A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King. The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 23:1-6 , Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, and Luke 23:33-43.
Today is Christ the King Sunday and we acknowledge this in the scriptures, the prayers, and the music. It is a kind of New Year’s Eve celebration, in that next week marks the beginning of a new “church year” with the First Sunday of Advent. Next week there is an Advent wreath that helps us welcome increasing light and there’s bluish purple in the church— a color of hope, the color of the sky as the sun first appears, and the color often associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Advent, we will be invited to slow down a bit, to breathe deeply, and to begin to think about what it means that God has come into the world in the flesh. But today is Christ the King.
Today is about the full expression of God’s power and presence in the world, right now and right here. Given all that’s going on in our world, and in our country, it’s a good time for us to ask ourselves: who is our leader? Where do we look for guidance, for authority, and for wisdom?
While our scriptures may not give us easy answers, they do shape our questions and point us toward truth.
In our first reading from Jeremiah, God criticizes both the secular and the religious leaders. They’ve ALL failed. They have led the people astray, and so God will allow people to be scattered and wander in all direction. But eventually, God will raise up a Shepherd King, one who gathers up all those who have been scattered. The shepherd king protects and guards. He is one who “shall reign as king and deal wisely,” in justice and righteousness. In the coming weeks of Advent, we will hear the voice of God’s people build as they long for the coming of this Shepherd King who saves through love.
In our second reading, the Letter to the Colossians, Paul tells of how we have been rescued from darkness and the power of sin. He speaks of movement, and displacement, as though we’ve been picked up out of a bad place and dropped into a good one: “We have been ‘transferred’ into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.” And this is a kingdom of peace, peace that transcends even the blood of the cross. And Paul writes powerfully and poetically of our savior:
… is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Paul equates this long-for and hoped-for king with Jesus. Though if you think about the life of Jesus, he’s no ordinary king. A king born to an unmarried poor woman. A king who grows up in the outskirts. A king whose consorts are fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes and foreigners. And then, we’re talking about a king who reigns not from a throne, or a castle, or a high place of honor—but from a cross.
In today’s Gospel, one of the criminals gets a sense that Jesus is a kind of king and so, he asks to be included in the coming kingdom. How we perceive the kingdom of God will directly affect how we live out our lives in faith.
The Church over time has understood the kingdom of God in different ways. At some points, it has understood the kingdom of God as a goal for the here-and-now. The idea of Christendom, a civilization ruled by Christian kings, following Christian laws and fighting for Christian ideals allowed for and encouraged the crusades. It has allowed for the persecution of Jews and Muslims and anyone perceived not to fit into the prevailing understanding of what it means to be “Christian.”
There are, of course, still those who would have this nation be an overtly Christian one, with so-called Christian laws on the books, just like people in other places advocate for another religion’s laws to rule the day. But whenever people begin to try to create the kingdom of God in time, before long, the kingdom of God often seems to look a lot like us. It becomes a reflection of our own values and beliefs, and often the uglier side of those believes. However, the words of Jesus are clear: “My kingdom is not from this world.”
Others in the history of the Church have taken Jesus at his word but understood his kingdom as only having to do with heaven, far, far away. Therefore, (these people would suggest) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness in this world simply need to wait. They’ll get their justice in the next life. And yet, if we believe that the kingdom of God only exists in heaven, we’re left with little or no responsibility for the earth where we live.
But there is another view. Instead of the kingdom absolutely now or the kingdom way away in heaven, Christ calls us into a more unpredictable place, to live between the “already” and the “not-yet.” Wherever there are signs of justice and hope and faith, there is a breaking-in of the kingdom. But it’s partial, not yet fully realized.
The season of Advent will give us opportunity to explore this further as we look at what it means for Christ to have come into the world as a child, but also for us to look forward to his coming again in glory at the end of times.
The kingdom Jesus speaks of is, in some sense, Christ himself. As he reveals himself, the kingdom unfolds. The kingdom of God spreads out as we receive Christ and come to know and love him and continue to embody his kingdom-goals in our lives. As Saint John realizes from the Revelation, “God has made us (with Christ in us) to be a kingdom.”
In some ways, it is a kingdom “not of the world.” It is a kingdom of reversals. The Virgin Mary sings of this kingdom when she says, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He has sent empty away.” To live with Christ as King is to live with an awareness of this reversal.
His is also a kingdom of outcasts. When we read the Gospels, we encounter a wild array of people who come to hear Jesus, who follow him, and who make him their Lord. Some are prostitutes, some are tax collectors, some widows, some soldiers; some are very rich, some are very poor, but they are unlikely to meet except in the presence of Christ. To live with Christ as King is to live in continual welcome of the outcast, of those who have nowhere else to go.
And finally, his is a kingdom of possibilities. To live with Christ as King is to live in expectation, to live in hope, and to live in faith. It is a kingdom of second chances, and third chances and fourth and fifth and sixth chances.
When I think of the feast of Christ the King and try to get my head around an image of the Kingdom of God, I remember especially one Christ the King Sunday when I was a seminarian at a church in Philadelphia. I had stopped into a Burger King on the way into town to get coffee, and just as I was leaving, I noticed the paper crowns on the counter and thought the kids at church might have fun with them on that Sunday, as they talked about kings and queens, and what royalty might mean to God. I left the crows with the Sunday school teacher and went on with the things I had to do that morning.
Later, we were in the main worship service, and it was the custom of this church for the children to parade up the aisle along with the offerings of money and the offerings of bread and wine for Communion. As they began to appear, we all noticed they were wearing their crowns—sort of. The crowns looked really different. It turns out that two kids had gotten into a fight, and both crowns were torn up, so they had been patched with construction paper. A couple of new kids showed up and there weren’t enough crowns, so other kids cut theirs in half, extend the all four with paper, and made new crowns. One little girl had added glitter to hers and another child found feathers somewhere. It was a crazy, wonderful sight—but really illustrated beautifully a vision of the kingdom of God.
At our baptism, we’re given a pristine, perfect crown to grow into. But along the way, we drop it, step on it, it gets stolen, we loan it out, on and on… you get the idea. I think that by the time we get to heaven, we show up a little like those kids at my old church: crowns askew, broken but mended, shattered but made whole again. And then, just like the entrance of a room full of kids, we, too are received fully into God’s presence: royals, all!
In addition to Christ the King, today is the day when we are invited to write down our pledge for the coming year. What part is God calling us to play in this part of God’s unfolding kingdom? Maybe you play your part with prayer, or with your presence, or with your gifts of money, or leadership, or hospitality, or sharing the love of Christ. There’s room for everyone and there’s room for everyone’s gifts. But this is no time to be shy, or stingy, or fearful, or cautious. Our living into the lavishness of God’s love begins now, and so we should be lavish with God in our response.
As we grow into the Kingdom of God, let us give thanks for Christ the King, our lord, brother, and friend. In his name, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, Amen.