A sermon preached for Christ the King Sunday with the faith communities of St. Francis House and St. Luke's. These were the appointed readings for the day: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43.
Happy almost new year! Today is the last Sunday of the year. The church year. Next week is Advent. (Can you believe it?) Somebody said to me this past week that 2016 couldn’t end soon enough for them. Well here it is, a perk of the Christian faith: you don’t have to wait for 2017 to begin a new year. The new year is now. Happy new year’s eve.
The last Sunday of the old year, today, is called Christ the King Sunday. Every year, that’s what the last Sunday of the church year is called. Christ the King Sunday is like the season finale of your favorite television show. The episode tries to do justice to all the different episodes of the past year and also lift up the main themes of what the show, on the whole, tries to embody, what it tries to be about. The finale is a reminder of why you watch. A reminder you can carry until next season begins. In this case, a reminder of what you live when you say “yes” to being a disciple of Jesus. Thus, Christ the King Sunday.
But let’s be honest. Not everybody likes “king” language. For starters, it wreaks of patriarchy. It stinks of status acquired and maintained by force. It calls to mind scheming and wars and a distorted kind of patriotic nationalism, not that democracy is exempt from patriotic nationalism. But the objection to kings is not just a 21st century, post-enlightenment invention. God is on the record for having reservations about the existence of kings as far back as 1 Samuel. There, we’re told that God saw Israel’s request for a king as a rejection of God and a form of idolatry. When it comes to stand-ins for the living God, it turns out God is not a fan.
To make matters worse, whatever “king” would come to mean for Israel and other nations after God reluctantly signed on, however it got lived out, that reputation would inevitably be projected by people like us back onto God. Don’t think God wasn’t mindful of that! It happens all the time. Like when people hear something like “God is love” and project their understanding of love onto God and say that God must be that, that love can’t be more or other or deeper or wider than the love they previously knew or imagined. Of course, to say “God is love” might equally mean instead that in God we discover the fullness of love, the clearest picture of who and what love is, but projection is a hard habit to break.
So we get to this feast, Christ the King, and it’s entirely possible you have in mind the idea that God is great in the same way as your country is great, that is, because God has the equivalent of the largest nuclear arsenal. Because God will not back down. Because God can threaten violence in ways that paralyze the world into peace. Of course, cold wars are not the same as peace, but when you have the most guns, what difference does it make?
When you think about Christ as king, if you’re starting point is what you know about the nations of the world, it is not just possible but likely that you imagine God’s kingdom in the way of earth’s rulers, earth’s queens and kings. Because projection is hard habit to break.
But listen to this. In calling Christ “King”, the power structures of the world are not reinforced or even one upped. No, in Christ’s kingdom, the powers are subverted, turned upside down. They are exposed and emptied of their power.
So witness the scriptures we read today. Christ the King hangs crucified on the cross. This is the king we worship, not some other. This cross is the beginning of our understanding of what it means to call Jesus King and what it means to call God love. Christ’s words of forgiveness, for the ones who kill him and the thief beside him, are the edicts of this kingdom.
At his death, some folks mock him. They cry out to him, “If you are the Son of God, don’t let it end this way.” The crowds think that if Jesus would come down and hit others as he’d been hit, pierce as he’d been pierced, that these would be signs of his strength and God’s favor. But strength is not found in the absence of vulnerability. Strength does not reside in hiding behind walls of privilege and security. Just ask Pontius Pilate, whose wife has been haunted for weeks, with nightmares about the one he’s just crucified. His wife’s words still haunt him, even as Jesus hangs harmlessly from the cross. Murder has not made Pilate strong. Strength does not live in the space of preserving oneself at all costs. But great love, says Jesus, strong love, is this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
And this is what he does. In the words of the great hymn from Philippians, "Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross."
When it comes to being strong and greatness, God defies our projections. A Sunday school kind one time said that God’s love is big enough to become small for us. God’s love for us comes to us vulnerably. A newborn child born to Mary. The spear thrust in his side his scepter. The thief his royal court.
To worship the crucified King is not to forget resurrection. But neither can resurrection cause us to lose sight of what is happening here. Forgiveness pours forth from his side. Mercy marks his reign. Resurrection will not undo this love but rather will affirm it.
All of this is a problem for Christians like me, and maybe you, who have been raised to believe that our children should not suffer or sacrifice for their faith. It is a problem for me, and maybe you, too, when we cannot imagine love that reaches beyond the scope of our obvious self interests.
But, thanks be to God, we are being called together by God - by the same same love that loves us from the cross! We are being called beyond our obvious self interests. We are being gathering by Jesus, who is the image of the invisible God. Week in and week out we are gathered to this place and sent from it again to become more a part of God’s reconciling work, drawing all things together to God, in Christ, witnessing that my salvation is caught up with yours, and that yours in turn is caught up with your neighbors and the stranger, that salvation is God’s work of healing and holding all things, all of us, together in God's love.
This work is good work. This work is hard work. For this good, hard work, you will need to be strong, and you will be strong. God helping you, you will be made strong. But not in the false strength of the kingdoms that have been turned upside down by the Kingdom of the one on the cross. Listen again to Paul’s account as to how you will be made strong. Paul’s prayer today is that you would “be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power…prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.” Like our Savior, we will be made strong enough to endure. We will be made capable of holy suffering and forgiveness. We will be made into a people of patience. While joyfully giving thanks to our Father.
If that doesn’t sound easy, you’re probably wise. And if that’s not your idea of a good time, who can blame you? But, friends, that’s where Christ is. That’s who God is. Enduring in patience, with mercy, extending love and forgiveness, bearing burdens, is what God in Christ does for us and the world. When we eat from this table, we pray to be made like God, more and more. Here at the cross, we proclaim that this is the king whom we worship, not some other, and that this cross is for us the beginning of our understanding of what it means to call Jesus King and what it means to call God love. Love strong enough to be vulnerable. Love great enough to be small. There is no God but this God and so, God help us, we will follow in the way of God’s Son.