 'sheep' and 'goats' on Judgment Day. What's interesting is that he makes the distinction between those who get to claim an inheritance, and those who don't, on the basis of how they treated those in need. He's apparently not interested in – or certainly doesn't mention here – their acts of personal devotion, or how many great worship songs they sang about him. What the King seems to value is whether they fed the hungry (verse 35), looked after the sick and clothed the poor (verse 36). He cares about whether they truly practised forgiveness and reconciliation by visiting the prisoner, and perhaps most controversially in 2017, whether they not only welcomed the stranger but invited him in (verse 35).
This, it seems to me, is what it means to recognise Jesus as our King. Not simply to bow and worship, but to take up our place as his hands and feet in the world. King Jesus isn't just someone we sing about, but someone we join forces with.
A good friend of mine is currently creating holy chaos in Australia with a non-violent campaign to liberate refugees from the inhumane conditions of the offshore detention centre on Manus. Plenty of Christians in his country are perplexed – or even angry – at how he can see compromising his country's borders as a worthwhile pursuit for a pastor. But as I read Jesus words in Matthew 25, it seems to me that my friend is simply carrying out royal orders. Caring, speaking up and acting for the poor and the marginalised isn't just a nice thing that Christian believers do; these things are our natural response to the realisation that Jesus is our King.