The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King (Proper 29c): November 24, 2013
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Canticle 16 (Luke 1: 68-79); Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
OK – time for true confessions. I am pretty much an eternal optimist. When I did hospital chaplaincy in Seminary, my supervisor coined the term “brightsider” for me; I always want to find the best in every situation, sometimes to my detriment. I usually see the glass half full, even if, in fact, it contains barely a drop. For whatever reason, that’s just the way I am.
And so today’s gospel lesson really brings me down. Here, immediately before our annual feast of thanksgiving, and not far from the anticipation of Advent and the joy of Christmas, we are transported to Golgotha. Just when I want to be “up,” we get this reading filled with Christ’s suffering. Of course, I know that our readings are carefully selected and assigned according to the church calendar. So what gives?
Today is the last Sunday of the church year, the day known as Christ the King Sunday. Already we have heard a lot of royal imagery in the hymns we have sung. But does this story of the crucifixion really look like royal behavior? One commentator says this:
“Jesus, the supposed Son of God, Lord of Lords and King of Kings, executed like a common criminal with a couple of petty criminals. Not very kingly, is it? And then, more indignity, more shame; the soldiers kneel at his feet while he’s still alive. Not to worship, but to gamble for his clothes. And people laughed at him, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen One.’ There it is, the crux of the matter for the people then, and if we’re honest for us now.
“We don’t want a suffering and dying God. We want a strong and powerful one. We want a Savior who can not only forgive our sins, but who will make us richer and prettier and more popular and help insure that all our plans work out for the best.”[i]
I must admit that I sometimes find myself ambivalent about this title: “Christ the King.” After all, how can we Americans, steeped in the democratic tradition and with a back-story that centers on the overthrow of a monarch, even understand what a king is?
I am certain that my image of a king is mostly informed by television and movies, media and Madison Avenue. The kings that come to my mind are Old King Cole; King Friday from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood; Good King Wenceslas; Burger King; the mythical King Arthur of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot; and Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll.
And while our close relationship to England makes it our primary source for royal associations, only a very few of us, I am certain, have any real memory of the last King of England, George, who died in 1952In short, my associations with kings and kingdoms are fairy tale stuff. I truly can’t comprehend being the subject to monarch; to acknowledge another person as ruling over you. That certainly goes against my American independent streak. We republicans (that’s small R republicans) are, by definition, anti-monarch.
And, in fact, the observance of a specific day of remembrance of Christ the King was originally a reaction to growing nationalism and secularism at the turn of the last century. In 1925, Pope Pius the Eleventh declared the day as a feast of the Roman Catholic Church. Although it was in many ways a reaction to specific political issues in Italy, it also addresses the question of our faith: Do we have loyalties first to our country, or to our God?
Perhaps you can remember similar arguments about flags–whether the American flag should have a place of prominence in the church, or even be in the church at all. Christ the King Sunday was meant to settle the argument: Christ rules over all human institutions, all political orders, every economic or cultural system. Christ is the king of creation.
Those for whom the gospels were originally written, of course, had a much different view of how the world works. They had personal experience with absolute rulers–with being subject to a king. So the idea of Christ as King would not have been hard for them to grasp. Or wait–maybe it would have.
The kingdom that Christ promised was in direct opposition to the powers of the world as they knew them. While our view of kings may be as harmless figureheads in fancy clothes, the people of the first century would have viewed kings as tyrannical, cruel, and of course, all powerful. Kings were to be feared, and therefore obeyed.
But Christ offered a different view of kingship. He didn’t so much challenge the prevailing notion of order, as smash it. He offered a new way of ruling, not based on fear and domination, but instead focused on love, mercy, and grace.
This past Wednesday we finished our Bible Study’s look at the parables of Jesus. As we studied these stories of Jesus, we spent a lot of time talking about their primary subject: The kingdom of God. Parables are a literary form almost unique to the gospels. These short stories are usually analogies, and they strive to explain complex or hard to grasp theological principles.
One commentator explains, “Parables don’t pretend to correspond to reality directly. They are regularly outrageous, exaggerated, humorous, and almost always have a hidden trap door that only drops open a little while after the telling. Parables, that is, get at reality sideways, disrupting our sensibilities and overturning our conventions in order to point to how it will be in the new realm and reign of God.”[ii]
Through the parables, Jesus describes the kingdom of God “as having different rules and different expectations from the rules and laws and penalties of humanity.”[iii]
- Jesus says the kingdom is like a son who foolishly asks for his inheritance early, only to squander it and come home destitute. His father meets him not with judgment, but instead with celebrations and love.
- Jesus says the kingdom is like a shepherd who cares so deeply for his sheep that, when one is lost, he forsakes everything else and searches until the lost sheep is found.
- Jesus says that the kingdom is like a rich man who gives a party and when other rich folks are too busy to come, he instead invites the poor, the blind, and the lame to enjoy the feast.[iv]
In the class, which Mother Liz and I taught together, we spent a good deal of time discussing these stories of the kingdom of God. And then we challenged the class members to write their own parables of the kingdom. We heard some of those parables this past Wednesday, and they were remarkable. Several class members told stories demonstrating the nature of God’s kingdom—stories drawn from their own lives.
These stories so clearly illustrated the ways that the writers had experienced the upside down nature of God’s kingdom, where love prevails over all.
It reminded me that the signs of God kingdom are all around us – but do you see them? Do you grasp the ways that the kingdom breaks through in our everyday life? Well, ever the optimist, I find the kingdom all over St. Michael’s:
- I see the kingdom in a stunningly beautiful building, filled with breath-taking stained glass, awesome mosaics, and meaning-filled monuments to the glory of God;
- I hear the kingdom in the ineffable beauty of music, when disparate individuals come together to make a whole filled with the Spirit;
- I feel the kingdom in the warm handshakes and loving hugs of what may be the most monumental passing of the peace I have ever witnessed;
- I smell the kingdom in the aromas of food, lovingly cooked, week after week, for the Saturday Kitchen, where, in tandem with the Pilgrim Resource Center, the sacred worth of all is celebrated and where people who might never otherwise meet find moments of real human connection;
- I taste the kingdom in the elements of the Eucharist, lovingly served each week in this place as tangible signs of Christ’s love for us, and a reminder that we are called to take in that nourishment to be the kingdom for the world.
For those who first heard the gospels nearly two thousand years ago, the truly remarkable thing about the kingdom was that it came in ways so unexpected. Instead of the fanfare and pomp of the royal, it came humbly and quietly in a manger. Instead of military might in the brute force of a warrior, it came in a simple carpenter who embodied love for one another and true compassion. Instead of the triumphalism and show of a decisive battle, it found its culmination in the suffering and self-effacement of death on a cross.
You see, what is ushered in through this moment on Calvary is not just a new ruler, but an entirely new realm. Through humbling himself in torture and death, Christ takes away the power of despotic rulers and the instruments of terror.
And if we believe that Christ brought nothing less than a new kingdom, a new reality for the world, well then, there are implications.
David Lose says this: “Who knows then what God will expect from us? No longer can we keep our faith a private affair and ignore the need of our neighbor. No longer can we sing robust and rousing hymns about God’s glory and majesty and ignore the plight of God’s good earth. No longer can we pray that God’s kingdom come and yet manage our wealth as if it actually belonged—rather than was entrusted—to us. And no longer can we relegate the realm of God to a comfortably distant—or for that matter frighteningly near—future. The realm and rule of God is all around us, beckoning us to live by its vision and values even now.” [v]
It seems to me that God’s kingdom comes to us as a sort of a double-edged sword. Even a bright-sider like me realizes that the gift of a God who rules by love instead of force, by suffering with us rather than making us suffer, is that we can no longer see ourselves as merely subjects.
We are called to be partners in that kingship; to work actively to spread the work of the kingdom in the world.
So perhaps Christ the King Sunday is a day for us to understand that we are all raised to glory through the promised reign of our God. There is a bright side for all of us. We are the beloved partners of the King of Kings! To paraphrase a verse from our Gospel hymn:
We suffer with our Lord below, we reign with him above. Our profit and our joy to know the myst’ry of his love.
Our Lord reigns; thanks be to God.
[i] Chilton, Delmer L. http://lectionarylab.com/2013/11/16/year-c-the-reign-of-christ/, accessed 11/21/2013.
[ii] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1559, accessed 11/22/2013.
[iii] Westfield, Nancy Lynne. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 334.
[v] Lose, David. op cit.