Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Christ the King Sunday bridges Ordinary Time and Advent, inviting us to shift our attention to preparation for the Incarnation, even as the retail machine already is shoving us headlong into Christmas.
This Sunday also kicks off the week of Thanksgiving, with many in the pews focused on company coming or travel looming. For many, the reign of our Lord is not at the on the top of our minds as we consider all the other issues and tasks barreling towards us this week. Some of us worry about the non-stop news of impeachment hearings hijacking any hope of a peaceful family gathering. Others wonder if they will be alone on a day billed as being all about family and friends. Overflowing tables and endless calls to purchase Christmas gifts cast in stark relief for a lot of our neighbors the growing divide between the rich and the impoverished. The cultural shift toward the holidays is in full swing, and subsequently few will come to worship expecting to hear Jesus’ Passion narrative this time of year. Everything about this liturgical emphasis on kingship and crucifixion feels off in a world awash in turkeys and tinsel.
Why do we observe this odd day anyway? Christ the King Sunday is not an ancient high and holy day. It began being observed in the mid 1920s, a practice instituted by Pope Pius XI out of a concern for the growing secularism and the rise of fascism in Europe. Pope Pius XI’s encyclical instituting the feast states, “When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.”
Eventually, this liturgical feast changed dates and made its way to Protestant churches as well. And here we are in 2019, still praying for “the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.” Here we are in 2019 facing increased secularism and the rise of fascism. Here we are in 2019 proclaiming that Jesus is Lord not only in our hearts, but over all that is seen and unseen, regardless of the evidence to the contrary. Here we are in 2019 preaching that amid all the consumerism and politicking, the income inequality and division, the food-laden tables and tent cities, Jesus reigns. The claim has the credibility of a robotic Twitter account, counter to reality, outrageous and provably false. Jesus does not seem to hold sway over those who sometimes call on his name the loudest (if their behavior is any indication, anyway), let alone those occupying the halls of power. Christ is King, OK pastor.
The gospel text seems to confirm rather than counter the assessment that Christ the King is potentially fake news. Jesus, labeled king of the Jews in irony and as a means to further humiliate him, is gawked at by the crowd, scoffed at by the leaders, mocked by the soldiers and derided even by the criminal who hangs beside him. Jesus, the king, remains passive, acted upon through most of these verses, hardly like any earthly monarch. And that is the point. Jesus is like no earthly ruler. Jesus is the antithesis of dictators, bullies and power brokers. King Jesus does not coerce or intimidate, use violence or bribery to get his way. The One who rules heaven and earth hangs powerless on the cross for the sake of the ones hanging beside him, both the criminal who recognizes him and the one who blasphemes him. He takes on the sin of the spectators and the scoffers, the mockers and the deniers. Jesus’ reign of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony comes by way of the cross, ushered in through solidarity with the helpless and those who suffer unspeakable cruelty and pain. Christ the King is like no other. He came not to be served, but to serve. He came not to stand apart from the least of these, but to take their place. He came not to puff himself up but to pour himself out.
Jesus will be raised and sit at the right hand of God. Jesus will defeat death, conquer sin and save the world not through military might and worldly wealth but through vulnerable, sacrificial love. Those of us who know this ultimate truth are to proclaim this to all the other powers fighting to reign in our hearts and in the world. Jesus reigns in cellblocks of convicted criminals, calling for repentance and offering forgiveness. Jesus, refugee and asylum seeker himself, reigns for those who have no home, promising that none other than God prepares a place for them. Jesus rules in government offices and on the streets with protestors, urging all to see in one another the image of God, to know of God’s desire for justice and to participate in the inevitability of its coming. Jesus is Lord in those places of great abundance and those of soul crushing scarcity, calling on people to work to make sure everyone has enough. Jesus reigns in us when we seek his kingdom first, that kingdom of light where darkness no longer rules.
As we wrestle with whatever we bring to church this week, be reassured that Jesus is indeed Lord of all, the Prince of Peace, the one who saves sinners, the one who redeems all of creation, no matter its current state. No matter if you are anxious about the state of the world or worried deeply about a loved one, Jesus is present and offering grace. No matter if you are going to be surrounded by family and friends or working or eating alone on Thursday, Jesus is present and offering the bread of life. No matter if you struggle with things you have done or things you have left undone, Jesus is present, extending forgiveness and empowering you to repent and try again. No matter what holds you captive – resentments, addiction, guilt, fear, or anything else in all creation – Jesus is present, will never leave you orphaned. Jesus understands your suffering and promises the gift of peace that passes understanding, because Christ the King is like no other.
As I wrote this reflection, I kept inadvertently typing Christ the Kind. It seems a Spirited typo. Christ the King is indeed Christ the kind and kind, in 1925 and today, is all too counter-cultural. Kind feels quaint, weak, ineffectual. But our Lord Jesus, Christ the King, shows us otherwise. Jesus the Good Shepherd, tends to the weak, rescues the lost, comforts those who mourn and binds up the brokenhearted and in so doing reveals the transformative power of God. We are called to do likewise, revealing to others who really holds power over us.
- Is the language of kingship, reign, rule, kingdom problematic? Why or why not? Is there other language that might express this concept?
- If you honestly assess your life, what has power over you? How might your life look different if Christ was truly in charge?
- How do we in the church capitulate to worldly power(s) rather than to God’s?
- Look at the verbs in the passage from Luke. What kind of picture do they paint of the subjects of those verbs? What kind of picture do they reveal of Jesus?
- The Colossians passage says that we “share in the inheritance of the saints of light” and are “transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.” What do these images mean to you? For the church?
- The Jeremiah text talks of God “attending” to people. If God is attending to you, what does God see, what does God do for you?
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