I hope that your thanksgiving holiday was wonderful! We enjoyed our trip to New England to visit family. It was a big feast in a little country home, filled with extended and blended family and friends and two overexcited dogs. And one granddaughter plus one new baby, who ruled the roost and graciously accepted our adulation with equanimity. For a few hours before the feast, the kitchen was mildly chaotic, with people moving about, and things going into/coming out of the oven, and Justin trying to fix something with a screwdriver while the Yorkie yipped. The peaceable Kingdom it was not, and we felt the love in the room. We had a wonderful time putting the fun into our family dysfunction.
This Sunday we are transitioning back to regular life. It is the end of our liturgical year. Nothing in our liturgical calendar or our solemnities is accidental. Our celebrations are carefully and intentionally planned to illuminate what we believe. Next week, it is fitting that we begin a new annual cycle with Advent, anticipating Jesus’ humble birth in a stable, because that speaks of a fundamental truth about God and the meaning of the Incarnation of Christ. And today we reach the culmination of that truth, celebrating Jesus Christ as the King of glory.
What can a 21st Century American Christian see in all this king-and-kingdom stuff? Although we rejected divine right kingship in 1776, just one hundred years ago monarchs ruled eighty percent of the world. Today, kings and queens and emperors seem to be anachronistic – perhaps a quaint reflection of British television programming. Why do we continue to talk about Jesus as a King and the reign of God as a Kingdom? Aren’t we far more comfortable with the Good Shepherd metaphor, with a loving, protective, gentle Jesus?
And yet – is it possible that through the very strangeness of the image of Christ as a King, we may perceive something about what it means to have a relationship with God in the person of Jesus? Week by week, we pray that as we say Thy kingdom come. Do we not mean that?
Whether we want to confess it or not, there are powers that rule over our lives, to which we offer our allegiance. During this past year, who or what has been like a king? (the boss? the image? the career?) Whom have I served, through my thoughts, words, and deeds? To whom must I pay homage? (We may not like the medieval image of bowing down in submission, and yet is this not a truth?) Who or what sits on the throne in my consciousness? And how does all that feel in the heart?
In today’s gospel passage, Jesus offers a unique definition of kingdom and his kingship. Pontius Pilate wants to understand the man before him, accused of insurrection. Is Jesus a rival to the throne? Is he a revolutionary? Jesus seems to offer little defense, except that he is not challenging the established order. Pilate is more worried about keeping order than he is about seeking justice. He does not want to condemn an innocent man, yet he is concerned with keeping order in a difficult province. Pilate is willing to trade truth for expedience – and on some level he knows he is taking the easy way instead of the right way.
Jesus is doing something altogether different. He is offering his life to bring humanity new life. He is living a human life so that he can teach us how to be free of the great lies that bind us. The way of Jesus is a narrow way. It can appear convoluted, and sometimes it is difficult. He invites us to follow him on the path, discerning life in the presence of God in a world that is less than perfect and sometimes chaotic. He really is the King in a different way.
How will God’s Kingdom emerge? What will this Kingdom look like? Will it spring up one day and surprise us? Will we be taken up into the clouds and find it? I wouldn’t count on that. Jesus frequently told his followers that the Kingdom was very near to them and even in their midst. If this mysterious Kingdom is already in our midst, is it waiting for us to perceive it? Is it as perfect as we have dreamed? Or is it, in some way, better than that?
Poet and retired Marine officer Phil Klay quotes St Paul to remind us “the Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. (1 Cor 4.20)” At times, we may think we can feel power around us, but the power of God is not coercive. Christianity is not, or should not be, a religion that commands allegiance by force. Real Christianity is not a religious practice of hard and fast rules, but a disciplined life of Love, nourished by stories and paradoxes and enigmatic parables. Following Jesus is an invitation to mystery, not mastery; to communion, not control; to love of God and neighbor, not loss of freedom.
Klay, who returned from deployment in Iraq with a serious crisis of faith and who confesses that he lost his belief in a God who orders the universe, says practicing as a Christian fits with what he knows of reality, helps him live honestly, and helps him set aside his dreams of a less atavistic world in which people follow rational orders and never rebel. Perfect obedience, after all, is not of people, but of machines. Perfect control rules over those whose free will is dead. And the tortured God of the cross is not a God of death, but of new life.
We are living in unsettled times. We have imperfect lives and broken hearts. And let’s be honest, we want to follow Jesus and we must find a way to balance our divided allegiances. We are looking not for a place but for a relationship, a person in whom we can invest emotionally, spiritually, with integrity and a sense of peace. Someone who makes sense of the life we live. Someone who treats us not as another commodity but as the Beloved.
While the celebration of Christ the King has deep theological meaning, it is neither an invitation merely to cerebral exercise nor is it innocuous. It is a life-changing invitation to choose the love of God as the ultimate end of our being, and to practice that in daily life. There is no power greater than this Love. If we enthrone Christ as our Lord, he is the One whose standard of Love has ultimate authority. He is the One whose Love transcends all the stuff that gets between us and God, and gives holy meaning to our imperfection. This changes everything and in a practical manner unravels the dominion of earthly powers. We choose Christ, not because the Kingdom brings perfect order and obedience, and not because we are fearful. We choose Christ because we want to know the Truth and the Love that he offers, which offer a corrective to the nihilistic worldly narrative of our insignificance.
In the frame of Thanksgiving weekend, the celebration of Christ as King is a spiritual truth for which we can give profound thanks.
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Amy Welin at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on November 25, 2018, for Christ the King Sunday. The texts for the day, which can be found at this link, are:
- Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
- Psalm 93
- Revelation 1:4b-8
- John 18:33-37