Christ the King: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

Today is the Sunday before Advent, now known as the Feast of Christ the King. This feast is a recent addition to the Church Year: in 1925 Pope Pius XI proclaimed it for the last Sunday in October, and the calendar reforms of Vatican II moved it to the last Sunday before Advent. So we’re just following a Roman innovation?

Not entirely. In both the English Book of Common Prayer (1662) and our 1928 edition the texts assigned for the Sunday before Advent were Jeremiah 23.5-8, a prophecy regarding the coming Messiah (King), and John 6.5-14, Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, which ends with the crowd wanting to make Jesus king on the spot. So already our lessons were pointing in the direction of Christ the King. Nudged by the Romans we’re naming an already-existing reality.

But just what are we doing when we celebrate Christ the King? Pope Pius XI is quite clear about his intentions in 1925. The feast will remind Christians and non-Christians alike of Christ’s spiritual and civil authority, and, specifically, check rising anti-clericalism: “The right which the Church has from Christ himself, to teach mankind, to make laws, to govern peoples in all that pertains to their eternal salvation, that right was denied.” The Pope is probably in part responding to the then current crisis in Mexico, in which President Callas is enforcing the provisions of the 1917 Constitution, which among other things outlawed monastic orders, prohibited religious organizations from owning property, and took away the right to vote from clergy. In this context “Christ the King” is a clear shot across the bow of secular governments —probably Mexico’s in particular. Certainly many Mexican priests, monks and nuns went to their martyrdom with Viva Cristo Rey on their lips. So “Christ the King” is not a bad moment to remember the many Christians who suffer for their confession of Christ the King around the world and in this country.

As a cleric, any effort to combat anti-clericalism sounds like a Good Thing. Nevertheless, there is more than a whiff of Madison Avenue in the Pius’ encyclical: promote Christ, and some of the glory will rub off on the clergy. Just how this fits with Jesus’ “My kingdom is not from this world” isn’t obvious!

So, let’s go back to the texts we heard this morning and wonder what they might want to tell us, whatever we call this Sunday.

Our first reading, David’s oracle, does sound like a self-serving bit of political propaganda: God has made an everlasting covenant with my dynasty. Nevertheless, David gets at least one thing right in the third verse: “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God…” The king, no less than the most humble commoner, is accountable to justice and the fear of God.

What justice and the fear of God mean comes through more clearly in our psalm: “If your children keep my covenant / and my testimonies that I shall teach them, / their children will sit upon your throne for evermore.” What is required of David’s children above all is obedience. Without that, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” won’t be of much use.

As we begin to see a trajectory in these texts that leads us to Jesus before Pilate in the Gospel, there’s an additional text from the prophet Isaiah that’s important. Speaking to the people the prophet says “Incline your ear, and come to me; / listen, so that you may live. / I will make with you an everlasting covenant, / my steadfast, sure love for David. / See, I made him a witness to the peoples, / a leader and commander for the peoples” (55:3-4). Of all the ways Isaiah could have described David—king, poet, shepherd, etc.—he calls him a witness. And perhaps because he is a witness, he is fit to be leader and commander. Recall that as Israel passed from one pagan empire to another there were periodically times when all that faithful Israelites could do was bear witness, testify to their faith, even when it meant certain martyrdom.

And it is Jesus as witness, as martyr—it is the same word in Greek—that we meet in the lessons from Revelation and John. Jesus Christ “the faithful witness” in the first, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” in the second.

The psalm promises an eternal throne to David’s children if they keep the covenant and testimonies; Isaiah and the New Testament texts focus this obligation in terms of the obligation to the truth.

The first thing these texts tell us about Christ the King then is that Christ is the King because Christ himself—in the language of the psalm—keeps the covenant and the testimonies. Christ is obedient. He is fit to be our king because he lives as we are called to live.

Second, these texts remind us that Christ the King was and is Christ the witness to the truth. “Honest” and “politician” are not mutually exclusive categories; one might almost say that Jesus died because he held the two together. Jesus and Pilate typify the alternatives: truth as something that can seriously challenge us, or truth post-“spin.”

Third, Christ’s Kingdom is not defended by the sword. Recall Jesus’ words to Pilate: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting…” These are words we have had trouble hearing. Early in the fifth century St. Augustine used the words from one of Jesus’ parables (“Compel them to come in”) to mobilize the Empire against those whom the bishops identified as heretics. (Muhammad was born into this world about two hundred years latter, and we are still dealing with the fallout.) Only in the middle of the 17th Century did an exhausted Western Christendom relinquish the sword, and reasonable and enlightened men have insured unbroken peace in Europe since then.

What does it mean for us to celebrate this feast? (This is almost a matter of connecting the dots and then sitting down.) As Jesus’ followers, we’re renewing our commitment to keep the covenant and the testimonies. Since we can’t very well keep what we don’t know, in the middle of busy schedules we make time to read the Bible and to talk to God about what we find there. There are lots of different ways we may do that, but twenty centuries of Christian experience is pretty unanimous in identifying this rhythm (read and pray) as the foundation for any sustainable friendship with God.

And, as Jesus’ followers, we’re renewing our commitment to offer our witness to the truth, both when it is easy and when it is hard. Not too long ago it was easy: society assumed that good people were in church on Sunday morning; all we had to do was open the doors. Today it’s not so easy. Nevertheless, it’s a safe bet that each of us rub shoulders with folk—whether friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers with whom we strike up a conversation—for whom it’s true that if they’re going to hear that Jesus brings life, it’ll be us through whom they hear it.

Finally, there’s this business of the sword. We’re in literal compliance with Jesus’ words. Even if we talk of evangelistic crusades, we don’t outfit the ushers with brass knuckles. But here strict literalism is not going to help us: our temptation is not the sword, but the tongue, an even more lethal instrument. Confessing Christ as our King, praying daily for Christ’s Kingdom to come, means scrupulous use of that member, whatever the disagreement.

Before the lessons we prayed “Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.” We prayed that for all the peoples of the earth; we prayed that for us. As God answers our prayer, may we recognize the answer, and respond with joy.

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