Christ the King Sunday

Psalm 46                     THE SERMON

Jeremiah 23:1-6        Proper 29 – C (RCL)

Colossians 1:11-20   21 November 10

Luke 23:35-43         All Saint’s Church

 

 

For a people who have neither a king nor a queen, Americans seem fascinated by royalty.

The British foreign press has remarked more than once that Americans are more interested in Queen Elizabeth and her family than are residents of Great Britain.  Americans mourned the death of Princess Diana as if she were one of us.  Americans have strong opinions on the suitability of Prince Charles to become king.  Americans are already excited about the wedding of Prince William and Kate, announced last week.

          Americans, without their own king or queen, compensate for this lack by inventing local royalty.  When Sweetness and I visited Graceland in Memphis a few years ago, it was to tour the home of Elvis Presley, who was known as “the king.”  There used to be a program on television called Queen for a Day. When Budweiser calls itself “the king of beers”, that is a good thing.  I don’t know what Queen Latifa is queen of but she is a good thing, too. 

          As much as Americans are enamored of kingship and queenship and royalty in general, we really don’t want the actual real thing. There was some support, in the late 18th Century, to have a king in America rather than a president but democratic ideals swept that idea quickly away.  And one of the mottos of that debate in the colonies was “No king but Christ.”

          Today is the 26th Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost, the last Sunday of the Church Year, the Sunday next before the first Sunday in Advent … and we call this Sunday “Christ the King.”

          On this Sunday, in many parts of the Christian Church, we celebrate the kingship of Jesus Christ. In sharp contrast to those depictions of our Lord, naked and bleeding on the Cross, today’s image of Jesus is of a ruling monarch, with a crown on his head, emphasizing his victory over death, rather than the horror of his Crucifixion. The Christus rex which hangs over the altar at Saint Thomas’ Church, Medina, is an artistic depiction of Christ the King. 

          The Feast of Christ the King is a relatively recent addition to the Christian Kalendar. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius the 11th on the last Sunday in October and later moved to the last Sunday after Pentecost.       What began as a Roman Catholic observance has spread throughout the Western Church and is now observed by Lutherans and Episcopalians, as well. The Collect of the Day, with which we began this morning’s celebration, is a translation of the original Roman Catholic collect composed in Latin for the Christ the King Sunday.   It celebrates the power of Christ to free those who are enslaved and to unite those who are divided … which are kingly acts indeed.

          There are a number of Episcopalians who are not all that thrilled about projecting onto Jesus the image of a king, which may account for the less-than-universal acceptance of the Last Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost as Christ the King Sunday. Kings (and queens, for that matter) don’t come off all that well in the Bible.  They tend to be selfish, arrogant and forever getting themselves into trouble by pursuing their own ends rather than the God’s.  Remember Ahab and Jezebel. 

          Monarchs don’t do all that well in secular history, either, especially when viewed through the lens of modern democratic individualism, which is the only lens most of us 21st Century Americans have through which to view history. 

          From a feminist perspective, monarchy is intrinsic to hierarchy and all hierarchy is seen as a means by which men subjugate women.  To suggest that the Son of God is somehow implicated in all of this by plopping a crown on his head runs counter to the feminist agenda. 

          Other folks are just confused by the image of Jesus the King … because their sense of the Jesus of the Gospels is that he is more the anti-king … the one whose powerlessness becomes power, whose lack of the means to attain a military or political victory leads to God’s victory over sin and death. 

          Yet the scriptures appointed to this morning are all about Christ understood as a kind of king.  The prophecy from the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah says that the Messiah, who is Jesus, “shall reign as king.”   Saint Paul says to the Colossians that God the Father “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son …”  Saint Paul understood Jesus to be the Messiah about whom Jeremiah spoke.  Saint Paul understood Jesus to be a king and to have a kingdom with us as his subjects. 

          The story from the Passion according to Saint Luke seems out of place because it is out of season.  This story is supposed to be read on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, not on the Sunday next before the Christmas shopping season begins in earnest.  Yet in it, Jesus is described as “the king of the Jews” and, in actual fact, He was. 

          The Church has been singing about Jesus as some sort of king ever since.  We sing “Crown him with many crowns.”  We sing “The king of love my shepherd is.”  We sing “Beautiful Saviour, King of Creation.”

          But what do we mean when we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and make statues and paintings of Christ the King and believe what it says in the Holy Scriptures and sing all of those old royal hymns?

          Not everything we know about kingship is good. As any child who has seen the Walt Disney version of Robin Hood can tell you, Good King Richard is balanced by Prince John, the Cowardly King of England.  It is, after all, the oppressed peasants in the cartoon strip The Wizard of Id who are forever saying or writing “The King is a fink” and not without good reason.  The Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was no sweetie pie, either.  King George the Third of England was a compete nutter, certifiably mad, and, had he been sane, we might all be British subjects at this very moment. 

          So, surely, when we say that Jesus is a king, we must mean the good kind. 

          As much as American like royalty, they tend to prefer it in somebody else’s country, lest the authority of a king or queen be exercised over us in ways which we dislike. 

          Folks in those other countries which still have kings and queens have had the same concerns over the years, which is why monarchy just isn’t what it used to be.   The king in The Wizard of Id hands down draconian sentences for minor offenses: he is constantly ordering someone to be executed, and nobody wants monarchs who are able to do that.  So modern kings and queens have had their powers scaled down to the point where they function mostly as symbols of national unity.  The monarchy in Great Britain and in the Scandinavian countries is very much like that.  Monarchs are less like rulers and more like figureheads in the 21st Century. 

 

          Which is, just possibly, what we tend to do with Christ the King.  This results in a scaled-down Jesus, a sort of symbolic Christ who is not really capable of doing much more than inspiring our imaginations and giving us a central figure around whom to rally.  And that Jesus is just too small to be the Christ of the Gospels. 

The Christ of the Gospels is the King of kings and the Lord of Lords.  He is the one through whom all creation came into being, the one to whom all creation must answer, and the one who loved us all so much that he conquered sin and death to set us free from it.   And that Jesus ain’t no figurehead. 

We have this awful tendency to forget who is in charge of the Church.  Maybe Christ the King Sunday was invented as a sort of antidote to that kind of lapse in our thinking.

          There is a push in the Anglican Communion right now to make the Archbishop of Canterbury into some sort of pope and the primates of the several churches which make up the Anglican Communion into a kind of College of Cardinals. 

          Because we are an Episcopal Church – a church of bishops – there is another awful tendency to try to make the local bishop a sort of Christ figure, from whom we expect the perfection of Jesus Himself, who will give us all the right answers and solve all of our problems. 

          Congregations have an awful tendency to try to turn their rector or vicar into a sort of Christ figure for them, but all that does is burn out rectors and vicars and disappoint congregations.

          The American solution to all of this clericalism is to turn the congregation into the ultimate authority, drawing on our democratic experience in the civil sector, but congregations are no more an adequate substitute for Jesus than are ordained people. 

          None of these tendencies would appear if the people of God more firmly believed in the kingship of Jesus Christ.  People subject to King Jesus wouldn’t turn Him into a figurehead.  People subject to King Jesus wouldn’t need to seek alternatives to his rule in the rule of church organizations and officers. The trick is to remember who is in charge – neither archbishops nor bishops, neither rectors nor vicars, and not even congregational meetings – but Jesus. 

          You have to wonder what the church would look like if we believed that seriously. 

 

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