November 25, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Today we celebrate what we call the Feast of Christ the King. It is always observed on the last Sunday of the liturgical year and next week, we begin again with the first Sunday in Advent. Throughout the year, we hear royal language to describe the leadership of God as well as that of Jesus, who is called the Prince of Peace. We hear Kingdom language, when Jesus shares his vision, God’s vision of the hopes and dreams for a way people may live together in peace, in right relationship, in a model of love and inclusion. Over time, some have changed the language of Kingdom to be more inclusive and call it the Reign of God or Kin’dom. So today, we gather to recommit ourselves to being co-creators of this amazing vision of a world where all may live in peace. Let us pray, Loving God, Gentle Jesus, we gather together this day, seeking to be renewed in faith, inspired in love, and receive the gift of hope as we look ahead to the coming of the Advent Season. We ask this in Your Name, Amen.
We know that most Americans do not have a first-hand experience of a monarchy. The United States was founded as a democratic alternative to monarchic power structures. Nonetheless, the vestiges of monarchy are a part of our sacred and secular literatures. Many fairy tales, children’s books, and fantasy novels feature kings and queens, princes and princesses, and literary conventions often include a happy ending which features the ascent of a good monarch and a royal wedding. American children dress up as princes and princesses, living out a simplified ideal in which monarchs have all the privileges but none of the responsibilities of rule. Both tv and magazines keep Americans up-to-date with the activities of the British monarchy, who have come to be stripped of both the power and the responsibility of lawmaking, but retain significant economic privilege and social responsibility. Yet neither of these modernized monarchies should act as models as we celebrate the reign of Christ.
In the ancient Near East, a very different monarchal ideal prevailed: one of divinely ordained just rule. We see this reflected in 2 Samuel 23:3. It is further mentioned in what we call the Royal Psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132, 144), one of which we read today, and later in the life of Christ. This ideal suggests that a monarch is divinely chosen to represent God’s reign on earth, and as God’s representative is the offspring of God. God’s representative is not chosen to exploit this privilege, but rather to serve both God and the people over whom the monarch rules. A king or queen is a public servant, who, like God, protects and speaks up for the poor and disenfranchised when others would exploit their powerlessness. A monarch who rules justly in this way is God’s own. Many rulers claimed to fulfill this ancient ideal, but fell sadly short. As we recover from the election season, we are sadly too aware that public servants today continue to fall short of the ideals we set forth for them and even those they set forth for themselves, not to mention those of God’s sacred just rule. They will continue to do so, but in claiming and celebrating the reign of Christ, we perpetuate the ideal of just rule and hold it up as a standard to which we all can aspire. Like the early Christians who proclaimed that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord, we can proudly state, “Jesus is my public servant,” and seek to follow his example of leadership, rather than the flawed human examples that surround us. We are all children of God, and in the ways we interact with others, we can work toward a just rule in which each of us is a true public servant.
The Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann speaks about the dialogue we hear in John’s Gospel as a great legal argument over who Jesus really is: Jesus isn’t the one on trial today, but each one of us is called to testify and perhaps, to be on trial ourselves. We might ask ourselves what we really say, and believe, about Jesus? Writer Scott Black Johnston reminds us that the reign of Jesus isn’t over territory or peoples but over the “truth to which people belong.”
Do we “belong” to this truth? Would people recognize that in the ways we live our lives? Brueggemann says that we’re not dealing with something intellectual or theoretical things here, but with “a way of being in the world in suffering and hope, so radical and so raw that we can scarcely entertain it.” Could people say that about the way we live our lives, as disciples of Jesus?
What does it mean to be “in the world” when we belong to God? Of course, it means that our loyalty–and our love and devotion—is given to God rather than any other person, thing, or power that tries to claim primacy over God. This kind of love for God is the opposite of idolatry. Some people, however, may be driven to follow idols, to those who hold power because of fear, because we often want to belong to something outside themselves.
As Christians, as people of faith, we do belong to a king whose heart is so tender that we might better see him as a good and loving shepherd who calls us to follow; we can only hope that we may recognize the voice of Christ and respond, as so many who crossed his path did, like the blind man, the sheep, and Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, later, in the garden. When we read about Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospels, we hear much about the Kingdom. In Luke, we hear again and again, that the Kingdom of God is about taking care of the poor. It’s not about thrones, it’s not about the military or the empire, the Kingdom is about the poor. And the second thing that Luke and the other writers emphasize is that Jesus was always looking for those who were and who felt marginalized. So often, the despised people of his time were the heroes; the Samaritan woman, the Good Samaritan, the Rich man who shares with the Poor, those who have ears to hear, women, the sick…His Kingdom was about taking care of the people that nobody else cared about; it was for those who others thought were unclean; the handicapped, those thought to be sinners, Jesus was healing them. Even at the end of his own life, he dies on a cross with not many people there, few of his friends sadly, not a triumphant death by any means.
Eugene Peterson beautifully shares the words of Jesus in The Message, “Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice” (The Message). The truth is something we have a feeling for, a longing for, and we hope that the powers-that-be don’t block our way to that truth.
There is the truth about Jesus, and then there’s the truth about ourselves that we must face. We are reminded today as we commemorate Christ the King Sunday that it is a gentle shepherd-king who calls us to examine our lives carefully and honestly, as Pilate was apparently unable to do.
The role of the church in our lives is one important way that a loving God helps us to carry on this lifelong self-examination, this thoughtful and prayerful self-awareness that should not lead to self-absorption or obsessive guilt. Instead, the church offers a place of nurture and honest but loving encouragement to grow deeper in our faith, to immerse ourselves more deeply in the grace of God, to listen more closely to the call of God in each of our lives.
We don’t experience Christ’s reign all on our own, of course: we are really part of something bigger than our little selves, when we live within the reign of Christ. This shared experience makes us belong to one another and to God, who invites us into this community and helps us on our way. This is the place where we get to know who we are as followers of Jesus, and who we are together, as a community of faith.
We have come to the end of another liturgical year when we observe Reign of Christ Sunday. Everything we believe as people of faith comes together here, with Christ as the focal point, reigning over all creation in goodness and truth, a “ruler” we can approach without fear, knowing that we belong to this gentle and loving shepherd-king who leads us, and cares for us, and calls us home, where we belong. Truly, there is no need for fear. (Rev. Kate Mathews)
I will close with a wonderful observation by theologian, Frederick Buechner, who wrote, “If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”
― Frederick Buechner