Sermon for the Reign of Christ, November 24, 2019
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
In the year 381, the Christian emperor, Theodosius, ruler of the vast Roman Empire, proclaimed Christianity the religion of the state to which all his subjects would become adherents. Some Christians, who lived with the memory of intense persecution from another ruler who despised their faith, greeted this edict with incredible joy. Other Christians resisted it and did so because they feared political interference in Christian faith and life; but more importantly, they recognized with utter clarity that the movement of revolutionary reform initiated by Jesus of Nazareth – a movement for which he gave his life – would now become an established institution that had no other purpose than to accompany Christians with a consoling hand from birth to death, a kind of club or society as it were that offered spiritual perks to those who claimed membership. Let emperors and kings rule over the economic, social, and political fabric of life, claimed Theodosius, and let the clergy, now government agents, baptize, commune, forgive, wed, and bury the faithful into an otherworldly heavenly kingdom. Let charity – little acts of compassion – displace the very thing in which Jesus invested himself: calling into question the kingdom of Caesar, its violence, injustice, and merciless regard for the vast majority of people – especially women, slaves, and children – who toiled in anonymous labor for the elite who lived in luxury. Thus, what had begun as a movement marked by a discipleship of equals committed to mercy, equitable sharing, justice, and peace in society; what had begun as a movement that offered a different way of living in this world and called into question the structures of society that robbed people of their God-given dignity was now absorbed into a kingdom controlled by kings who expected the church to support their thirst for conquest, ruthless economic control, and disregard for the suffering that marked the lives of the majority of their subjects.
Throughout the world today, close to 2 billion Christians are celebrating the feast of Christ the King or as some call it, the Reign of Christ, the end of this liturgical year. It would be easy to follow the lead of more literal minded Christians who would urge us to abandon our ancestors’ ancient royal images when they do not seem to resonate with our “modern” sensibilities. Let us drop all those outdated terms that do not sit well with our anti-monarchical American roots. But I say: “Just wait a minute.” While we speak of Christ as a king, let us not miss its meaning for us. Yes, let us not be literal minded and simply dismiss the word at face value – for, I ask, where is he named “king”? Living in a luxurious palace? Seated on a throne? Wearing a crown fashioned of precious metals and jewels? Attended by ministers of state who simply do his bidding, no questions asked? Why, No: none of this; none of this. In the great paradox of the holy gospel he is never called “king” with respect or admiration or subservience. He is only called a king in his suffering: by those who tortured him, by Pontius Pilate, by the mocking sign placed over his head as he is crucified between two bandits: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judeans.” In other words, his life redefines what is nothing less than the exercise of power and influence in life.
In the kingdom of Caesar, power and influence are exercised from top down with no questions asked, with absolute control over everything, with no dissent allowed. What does that look like, you ask? Why, just read the presidential tweets intended to mock or humiliate anyone who disagrees with the president. But in this kingdom whose crown is fashioned of thorns, whose throne is a cross, and whose monarch is the crucified Christ, power and influence are reshaped, from below, among all those who suffer in this world, among all those who have had to live with abuse, among all those who have been slighted, overlooked, or derided simply for who they are. For in this kingdom of God, our wounded monarch reigns from the tree, and there speaks with persuasion rather than coercion, there identifies with whatever suffering marks your life and mine and the millions of this nation and world who continue to labor in anonymity. In this kingdom, whose one sign is the cross juxtaposed next to an altar, he feeds us with his life force and so strengthens us to engage in the challenging work of living our lives as an alternative to the injustice, violence, and merciless commerce that continues to produce untold suffering.
If anything, the feast raises the question: are you and I content to be a part of an established institution that is increasingly marginalized in life because it can do no more than offer spiritual entertainments OR is there any hope that we will yet become a movement that speaks seriously and thus convincingly of the kingdom of God in which, to quote St. Paul, there is justice, peace, and joy in the Spirit?
You see, in this movement, in this kingdom – a symbol of God’s powerful presence in us, around us, and ahead of us – there are no rulers or subjects, there are no bosses but only a discipleship of equals. There is no enforced silence, but rather the freedom to question. There is no white male seated on a heavenly throne, but God among us in the form of a brown-skinned Galilean. There is – we pray – no violence or coercion in this kingdom of mercy, but only persuasion and love. There is – we pray – no distance among us from those who continue to suffer but rather what our beloved Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu names as our God-given ability “to be open and available to others, affirming of all others, not feeling threatened that others are able and good, knowing that you and I are diminished when others are diminished, humiliated, or oppressed, and all this inspired by knowing that you and I belong to a greater whole, that we belong to God.”
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”