Call me strange, but this Sunday may be my favorite day on the Christian calendar. On this final week of ordinary time before we turn the corner again into Advent, we celebrate the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday. Soon we will grow in hopeful anticipation as we learn again to wait in the dark. But if we’re not careful, we could be fooled into thinking that all we have to hope for and expect is the presents, the decadent food, or the glittering decorations of Christmas celebrations. In this week before Advent, we enter a kind of preparation before the preparation (maybe those who celebrate 6 weeks of Advent are on to something!).
Christ the King/ Reign of Christ Sunday offers us a clear picture of what we expectantly await during Advent – our King and his kingdom coming on earth, even as it is in heaven. We are reminded that our King is unlike any other king, and his kingdom is unlike any other kingdom. So we should not be surprised if we find ourselves becoming unlike other people. The Gospel text for this day helps us to fix our eyes on King Jesus, that we may find our home in his kingdom.
To begin, we have to acknowledge the way that Jesus defies all kingly expectations in this story. While technically outside the pericope in this week’s text, Jesus’s feeding of the multitude (6.1-15) is essential to understanding Jesus’s words and actions here. The people simply cannot get enough of Jesus – they follow him everywhere, eventually stranding themselves late in the day in a remote place without food. And then after Jesus fed them all by multiplying five barley loaves and two fish, the crowd was prepared to make him king by force. So Jesus did another miraculous vanishing act like he did in Nazareth (Luke 4.30); but this time he wasn’t running from people who hated him, he was running from people who loved him. The problem was, they loved him for all the wrong reasons.
And yet, the people persisted. The next morning the crowds boarded boats and crossed the lake to track Jesus down (John 6.16-24). And to their surprise, they find that Jesus is more than a bit “salty,” as the kids say. What a striking text to use on Reign of Christ Sunday! What kind of king pushes away from the adoring crowd, right when he has them (literally) eating from his hand? What kind of king rebukes his would-be sycophants, rather than enjoying their praise? Who just stops performing right when the crowd is clamoring for more? Certainly this is unlike any king, any president, any politician, or any “celebrity pastor” we have ever seen.
John paints a picture of the crowds on a messianic quest, traveling like their ancestors before them into the wilderness, following God’s anointed. It seems their gut instinct is rewarded when, like their ancestors, they too were fed miraculously like the manna that fell from the sky. In Moses’s time manna came day after day, and the crowd is asking for their next daily allotment of miraculous food. But Jesus denies their request and thwarts their underlying assumptions: contrary to popular belief, food and perishable goods are not the most important things in life.
Rather than settling on some kind of transactional arrangement, where Jesus is the king that provides miraculous meals and the people pay him with adoration, Jesus instructs them that their work is to believe in him (6.29). It’s important to remember that the word we translate as believe (pisteuo), has only a little bit to do with cognitive recognition. The full range of pisteuo incorporates the kind of belief that can only happen within relationship – trust, confidence, even hope. It’s about seeing and knowing, encountering and engaging with one another to develop history. But the people balk at this, demanding yet another sign worthy of putting their trust in him. They wrongly attribute the manna to be from Moses (6.31), and in their minds the equation is set: “if Moses provided manna every day, Jesus should provide us food on the regular too.”
Once again Jesus points out their faulty thinking and traces the gift of manna back to God, not to Moses. And in the biggest upset of them all, he messes with another part of their equation: Jesus should not be likened to Moses in this scenario, Jesus is like the bread itself.
The people are on a quest for a Messiah, and with it, a new world order where the Jews are once more on top, never to hunger or suffer again. But Jesus redefines what the search is all about: a quest for eternal life. Jesus offers not just bread, but himself. He is the bread of life – the gift that provides life and life abundant. It’s not the kind of thing that promises full bellies and an end to all suffering, and this makes it very hard for the people to grasp – then, and now.
This text raises as many questions for us today as it did for the people Jesus spoke these troublesome words to in the first place. What kind of kingdom is this, anyway? Is this what we thought we were getting into – or is it something else entirely? Are we willing to accept a king who only and entirely offers us himself? Do we want the gifts of God more than we want God?
The text past today’s pericope gets even stranger, with Jesus getting specific about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And while that too is out of the range of our study, it is important to know that Jesus doesn’t back down on the use of his metaphor when he gets pushback. Jesus is determined to give himself away, both in body and in spirit, and no amount of his follower’s squeamishness will deter him. This is the action that defines Jesus as our King, the kind of kingdom we belong to, and the kind of lives we ourselves are invited to live. The question before us today is the same as it was then – will we demand he be the king we want, or will we allow Jesus to be the King he is?
 The above paragraphs were adapted and/or quoted from Living the Way of Jesus: Practicing the Christian Calendar One Week a Time, Foundry Publishing, 2019 (79).