The Curious Case of Christ the King – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

The Feast of Christ the King is a strange one.  By Church standards, it is relatively new: first established in the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius XI (11th) in 1925.[1]  The 1979 Book of Common Prayer stole,[2] almost verbatim, the Collect for Christ the King, but Episcopalians didn’t fully adopt it until 2009.  In fact, if you look in the Prayer Books in the pews, you won’t find any reference to this day as Christ the King anywhere in its pages.  To make matters worse, this country came into being in rebellion against a King.  For 239 years, we’ve been pro-democratic republic and anti-monarchy, so it is really hard for us to think about what it means to claim Jesus as the King of kings.  We sing hymns about royal diadems, thrones, crowns, and angels prostrating themselves, and I can’t help but wonder, do we have any idea what we’re talking about?

Not being an expert on kingship myself, I turned to my usual preaching resources in hopes of finding someone who was giving real thought to what it means for us to claim Jesus as King.  Twenty-eight pages later, I hadn’t found word one dealing with what life looks like with Jesus as our King.  So then I got to thinking about the things I associate with royalty, thinking that maybe if I could match those things with Jesus we could make sense of this strange Feast of Christ the King.

The first thing that came to mind was opulence.  My primary vision of kingship comes from touring the castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria during my three weeks as a foreign exchange student in 1997.  You might know of Ludwig II’s most famous castle, Neuschwanstein because it served as Walt Disney’s model for the central castle at his theme parks.  Completed in 1882, Neuschwanstein cost 6.2 million gold marks to build, roughly $100 billon today, and was only one of the sixteen castles, lodges, and residences that Ludwig built or gutted and remodeled during his 23 year reign.  The carvings in his bedroom took four carpenters four and half years to complete.  Ludwig II did opulence in a big way, but by that standard, Jesus wasn’t a very good king.  He and his disciples lived modest lives, depending mostly on the hospitality of others for food and lodging.  He had some rich friends and benefactors, but there is no castle in Galilee that bears the name of Jesus that we can go visit. So, I thought some more.

The second characteristic of kingship that came to mind was sovereignty – supreme power or authority, or better said, there can only be one king.  When Henry VIII was the King of England, there was no doubt that he was in control.  It didn’t matter if you were a prince or a pauper, a bishop or a blacksmith, if you were one of the estimated 40 or 50 thousand people who got on the wrong side of Henry VIII politically or theologically, you quickly found yourself on the wrong side of a sharp axe or a large wood fire.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, we hear the competing claims of two sovereignties.  It is Good Friday, and Jesus has been turned over by the Chief Priests to Pilate on the dual charges of sedition and treason. Pilate is certainly not a king, but he worked for one. As the Roman Governor of Judea, Pilate served as the representative of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar and his sole responsibility was to keep the people of Israel in line and paying their taxes.  That’s why Pilate was in Jerusalem during this week.  He usually spent his time on the coast, but because it was the Passover, the annual remembrance of when God had saved the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, Pilate brought his army to town to remind the people that Tiberius was the sovereign leader of every square inch of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem included.  But this Friday morning was different.  There was something strange about the man that the Jews had brought for execution.  As Pilate entered the Praetorium, he saw Jesus and uttered words that the NRSV translates as a question, but could, in the Greek, be just as easily read as a statement of fact, “You are the King of Jews.”[3]

Pilate is right, Jesus is a King, but Jesus is clear that he isn’t interested in waging a war between two sovereign states.  Jesus’ kingship isn’t about a time and a place, but rather Jesus is sovereign over everything that is and was and ever will be.  Simply put, if Jesus is our King, nothing else can be.  That is easier said than done, of course, as there are any number of things in this world that are, at any given moment, violently competing with Jesus for kingship over our lives.  Envy is a popular competitor this time of year as we struggle to have a better light display, a taller tree with more presents under it, and a busier holiday party schedule than anybody else.  Even more timely and probably the strongest pull on our allegiance to Jesus as King is fear.   As my friend and mentor Diana Butler Bass wrote earlier this week, “I have become convinced that a large percentage of Americans — Christians included — are addicted to anxiety.”

Since about the year 2000, American Christians, especially Mainline Protestant ones have lived in fear that our churches our dying.  Since 9/11, Americans have lived in fear of the next terrorist attack.  Since the Great Recession of 2008, we have lived in fear that there just won’t be enough to go around.  Anxiety makes its claim for kingship on our lives by attempting to make fear our number one motivator, and everyone from politicians in Washington, to advertisers on Madison Avenue, and even preachers in pulpits have taken notice and pledged their allegiance to anxiety and fear.

We saw the power of fear again this week as it was invoked again and again in the debate over Syrian refugee resettlement here in the United States.  Everywhere we turn; our anxiety is being used as motivation to buy, to vote, and in some cases, even to hate.  As Christians, we cannot allow anxiety and fear to rule our lives.  Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, published a letter warning us about making fear our king, “In times like this fear is real.  And I share that fear with you.  Our instinct tells us to be afraid. The fight-or-flight mentality takes hold.  At the present moment, many across our Church and our world are grasped by fear in response to the terrorist attacks that unfolded in Paris last Friday.  These fears are not unfounded…   And yet, especially when we feel legitimate fear, our faith reminds us “Be not afraid.”  The larger truth is that our ultimate security comes from God in Christ.”[4]

Neither the Presiding Bishop nor I are saying that there are easy answers to these difficult questions.  What I think we are saying is that anxiety is a cruel monarch, and if we make it king of our lives, it will surely kill us.  Instead of cruelty, Jesus offers us a gracious kingdom.  Jesus offers us a kingdom in which there is peace in the midst of anxiety; a kingdom where there is always enough if we are willing to share; a kingdom that is defined by hope, faith, and above all, love.

We each have a choice to make.  If Jesus is our King, then anxiety cannot be.  If Jesus is our King, then we must live under the rules of his kingdom and that means we have to love our neighbors and our enemies.  If Jesus is our King, then we must learn to obey him when he enters the depths of our anxiety and says, “Have no fear.” We’ve got to be like the followers Jesus describes to Pilate – followers that don’t stand up and fight out of fear, but followers who reach out in care and compassion for the least, the lost, and yes, even those who would do us harm – because that’s what the Kingdom of God looks like.  The Feast of Christ the King is hard to wrap our minds around because the Kingdom of God is beyond our comprehension.  Yet every day we join together and pray for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.  May Jesus Christ come to be our King, and may fear, envy, and everything else that clamors for our allegiance be put to silence under his sovereign and most gracious rule.  Amen.


[2] Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 185.




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