Today, on Christ the King Sunday, I was with the people of Trinity Church, Shrewsbury. Their rector is the Rev. Erin Kirby. The assigned readings can be found here.
As that great theologian, Mel Brooks, once said: “it’s good to be the king.” Or how about that preacher from Gainesville, FL, Tom Petty, who sings:
It’s good to be king, if just for a while
To be there in velvet, yeah, to give ‘em a smile.
It has been a long journey since Pentecost Sunday: twenty-seven weeks to be precise of what we sometimes call “ordinary time.” Six months later we reach the end of that long stretch as we celebrate this last Sunday of the church year: Christ the King Sunday, or if you prefer, the Reign of Christ. Next Sunday will mark a new beginning as we light the first candle of our Advent wreaths and begin preparing for the dear Savior’s birth. As is the case with every transition, in other words, an ending leads to a new beginning. I love this cyclical nature of the liturgical year, of endings and beginnings, beginnings and endings that mirror our own lives and our own seasons of transition.
In any case, today is Christ the King. I am always reminded on this weekend of that exchange in Wonderland between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. Do you remember it?
Humpty Dumpty: When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.
Alice: The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.
Most of us have some idea in our heads about what a king is, and how kings reign. What, then, does it mean to say that this man, Jesus, who died on a cross, is a king?
And not just any king, but the king of kings? How can one word mean so many different things? That is the big question before us today.
Kings are powerful, and almost always willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto their power and even to extend that power when possible. Some of the more triumphalistic hymns from the 1982 Hymnal seem to suggest that Jesus was that kind of king:
- Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne...
- Rejoice, the Lord is King! Your Lord and King adore…
It’s good to be the king! Yet it’s pretty clear today in Luke’s Gospel as we are taken back to that hill outside of the city gates called “the Place of a Skull” that we are using the word “king” in a very different way. It’s one thing to go there as the culmination of the whole season of Lent: at least then it feels like we have a whole forty days to get ready. But on Christ the King Sunday? It feels like this claim comes out of nowhere. How can one word mean such different things? What do we mean when we use the word “king” to speak of a Galilean rabbi executed between two common criminals? Instead of zapping them with his superpowers or turning the world back in time to avoid dying all he can say is “forgive them.”
Yet the truth is this: if we mean to understand who Jesus is then always we must return to the foot of the cross. We are a people called not just to be fans of Jesus, but his followers. And to do that means that the path is always the same for us: this Way of the Cross. It is that path that reveals the way of this particular king who chooses the power of love over the love of power. That is the great mystery set before us on this day and in a real sense every day of every week of our journeys in Christ. To claim Jesus as king is not about power over others, but about the healing power that forgiveness unleashes.
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. We are sometimes tempted to think that the work of the Church is to bring our version of Christian power to bear on the world. It’s easy when you read church history to see that “mistakes have been made” whenever and wherever Christians in authority have tried to do this. Sadly, the Christian record of using power well is no better than that of anybody else. It seems that when Christians get all the power we are as inclined to misuse it as anyone else. The Crusades and the Inquisition bear witness to that.
But we don’t need to look so far away, do we? We can look into our own hearts to see how that same will to power works. We don’t like to talk about it much, but as a relatively new Canon to the Ordinary in this diocese I am learning in new ways what I learned over twenty years as a parish priest: we can do a number on each other in congregations. We may not mean to, but we do. We can use our power—or for that matter our perceived powerlessness (which is really just the other side of the very same coin)—to hurt, gossip, throw our weight around. Show me a congregation in this diocese – pick any one—and you will find case studies of conflicts: rectors and their staffs, wardens and vestries, altar guilds and men’s ministries all have to negotiate their way through these very same challenges: who has authority and how should that authority be exercised? And when we get it wrong—which we will—do we have the strength to forgive?
Jesus lived in the context of Roman imperial power and of Caesars: that word shares the same root as Czar and Kaiser—which is a pretty good reminder that by many names this story keeps getting played out again and again in human history. In English whenever we hear this word “king” or “lord” we are taken back to feudal England and to words that seem to suggest the Christian strategy for using our power is like that of King Arthur: for might to make right. Over and against this narrative of domination, however, Christ the King reveals a different way that leads to peace among nations as swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Peace emerges not when someone acquires the most swords or the most spears or the most semi-automatic rifles, but when war is studied no more.
When Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God, then, he means something very different from the power of ancient Rome or medieval England or U.S. global dominance. Instead, he talks about mustard seeds. Remember? How the tiniest of seeds, watered and nurtured and pruned can become something much larger than anyone could possibly imagine. In such a seed we glimpse the Kingdom of God, even if just in the tiniest of ways. Jesus tells stories about finding something of great value—like a pearl—and knowing that it matters more than anything else in our lives, so you sell all you have to have it. He reveals the Kingdom of God every time he kisses a leper clean or makes a blind man see or speaks with a woman at a well and validates her as a human being or feeds thousands with a just a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread.
All of Jesus’ little stories about the Kingdom of God are taken from the “real” world—from daily life. They are not a denial of the real world but a deeper dive into it. It may not be fully here yet but we do get glimpses, if we only have eyes to see. If you want to see the Kingdom of God breaking in, then go to the Mustard Seed in Worcester or the Community Harvest Project in North Grafton. Because Christ isn’t dead on that cross! Christ is alive in the world and making all things new. It’s not always easy to see or to believe because the world is still in so many ways a mess. But in the midst of that mess God is present, making all things new.
That is God’s Mission. And the great wonderful frightening privilege of being the Church is that we are called—you and I—to follow Christ the King and to share in this work. Not to reinvent the wheel or carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. We don’t have to bring peace on earth, that job is taken. But we do have to, with God’s help, embrace our calling to respond to that vision by singing, “let it begin with me.” We are called by virtue of our baptism, to be instruments of peace. That is just the deal we signed on for: to share in this ministry of reconciliation. If we are to move closer to the promise of good will to all that we’ll be singing about in a month, then we have to learn how to show good will to our neighbor.
So on this last Sunday of the church year we find ourselves once again at the foot of the cross where Jesus forgives the soldiers who mocked and killed him and the religious authorities who betrayed him and turned him over to the Romans because he unsettled their doctrinal certitude and where he forgives the criminals. And where we, too, are forgiven.
We should not be naïve about just how difficult it is to embrace this calling. We may talk of putting on our Sunday best but the fact of the matter is that we bring our wounded selves into congregations like this one and sometimes we act out and act up, based on our fears and our hurt—real and perceived. Sometimes people gossip and speak untruths and hurt each other on purpose, and sometimes without knowing what they are doing. And still Christ the King says: “forgive.” That is the key, I think, to this way of the Cross—this counter-cultural road we are on together. That is always the way forward. We are not called to be perfect, but to forgive as we have been forgiven, seventy times seven if necessary.
And you all know where all that forgiveness at the foot of the cross leads, right? It unleashes the power of new and undending life. It leads to an empty tomb at Easter dawn, where all things are possible again.
Last Sunday I was at Church of the Good Shepherd in Clinton. A church school teacher there handed me a piece of paper with these words on it:
I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.
I’ve been carrying those words with me from last weekend into this one, and it seems to me that they sum up pretty well the kind of people we are called to become, with God’s help. Christian communities like this parish, which is part of this diocese, exist to keep that wisdom alive in a dog-eat-dog world. We don’t come here to lord it over one another and we are not sent out to lord it over others. In a world that says “it’s good to be king,” we respond: “it is a joy to serve.”
Truly this is a different kind of king, one worthy of dominion and honor and praise.