Delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church, Sedalia, MO
Today’s texts: Psalm 46; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Today we celebrate the high feast day known as Christ the King. The latest solemnity to enter our cycle, it was first proposed by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and later adopted by the Anglican communion and others after the approval of the Lectionary. A response to the rising tide of western secularism and nationalism, the aims of this feast according to Pius were threefold: 1) That nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom, and immunity from the state; 2) That leaders and nations would see that they are bound to give respect to Christ; and 3) That the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies.
While there is much in this day that can quicken our collective faith, when we consider our texts for the day it seems God’s support of Pius’ stated aims for the feast might not be so cut and dried. For the first two points at least, I think we can actually make a case that the Gospel is fundamentally against them, and the third needs interpretation.
The first aim of the Feast of Christ the King, is, again, That nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom, and immunity from the state, but the fact is the Church was never promised any such immunity by Christ. Quite the opposite. Only two chapters before our text in Luke’s Gospel, He promises the Disciples that, “They [meaning the representatives of the state and religious leaders] will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake” (21:12), and we remember that oddest of beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12).
As Christians, we have no inherent “right to freedom,” no “immunity from the state.” That Enlightenment concept of “separation of Church and state” would’ve been laughable in the syncretistic Roman Empire out of which the Jesus movement exploded. No, our Gospel today shows what happens when we dare contradict the powers and principalities’ right to rule: we often find ourselves on the sharp end of the law, hanging with thieves. Yet such quiet, dogged resistance to the kings of the earth is exactly what Jesus calls us to – a fact that unfortunately runs counter to the Church’s pursuit throughout history even up to today, when we attempt to gain the power to be legislator, judge, and all too often, executioner.
Such a request, That nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom, and immunity from the state, as well as the second, That leaders and nations would see that they are bound to give respect to Christ, were the products of an institution which had once been all-powerful but was now finding itself either a pawn in nations’ games, or simply ignored. It was a cry for, at the least, relevance, and at the most, a return to the halls of power, and it’s strongly echoed in the alluring comments of some of today’s politicians, who promise the American church a return to power and influence. But those promises are as empty today as they were under Constantine: these politicians are simply seeking to use our community for their own ends. And it’s worked. We have truly sold our birthright for a bowl of soup; traded our prophetic voice for that of a voting bloc. Again, falling into that fatal misunderstanding of the Gospel to which the Church has consistently fallen prey throughout history: namely, that followers of Christ can wield power and pull the levers of state and still remain totally faithful to His Kingship.
We are not the people of power.
But we are the people of the Cross. The power we seek is not that which obliges peoples and nations to bend to our values, but that which daily sacrifices ourselves for love and the Life of the world. One of the great lines in our Psalm for today is that God brings the world to be silent in obedience before Him not through military or political might, but through an ending of conflict – our God is the one who “breaks the bow and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.” These are the “desolations” He brings; peace is the weapon of the Cross.
We are the people of the Cross. Our example is Christ, whose only attribution of worldly power was a sign – This is the King of the Jews – nailed in mocking irony above his thorn-crowned head, and we betray the power of His life and death when we demand respect and acceptance from the same world that so cruelly denied Him.
We are the people of the Cross. We are owed nothing by the powers and principalities because we do not need them. Such displays of power as the unrepentant thief called for – “Are you not the Messiah?” he said, “Save yourself and us!” – are utterly missing the point of Jesus’ sort of power. Our Messiah is not one who leads His followers into bloody conquest of their enemies, but is the “Righteous Branch of David” Jeremiah prophesied, bringing peace, justice, and righteousness. Nor is our shepherd one who uses His power for selfish gain, scattering the flock in ravenous pursuit of worldly dominance, but is the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep, gathering the flock into His fold, providing safe pasture and space to heal and grow.
We are the people of the Cross, and our lives ought to reflect the ways and means of our King. We do not walk the halls of power, but the road of suffering; the path–as the late Henri Nouwen named it–of downward mobility. This path is what gives our message credibility, and is the true secret to seeing Christ crowned in the world. The secret is that through our powerlessness we enter into solidarity with the least of these, becoming the least of these, thereby revealing God’s eternal Life within a community of the weak. As the Apostle Paul has said, “The weakness of God [and here I believe we can add “God’s people”] is stronger than human strength” (I Cor. 1:25).
Paul could speak so confidently there and in our epistle today of God’s ultimate victory and of our transference from “the kingdom of darkness” into “the kingdom of the beloved Son” because he knew the deeper reality: that the cosmic Christ is the life and source of all things, including thrones, dominions, powers, and rulers; that The Christ is before all things, and in him all things hold together . . . . so that he might have the first place in everything. It was not because he believed Caesar would soon bow the knee to the leaders of Christendom, but because he could see with the eyes of faith that one day all things must return to the One from whom they have come, that he could say with confidence that, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10).
But this someday-acknowledgement of Christ’s kingship does not hinge on governments providing Christians with an honored seat at the public table, or immunity from their ever-changing agendas, but on Christ’s people submitting themselves to His kingship by submitting themselves to that which made Him king – the Cross. Without such submission, we cannot hope to approach the Table with joy. My favorite ancient writer, the great 4th century Saint Ephrem the Syrian put it best when he said, “[Christ] submitted all peoples to the weakness of the cross. . . . The one who does not stretch out his hand toward the cross cannot approach his table either. He will deprive of his table the guests who should have come to him hungry but instead came full. Do not fill yourself before going to the table of the Son. He might then make you leave the table while you are still hungry.”
See, the Gospel thrives despite the machinations of the kings of the earth, not because of their commitment to our rights and values. The Gospel thrives because Christ is crowned King in the hearts of people who constitute a community that flowers at the outskirts and on the underside of power, not its center.
And this all leads us to the third and best hope of Pius’ institution of this feast: That the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies.
Ultimately, we are the people whose King reigns within, and that is enough. If we’re all deluded, if God doesn’t exist and of this piety and observance is pointless; if this whole Jesus-thing is simply “a lie we tell ourselves because we’re afraid of death” or what have you, it is still enough. For if Christ is crowned within you and me – even if that were the only place He were ever to be crowned – it would be enough to bring life and beauty and joy to the world. Because that is what we are and that is the message of our texts and of this feast: that we are the People of the Cross and our acceptance of this allows us to be the People of Joy. Fred Buechner said that “Jesus is crowned among confession, and tears . . . and great laughter.” Confession and tears. Of course. But – great laughter? Yes. We are the city of God through which the river of joy runs, watering the same paradise promised to the thief – a paradise that flowers within before it can ever bring healing to the nations. By submitting ourselves to the self-emptying death of the Cross, we are able to be raised in fullness of life, and, having our minds transformed after the likeness of Christ, can now have the power to see Him in everything, to see that every blade of grass is “charged with the grandeur of God.”
I worked with college students for seven years as a campus minister, and I can easily say that the moments I considered my greatest achievements (which really had very little to do with me) were when students would come to me and speak about these “eucharistic awakenings.” When, after months or years of hearing me speak about the way the sacraments – and the eucharist in particular – can awaken us to seeing The Christ in all things, a student would come and tell me how they would be in the middle of some banal task like walking to class, and would all of a sudden have one of those “Oh! Oh of course!” moments. Some of you know what I mean: when all the world turns golden and simply drips with divinity. Those are the moments when Christ is truly crowned in that student’s life, not just in their sadness when they see their need for forgiveness and ask it through confession and tears, but ultimately through the joy and great laughter of discovering God reigning in and through all things.
We celebrate Christ as King today not because His words are engraved in the marble of state buildings, but because He reigns in the “hearts, minds, wills, and bodies” of those who have submitted themselves to the joy and service of the Cross. We celebrate Christ as King because, through the eyes of love, we see Him in the whole world, from the smallest, most humble creature to the greatest ruler (for if we can claim to see Him in simple bread and wine, surely we can see Him in each other). So let us love as He did: with our lives given in solidarity to the least of these, even unto death. Let us crown Him with confession, and tears, and yes the great laughter that comes from the joy of finding Christ crowned even in our own selves.
In closing, I want to read from 10th Century Saint Symeon the New Theologian’s Hymns of Divine Love:
We awaken in Christ’s body,
As Christ awakens our bodies
There I look down and my poor hand is Christ,
He enters my foot and is infinitely me.
I move my hand and wonderfully
My hand becomes Christ,
Becomes all of Him.
I move my foot and at once
He appears in a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous to you?
– Then open your heart to Him.
And let yourself receive the one
Who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
We wake up inside Christ’s body
Where all our body all over,
Every most hidden part of it,
Is realized in joy as Him,
And He makes us utterly real.
And everything that is hurt, everything
That seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
Maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged
Is in Him transformed.
And in Him, recognized as whole, as lovely,
And radiant in His light,
We awaken as the beloved
In every last part of our body.