Sermon preached by Peter Thompson, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Last Sunday after Pentecost – November 24, 2013
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ King, on which we recognize Christ’s authority over all of creation. “Crown[ing] him with many crowns,” we assert our belief—in the words of this morning’s epistle reading from Colossians—that “he himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Christ the King was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, who sought through the feast to proclaim that Christ was superior to any earthly authority. The Episcopal Church then adopted the feast in 1970, making it one of the newest liturgical observances on our calendar and certainly one of the most controversial. Some churches, afraid of emphasizing Jesus’ maleness and endorsing systems of unjust domination, have chosen to rename this feast “Reign Of Christ,” thus shifting the focus of the feast from an all-powerful male figurehead to a transformed community of justice, peace and love.
There is much to be said for this shift, and the image of Christ as King can be and has been used to justify violence and oppression. At the same time, however, calling Jesus “King” or “Lord” taps into a deeply held human need for authority. By making Jesus our King, we ensure that we have someone to look to for guidance and protection. If Jesus is King, then he will tell us what to do when we do not know what to do and protect us when we do not feel we can protect ourselves. The power Christ the King embodies hence can be as much a comfort as a terror.
In fact, the human impulse to recognize and communicate with authority motivates a good portion of Christian worship and prayer. If you have any doubt of this, just look at our worship each Sunday morning with its bows, processions, robes and other formal finery. What in contemporary American life is closer to the activities of a royal court than the liturgies of a church? The National Cathedral, where I grew up worshipping, has a life-size sculpture of Jesus sitting on a throne above its high altar, and this sculpture has always communicated to me that part of what we are doing on a Sunday morning—or anytime we worship—is paying obedience to the one who holds power.
The kingship of Christ not only infuses our worship, but can also be found throughout scripture. In various parts of the New Testament, Jesus is presented as the successor to the royal line of David to which many Hebrew Bible prophets, like Jeremiah, point. Paul, in many of his letters—as in the letter to Colossians we heard this morning—portrays Jesus as a ruler, reigning above every other existing force. The Revelation to John the Divine acclaims Jesus, in words made famous by Handel’s Messiah, as the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” And the words the “King of the Jews” are written above Jesus as he is crucified in all four Gospels, one of the few details on which all four of them agree.
There is, of course, a tension between different scriptural images of Jesus’ kingship. In many of Paul’s letters and the Revelation to John, Christ the King has complete and unquestioned power over all. But in the crucifixion accounts, Jesus is called King as a way of insulting and minimizing him. The soldiers in today’s reading from Luke say to Jesus “if you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” as they offer him sour wine. The implication is that, despite whatever challenge he may have presented to the Jewish and Roman establishments, Jesus is far from being a real king. After all, what kind of king lets himself be killed, forgiving his enemies along the way? Surely any smart, effective king would use all of the resources at his disposal to crush any threats to his continued reign.
While it may seem that a vulnerable, defeated Jesus undercuts the idea of Jesus as King, what the Gospel is actually doing is envisioning another kind of kingship. Jesus still has a kingdom, but it is a kingdom in which things work differently. Rather than wielding his power unashamedly, Jesus puts the interests and will of his people first, even when doing so goes against his own interests. This is the ultimate kind of “servant leadership,” reversing the expectations many have about how power works. One hymn puts Jesus’ reversal of power in this way: “We strain to reach your mercy-seat and find you kneeling at our feet.” The king has become the servant, and the inferior servant is given the place of honor. The one who has the power uses it to put others first.
This radically different idea of how to make use of power might change the way we interact in the world when we find ourselves in powerful positions. Even in our “enlightened” democratic society, abuses of power are rampant. We see constant reports in the news media of how elected officials and corporate executives abuse theirpower to amass goods for themselves and disadvantage others. Particularly painful examples of how power can be misused involve sexual abuse, either of children or adults, and many of us are sadly aware of how common these incidents are.
But these are examples of the most devastating abuses of power. Power can also be misused in more subtle ways, and practically every moment of our lives invites a decision about how we are to use our power appropriately. Jesus models an Other-centered way of living. If Jesus is King, how will that affect the way you as a manager treat your employee or as a teacher you treat your student or as a parent you treat your child or as a child you treat your aging parent? Where are the ways in which you can use your power to prioritize the needs of others?
In addition to changing the way we think about how we exercise power, Jesus’ kingship also might change who and what we give power to. There are many potential locations of power in the Crucifixion story. Pilate and the soldiers represent the authority of the state and the political and military establishments; the chief priests and other leaders represent the authority of religious institutions and orthodoxy; and the crowd represents the authority of popular opinion. Proclaiming Christ as King means that we attribute the greatest power to the suffering but forgiving figure of Jesus. What if power in our time and place were located with the outcast and the rejected rather than the State or the Church or the Majority? We would not have to think hard to come up with examples of how governments, religious institutions and popular opinion have failed to serve as proper guides of what is right. How would the kingship of Jesus change what we gave priority to and whom we listened to?
Bestowing power upon Jesus completely alters the foundation of power itself. Power becomes not about achieving greater security and domination but about valuing and showing compassion for others. Approaching power in this way necessarily requires the courage to do things differently, to throw aside the ways in which parts of our culture encourage us to think for ourselves first.
The English priest W. H. Vanstone—whose reflections on waiting will inform the mini-retreat this coming Saturday—once wrote a book called The Risk of Love. In it, he explores the idea that God’s love is inherently messy, vulnerable and costly. In other words, God gives up certainty and control in order to love. Vanstone includes a poem at the end of the book to summarize his message. The poem begins by listing the ways in which God’s love is readily apparent, but also noting that love involves, as he says, “agony,” “endeavor” and “expense.” He describes a
Love that gives, gives evermore,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.
This love of God, for Vanstone, is best displayed on the cross, in which God completely empties Godself for human beings. “He who shows us God,” Vanstone writes,
Helpless hangs upon the tree;
And the nails and crown of thorns
Tell of what God’s love must be.
Here is God, no monarch he,
Throned in easy state to reign;
Here is God, whose arms of love,
Aching, spent, the world sustain.
Vanstone poignantly describes a God who aches and spends himself, helplessly, and yet at the same time holds up the whole world—a God who gives himself completely and yet retains his power. This is the God we celebrate on Christ the King, a Savior who both suffers and rules. If only we could follow his example by pouring out ourselves for others and treating love—as messy and vulnerable and expensive as it is—as the most powerful thing of all.