If Christ is King – a sermon

You can listen to this on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


In the Fall of 1925, Pope Pius the Eleventh threw a fit.  The Pope was upset about the growing power of modernity in the world.  As people believed more and more what science was coming to discover, Pius and many other religious leaders, were afraid that the Bible would have less and less power in peoples’ lives.  He was anxious that the Church might become irrelevant and he desperately wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.  On top of that, the Pope was embroiled in a nearly hundred-year-old controversy between the burgeoning Kingdom of Italy and the Papal States.  Since 1849, a newly unified Italy had been fighting with the Roman Catholic Church over who controlled the city of Rome.  The Popes were sure that the Church was in charge.  The Italian Parliament had other ideas.  By 1925, Pius, the fifth Pope to take on this fight, had had enough.[1]  On December 11, 1925, he published an encyclical entitled Quas primas which argued for the Kingship of Jesus above all others and reiterated that the Roman Catholic Church was the “kingdom of Christ on earth” with the Pope obviously serving as its temporal ruler.  Finally, to commemorate these two foundational truths, Pope Pius the Eleventh created the Feast of Christ the King.[2]

In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Last Sunday after Pentecost uses, almost verbatim, the Roman Catholic Collect for Christ the King, but it stopped short of making today a Feast Day.  When we adopted the Revised Common Lectionary in 2009, Christ the King was included in the package and became a thing in the Episcopal Church.  Some would say it shouldn’t be a thing seeing as, if you look in the Prayer Books in your pews, you’ll find absolutely no reference to the Feast of Pope Pius the Eleventh’s Temper Tantrum.  I’m sure Pius is in heaven today, scratching his head and wondering how a bunch of Protestants ended up subscribing to a feast created to affirm the earthly authority of the Pope, but here we are, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, celebrating the Feast of Christ the King.

While I find this Feast Day’s genesis to be questionable, what I appreciate about having a day set aside to honor Jesus Christ as our King is that it gives us an opportunity to imagine Jesus in an unusual way.  21st century American Christians aren’t well versed in the language of kings.  We live in a country that was founded in rebellion against the King of England.  If I’m honest, most of what I know about kings and queens is the result of whatever the American news decides to pick up from the British tabloids.  Yet this image of Jesus Christ as King is a well-established, apocalyptic, theme in the Scriptures.  Dubious feast day or not, it is worth our time to ponder what it means to call Jesus Christ our King and to live within his Kingdom.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning, we find a very clear image of what it means to live within the boundaries of the Kingdom of God.  Remember the context for this parable, and for all the apocalyptic parables we have heard over the last month. [3]  Jesus isn’t making general claims to a large audience, but rather, these are final words about final things, addressed to his closest disciples.  It is Tuesday in Holy Week, and the cross is quickly approaching.  Jesus knows that his disciples have already committed quite a bit to following Jesus.  He isn’t trying to tell them what they need to do to be included in his Kingdom, but rather, what is expected of those who claim to live under the authority of Christ the King.  As inheritors of this Apostolic Tradition, we should read these words carefully, not as a parable of judgment against those who do not know Christ, but as a stark judgment against those who claim to follow Christ the King but can’t be bothered to live in his service.  This parable is a helpful reminder that the proper response to the love of God is to reach out with compassion to those Jesus came to save.  We who are bold enough to claim a place in the Kingdom of God bring honor to the King when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, and visit the incarcerated.

What is particularly interesting in this parable is that neither the sheep nor the goats realize they had seen the king in the poor, the hungry, or the sick.  One group was motivated to action, not out of guilt, fear, or shame, but out of love.  This group saw a need, and decided to do something about it.  Living in the Kingdom of God means having your eyes open to see God’s hand at work in the world about you.  Yet it means more than just seeing.  Living in the Kingdom of God, being counted among the sheep, means seeing and being God’s hand at work in the world about us.  As Episcopalians, we affirm this Kingdom truth every time we renew our Baptismal covenant; promising that with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons.

Over time, I have become more and more convinced that the true work of discipleship is learning how to see Christ in our neighbors.  It is only when we can see that we can then act to relieve their suffering.  In the Ephesians lesson, Paul prays a prayer that is becoming the foundation of my that understanding of discipleship.  “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

We grow in relationship with God by learning how to see the world through God’s eyes.  As we become more in tune with the heart of God, we see more clearly the injustices of this world, we see the suffering and are moved with compassion, we see the lonely, the anxious, the hungry, the naked, the poor, the outcast, the incarcerated, and the hopeless and we are compelled to act because in them, as in all our neighbors, we see the face of Christ.  Of course, this does not happen on our own.  The only way to fix our spiritual eyesight is with the help of God.  Through prayer and studying the Scriptures, God works to focus the eyes of our hearts, making us more and more able to see, so that, when the day of judgment comes, our question cannot be, or at least should not be, Lord when did we see you, because as baptized followers of Jesus Christ the King, we have already made a promise, that with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in every person we meet, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Pope Pius the Eleventh might not have had it 100% correct, but he did get some things right.  Jesus Christ is the King of kings.  It is under his authority that all of humanity lives.  One day he will come with power and glory to sit in judgment upon his throne, and all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, members of his Kingdom and subject to his authority, will need to be ready to have an answer to the question: Did we see our neighbors in need and respond with love or with apathy?  Everyday, we see dozens, if not hundreds, of our neighbors.  All of them need God’s love.  This morning, our lessons invite us to see Christ in each of them, to reach out in compassion, and to offer the love of God, not out of fear of judgment or guilt or shame, but as a loving response to the love which our King has shown to us.  Who knows, one day, with God’s help, we might just find ourselves counted among the sheep and pleased to hear these words, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_Christ_the_King

[2] http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_11121925_quas-primas.html

[3] https://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2017/11/one-sunday-two-voices.html

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In service of the King

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If you spend much time in liturgical churches, you will no doubt see the three letters at the center of the cross in the above picture.  IHS is a Latin-scripted contracted version of the all-capitalized Greek rendering of Jesus IHΣΟΥΣ, which is to say, all IHS really means, historically is the first three letters of the name Jesus.  Over time, and especially after the Protestant Reformation cut off most Church history prior to 1617, the meaning of many symbols morphed into something else or disappeared all together, such that for many American Christians IHS means “In His Service.”

This is, of course, not inherently a bad thing.  To have Christians living by a motto like “In His Service” could prove fruitful in a world hell-bent on the service of self, and what better time to consider our service of Jesus than on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, which in many Episcopal Churches is called “Christ the King.”  The Gospel lesson appointed for Year A is comprised of Jesus’ final image of the eschaton.  I would title it “the sheep and the goats,” but after twenty minutes for frantic searching during my General Ordination Exams, I now know that the HarperCollins Study Bible calls it “The Judgement of the Gentiles,” even though Gentiles aren’t mentioned in it once. (The digressions are coming fast and furious this Monday, please accept my apologies.)

In this vision of the final judgment, Jesus offers as clear a statement on what is expected of his followers.  I’m thankful to my friend, Evan Garner, for reminding me of the context of all of Jesus’ teaching on the End Times.  “These three judgment parables are not spoken to the crowds or to Jesus’ opponents but to Jesus’ closest friends. They already know what it means to belong to God as God’s beloved children. He’s not telling them what it takes to get into the kingdom of God. He’s inviting them to see what is required to live within that kingdom.”  We, who follow in the Apostolic Tradition, should read these words similarly.  This isn’t a judgment upon those who do not know Jesus, but a clear testimony of what life should look like for those who claim Jesus as Lord.

Our lives are best lived in the service of the King.  IHS might not have always meant “In His Service,” but it is a helpful reminder that our proper response tot he love of God is to reach out in loving service to those he came to save.  We who are bold enough to claim a place in the Kingdom of God bring honor to the King when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, and visit the incarcerated.  When, at the end, it comes time to determine whose lives were lived in allegiance to the King of kings, our service of the King will be the opportunity for judgment.

The King we Need, not the King we Want

Today’s sermon is posted on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


I’m always amazed at just how quickly November arrives.  It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating Mardi Gras and preparing for Lent.  Now, here we are at the end of the church year, once again celebrating the Feast of Christ the King.  Well, celebrating might not be the best word to use here in Year C when our Gospel lesson comes from Good Friday.  As we close out the church year and ponder what it means to call Jesus the King of kings and Lord of lords, this year, we do so with the stark reality of his death at the hands of Rome and the complicity of the Jewish leadership right in our faces.  It makes me wonder, in light of Good Friday, is Jesus the kind of king we want, or the one we need?

Questions about Jesus’ kingship are particularly difficult to answer for us 21st century Americans because our understanding of kings and queens are based mostly on history books and British tabloids.  While we might admire Queen Elizabeth II for her long reign in England, her monarchy is very different from the role of kings and queens historically.  Her’s is a constitutional monarchy: she rules with the help of an elected Parliament and Prime Minister.  This sort of power sharing has not always been the case.  More common throughout history is the absolute monarchy, a situation in which the king or queen is the sole ruling authority in the land.  In the Bible, we hear the story of Pharaoh in Egypt as an absolute monarch.  Sol, David, Solomon and the other kings of Israel and Judah were the same.  In Jesus’ time, Augustus and Tiberius, while technically Roman Emperors, served with the same sort of iron fist that we tend to think of with the absolute kingships of folks like Henry VIII of England and Louis XIV of France.

When the mocking soldiers called up to Jesus on the cross and said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” they had a particular image of kingship in mind.  When the religious leaders laughed at Jesus and said, “If he is the Anointed One of God [a royal title if I’ve ever heard one] let him save himself” they had a particular image of kingship in mind.  When one criminal derided Jesus and asked, “Aren’t you the Messiah?  Save yourself and us” he had a particular image of kingship in mind.  All these were expecting the King of the Jews, the Anointed One, the Messiah, to be a man of power, arriving with a great army who would overthrow Rome and bring about the peace that Jerusalem had lacked for so long.  They expected a king like those they had known, men who ruled with power and might, horse and rider, sword and shield.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus was and is a different kind of king.  That he was the King of the Jews, there is no doubt.  He is the Messiah.  He is the Anointed One of God, but his kingship is unlike anything the world has ever seen.  His throne is not made of gold.  It does not sit in the throne room of a palace built from marble, exotic woods, and precious metals.  Instead, as Luke’s Passion Narrative so skillfully suggests, Jesus’ throne is two roughhewn wood planks, formed into the shape of a cross.  He doesn’t sit on his throne in luxury, but rather hangs from it in agonizing pain.  Yet from this throne, wearing a crown of thorns instead of gold, Jesus makes two royal proclamations.

The first comes immediately after he had been nailed to the cross and raised into the posture of his death.  Jesus looked upon the crowd around him.  He sees the soldiers, who have beaten him, ridiculed him, nailed him to a tree, and will cast lots for his clothing.  He sees the religious leaders, who have lied under oath, conspired with one of his closest companions, worked for months to trap him in his own words, whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and now watch approvingly as he suffers for all the world to see.  He sees the crowd that just a few days ago welcomed him to town as a king, laying palm branches and cloaks along the road as they shouted out praises; the same crowd that had just that morning cried out for the release of Barabbas and shouted down Herod with chants of “Crucify him! Crucify Him!” the same crowd that is now getting what they thought they wanted.  Noticeably absent are his disciples, his closest followers, those who have seen his miracles, heard his teaching, and who first called him Messiah and Lord; they are hiding a safe distance away for fear that they might be next.  To all of them, there on the hill called the skull and those cowering in fear far away, Jesus declares pardon, saying “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus’ first official act as the King upon his throne was to declare absolution to all those who played a role in his death.  He forgives those who were actively involved like the soldiers, Pilate, and the Pharisees, and those who were passively involved like his disciples and the crowd.  Jesus Christ, the King of kings, leads through forgiveness.

His second proclamation happens later in the day.  After Jesus had hung there for hours under a sign that read “The King of the Jews,” one of the criminals being crucified beside him had the courage to ask for favor from his king.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  After hours of “if” statements, challenging Jesus to be the sort of king others wanted him to be, one man, convicted of a crime punishable by death on a cross, was willing to speak the truth.  Jesus responds with his second royal proclamation, promising salvation to the thief who believed.  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Jesus Christ will not be the type of king the world wants him to be, but instead, he is the king that we need him to be.  A king who leads through forgiveness, and as his second proclamation makes clear, offers salvation to anyone who asks for it, even and maybe even especially those who are well outside the bounds of proper society.

In his final moments and in the face of a shocking amount of doubt and derision, Jesus was able to assert his kingship by welcoming this outsider, this criminal, into his kingdom based on only one criterion: faith.  This unnamed criminal had faith that Jesus was the King of the Jews, and that was all he needed to gain entrance into the Kingdom

Jesus is certainly not the kind of king the world expected him to be.  He led through forgiveness.  He offered salvation to the criminals, tax collectors, and sinners.  He refused to come down from the cross because he knew that the only way for him to exercise his kingship was through obedience unto death.  By not saving himself, he saved the whole world, and made paradise available for everyone: male and female; Jew and Gentile; slave and free; just and unjust.  From his throne of torture, Christ the King declares forgiveness for the whole world, setting us free from our bondage to sin to live and serve in his kingdom of love and compassion.  Thanks be to God Jesus isn’t the sort of king the world wants, but is exactly the king we need.  Amen.

What kind of King?

In the midst of everything else that is changing in my life: a new church in a new town and all that goes with that, this month I also received news that my favorite magazine, Mental Floss, is ending its print run.  With that in mind, I have been savoring the final print edition; reading the articles with great care.  One that is particularly interesting, that I will try to link to when it becomes available is the story of the powerful role of dance in the monarchy of Louis XIV.

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Image from Wikipedia

Despite becoming king at age 4, Louis XIV was a strong ruler.  He clamped down on the central authority of monarchy that he believed was given by God.  One way of holding down the ruling class was to bring them all to Versailles where they were forced to learn intricate dance routines to be offered at the King’s whim.  Even his official portrait hid his rotund upper body behind heavy clothing while featuring his dancer’s legs in a pair of high heels to accentuate his calves.  To say Louis XIV was a different sort of king is an understatement.

Reading that story on the cusp of the Feast of Christ the King has me wondering what sort of king we want Jesus to be.  Some might be searching for an iron-fisted monarch, which is in keeping with the expectations hurled upon him in the crucifixion narrative we have for Sunday.  “Save yourself,” they cry out, as if the sole job of a king is to look out for his own self interests.  Jesus is clear, however, that his reign is not self serving, it is not violent, it is not worried about centralizing power.  Instead, the King we find in Jesus, especially in the Gospel assigned for Year C, is a king who prays for his enemies, has concern for those who persecute him, willingly gives himself up to death for the greater good, and lives out the self-giving love of God to his final breath.

Like the irony of a ballet dancing strong armed king, Jesus’ power comes not through might, but from love.  His reign is based in love, compassion, and forgiveness, and he invites those who would be his subjects to live after his model.  There are many Christians in this world who have a hard time accepting this sort of King Jesus, which is why I think it is of utmost importance that we members of the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement get out there and share the story.  Tell of the King who came to reign with love.  Tell of Jesus whose gospel is forgiveness.  Tell of the monarch who welcomed the marginalized even in the hour of his death.  This version of Christ the King is the monarch that this world so desperately needs, and it is our duty to share him with the world.

If Christ is King

After a challenging week for liberal preachers toeing the line between being pastorally available to the full range of their membership and offering a prophetic word in light of an escalation in anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-black, anti-latino, anti-unfortunately, the list goes on verbal, graffiti, and even physical attacks, this week, the liturgical calendar offers us the relatively new feast of Christ the King.  Also known as the Reign of Christ, this Sunday, the last Sunday after Pentecost, invites us to spend some intentional time thinking about what it means to be members of the cosmic and infinite Kingdom of God even as we live in a particular time and place.  For American Christians in 2016, this question seems to be more timely than ever.

The election of Donald J. Trump as the next President of the United States by a majority of Christian voters has raised the question of what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus.  Christian ethicists will have a field day studying the way in which Christians, conservative and liberal, weighed the goods in conflict between Trump’s clearly anti-Kingdom of God rhetoric regarding minority populations and his purported stances on abortion, LGBT rights, and the economy’s ability to lift up impoverished people.  While it seems clear to me that Jesus’ commandment to love one another shows nearly all of his platform to be antithetical to the Gospel, I can see how for some single-issue voters, my opinion is equally lacking.

Still, whether you voted for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, someone else or nobody at all, the reality is that while we live under the laws of 21st century America, our citizenship is, above all, in the Kingdom of God, with Christ as our King, the King of kings and Lord of lords.  We are, as the Collect for Proper 29 says, divided and enslaved by sin, and the events of the last week have been the work of the Devil to further divide us: first from one another and ultimately from God.  The work of the Church, on the other hand, as described in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer is exactly the opposite.  As members of God’s Kingdom, our mission is the restoration of relationships.  Perhaps, as we continue to face the problems of our time; as we hear the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, a stark reminder of what happens when religion and politics mix; as we prepare for Advent and the coming of Jesus both as vulnerable child and as King of kings, we, disciples of Christ and heirs of the Kingdom, would do well to commit to working against the sin of division and working toward the unity that can only come when we follow Jesus Christ as King and Lord.

Whence Commeth Thy Power?

“Hey Steve, what’s with the King’s English in your blog post title this morning?”  Great question, dear reader, thanks for asking.  As I’ve said before, the English language is like my three year-old’s finger paintings as compared to the van Gogh that is Greek.  Modern English simply lacks the nuance that is available in many other languages.  Take the title of this post as an example.  Modern English has no polite form of address. Whether you are speaking to a close friend or the President of the United States,  you would ask “How are you?” in exactly the same way.  Those who argue for keeping the King James’ Version of the Bible do so, in part, because it maintains the I/Thou relationship between humanity and God.

Modern English also lacks the ability highlight the subtle variations in Greek words.  The well worn example is that Greek has four words that all get translated a love: philia – brotherly love, eros – intimate love, storge – familial love, and agape – self-giving love.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we find two letters that carry two subtle, but very important meanings.  In verse 36, Jesus replies to Pilate saying, “My kingdom is not of this world.” in the King James Version, but in the NRSV, he says, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

Of and From are both perfectly acceptable translations of the Greek preposition “ek.”  When you think of Jesus’ words, you probably remember him saying “My kingdom is not of this world,” or at least that’s how I hear it, but in this week’s Sermon Brainwave Podcast, the scholars at Luther Seminary point out the importance of understanding these two letters in this rather short sentence.  They note that Jesus isn’t talking about the location of his authority, but rather the location of the source of his authority.  In saying that his kingdom is not from this world, Jesus is making a claim before Pilate that no matter how much authority Pilate thinks he has, Jesus’ power comes from on high.  This will come to a head later in the story as Jesus tells Pilate in 19:11, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…”

 

 

 

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“From whence cometh thy authority, Jesus?” is a very real question for Pilate, it was a very real question for the Temple leadership, and it remains a very real question for us today.  The Sermon Brainwave folk invite us to ponder that question by returning to John 1:1 and taking note that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

 

King of kings

Depending on when you purchased your 1979 Book of Common Prayer, you might be surprised to realize that the commonly used name for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (or the Sunday next before Advent), Christ the King, does not actually appear in your book.  If you bought your BCP prior to 2009, there is no reference to Christ the King Day, though since the Collect for Proper 29 was stolen from the Roman Catholic Missal, it does carry strong King of kings language (Hatchett, 195).

The move to call the day Christ the King Sunday comes with General Convention’s adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, and while some are opposed to the idea of the day taking a name that is otherwise foreign to the Book of Common Prayer, and despite my strong reservations about the ongoing Roman Catholic creep in The Episcopal Church, I am beyond fine with appropriating this particular name because I think it invites us to ponder some of the language that gets used around the person of Jesus.  Words like kingdom, reign, Lord, and of course, King.

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For more than 800 years, the Pope, after his election, was crowned with a triple tiara, symbolizing, among other things, his status as the Vicar of Christ, who is seated as King of heaven, earth, and hell.  Despite the less than stellar Photoshop job above, Benedict never wore the triple tiara, as it fell out of use after the Second Vatican Council.  Still, like Christ the King Sunday, the triple tiara serves a symbol that we might want to consider as we talk about Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and King.

Like Pilate in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we are stuck with the political understandings of this world.  Unlike Pilate, as Americans 239 years removed for a Monarch, we can barely begin to imagine what it means to make Jesus King of the Jews, let alone King of our Lives.  How do we handle the bold claims that we make in the Collect for the day?  What do we mean when, almost every week, we claim that Jesus lives and reigns in hypostatic union with the Trinity for ever and ever?  Kingship is tough for us to handle, it is highly counter-cultural, which is all the more reason to call this Sunday, Christ the King and honestly engage what that means for us and for our lives.