Jesus has many titles. He is Messiah, or Christ. These are respectively the Hebrew and Greek names for God’s anointed one. When confirmation candidates are anointed by the bishop, he marks the sign of the cross on their brow with fragrant oil, called oil of chrism: the same root as ‘Christ’. This identifies them with God’s anointed one, declaring them to be Christians, members of the royal priesthood of all believers. ‘Jesus the Christ’ is the most significant of all his titles. It was the claim to be the Christ - God’s Messiah - that caused hostility among the Jews and made them determined to get rid of him.
Two other titles, both central to the gospels, are ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’. Put like that, they might seem to be opposites – one affirming his divine nature, the other affirming his humanity. But that isn’t actually the case. ‘Son of Man’ is a Hebrew figure of speech. Sometimes when it’s used in the OT it means no more than ‘a human being’ – any man, any child of Adam. The prophets, for instance, are addressed in this way; where older translations say ‘O Son of Man, hear the word of the Lord’ newer ones tend to say ‘O man’, or ‘O mortal’. (For this reason, our current prayer book has two different translations of Psalm 8 - one with the verse What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them; mere human beings, that you should seek them out? (to make it inclusive) while the other has What is man, that you should be mindful of him; the son of man, that you should seek him out? (which keeps the allusion to Christ that the church has always read into this psalm, even though it's not part of the original Hebrew.) On the other hand, to complicate matters further, 'son of Man' sometimes means, not an earthly, but a heavenly being – as in Daniel’s vision of one like a Son of Man who approaches the throne of God.
Which does Jesus mean when he speaks of himself as ‘Son of Man’? This is something scholars have long argued over. For now, let us simply say that Jesus uses the term as a way of speaking about his special vocation or destiny. Because it's a Hebrew term, Paul (whose language was Greek) never uses it in his letters. When he wants to make the point that Jesus is both divine and human, he says ‘Son of God and Son of David’.
Then there is the title ‘Lord’ – a title used for God, and also for Jesus. Many of the verses in the psalms which speak of the Lord have been understood by the Christians as applying to Jesus (an example is Ps 72 [Give the king your judgements, O God], which becomes the hymn Jesus shall reign where'er the sun). To call someone Lord is to acknowledge their authority over you – and Jesus, we say, is Lord not just of the lives of individual believers, but of the whole of creation. Ephesians, as we heard, says that God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head of all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. And Colossians says He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. The universe finds its very meaning, its coherence, in him, because by his cross he has brought all things back to God. From next week, this title, 'Lord', will provide us with the great Advent cry, Amen, come, Lord Jesus!
What of other titles? Jesus' disciples called him ‘Master’, ‘Teacher, ‘Rabbi’ – all of them emphasising his role as their leader and enabler, for that was how they came to know and follow him. Today, too, those who cannot accept that Jesus is divine – followers of other faiths, or those who are sceptical about religion – may still honour Jesus as a teacher (and a prophet), and will strive to follow his teaching. And in the bible, and down the years, there have been other titles which pick up on some aspect of who Jesus is, and what he does for us: ‘holy one’, 'Saviour’, ‘Redeemer’, ‘friend of sinners’, 'shepherd', ‘brother’. (You can see these, and others, in the hymn How sweet the name of Jesus sounds). All of these titles we use in our prayers. In recent years, as the texts of our liturgy have been revised, there have been many pleas for us to use a wider range of titles to address Jesus, in collects and other prayers – not just using ‘Lord’ and other names which speak of power and might, but also ones which remind us of his love and compassion.
But there is one title I have not yet mentioned, and it is the one we focus on today, on this last Sunday of the Christian year. It used to be called ‘Stir-up Sunday’ (with its reminder to get started on the Christmas puddings), because of the BCP collect stir up, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people - which we still use as the prayer after communion. But now we call today ‘Christ the King’. Some people, like Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham, have objected to this innovation. He says it distorts the Christian year, since the kingship of Christ properly belongs to Ascension Day, linked to the resurrection, rather than to the pre-Advent themes of the last things. It's certainly not an ancient festival: it was introduced in the RC church by Pope Pius XI in 1925, in what has been described as possibly the most misunderstood and ignored encyclicals of all time; in part it was an anti-Mussolini tactic.
Be that as it may, we now keep it at the end of a month when we have thought particularly about the kingdom of God and the realm of heaven, where all the saints worship, and at the centre Christ the lamb who was slain (there’s another title for you). It’s important to remember this: it’s not just the King, but the King and the kingdom, God’s reign and commonwealth of peace and justice. Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom; but then, as the famous German Lutheran theologian Rudolph Bultmann said, the proclaimer becomes the proclaimed. By his death and resurrection Jesus brings the reign of God closer; so that he is not merely the messenger of the good news, but is himself the good news.
So why do we call Jesus ‘King’? The simple answer is that this title, too, is at the heart of the gospels. I said earlier that for the Jews, the real stumbling block about Jesus was the idea that he might be God’s messiah, his holy and anointed one. They believed devoutly that Messiah would come, but they could not accept that Jesus was the one – he didn’t fit their preconceptions. But once Jesus was handed over to the Romans, the issue for them was whether Jesus was a king. The Romans weren’t concerned about the technicalities of the Jewish religion; but they were concerned about someone who seemed to be a political rival, and who claimed people’s allegiance to his cause. So they quizzed him closely. Are you a king? If so, where and what is your kingdom? The Jews said, we have no king but Caesar. So what was going on?
The Jews did, of course, have a king once upon a time. When they first came together into the promised land, they had resisted the idea of having a king, as all the surrounding nations had: they were to be different. They were to be led by prophets and judges and inspired leaders, with God himself as their king. But in due course they decided that they too must be like other nations and have a king (probably to give them some political stability). This was despite Samuel’s dire warnings about what it would be like, having a king to lord it over them:
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
– warnings which were amply fulfilled in due course. They got their first king – David (after some hiccups with Saul); and much was written in the scriptures, particularly the psalms, about him.
The next few centuries saw a long line of kings – as in 1066 And All That, some good, some bad, but mostly bad; then the kingdom divided; then the monarchy was wiped out. But then, hundreds of years down the line, comes Jesus, who (as we shall be reminded at Christmas) was of the house and line of David, his distant ancestor. No-one crowned him as king in his lifetime – for, after all, he told them that his kingdom was not of this world. But his followers came to believe that all that had been written about King David found its real fulfilment in Jesus, great David’s greater Son.
I said no-one crowned Jesus as king in his lifetime. But is that true? The Romans gave him a crown of thorns, as a joke. And (according to Matthew) Pilate insisted that the title on the cross should read The King of the Jews and should not be changed to cast doubt on the matter. Was that because it suited him, because by crucifying Jesus as a king he could dispose of this claim once and for all? Or did Pilate sense that this really was true? In the event, what Jesus cancelled out on the cross was not the title of his kingship, but, as Colossians puts it, the record that stood against us with its legal demands, when he forgave us all our trespasses….he disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them (2.13ff).
So there we have it: Jesus is a king – not the king of the Jewish nation, but king of all who accept his forgiveness. Paradoxically, he is a crucified king and a servant king (both impossible concepts, for Jews and Greeks and Romans alike). Of course, down the centuries many kings have been killed – to get rid of them and pass the title to another; but Jesus’ kingship was secured and confirmed by his very death. This is an entirely new kind of kingship from anything the world has ever known, and we need to hold onto this startling truth. Later Christians lost it when they depicted Jesus as an imperial ruler. For the early Christians, Jesus was not like that at all. The earliest piece of Christian art we have shows him as a young shepherd (as his ancestor David had once been): the shepherd-king of which Ezekiel in today's reading speaks, who gathers his people in safety - though also, as the gospel warns us, the one who divides sheep and goats in judgement. If he is our king, we must serve him as he serves us.