So here’s the text of a sermon I preached before I was Catholic, as an Anglican seminarian for the feast of Christ the King in the year 2009.
Good morning! Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Christian year. This holiday is actually fairly recent in the Church’s calendar. It was first introduced by Pope Pius XI in the 1920s as a way to remind Christians who their true King is in the face of growing secularism. It has become an observance for both Catholics and several Protestant churches, including our own denomination. So, turning to our readings from this morning, what does it mean to say that Christ is our king?
As I was preparing this sermon, I kept coming back to the Gospel text. I can’t help but wonder, what must Pontius Pilate be thinking during this whole exchange with Jesus? He’s had the whole Sanhedrin come to him in the early hours to demand Jesus be executed because He has claimed to be King of the Jews. He asks Jesus to confirm or deny the charges and he can’t get a straight answer from our Dear Lord to save his life! “Are you the king of the Jews?” Straightforward. To which Jesus asks “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?” At this point, you get the sense from Pilate’s response that he’s getting kind of annoyed. Something to the effect of: “Why not simply answer the question? Why ask me where the question is coming from? I’m not a Jew! I have no personal interest! Your own priests handed you over to me. Now, tell me why they’ve brought you here.” Jesus then goes on to give another enigmatic answer. “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.” “So is this a yes? Are you saying you’re a king? This business of a kingdom not belonging to this world does not make a lot of sense.” Jesus goes on “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate then cynically responds “What is truth?” and goes on to decide that he finds no case against Jesus.
So what are we to make of all this? What does Jesus mean by saying his kingdom is not of this world? Don’t the other passages from this morning show that God’s rule extends over this world? Indeed, the passage from Revelation describes Jesus Christ as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth.” So clearly, while his kingdom is not of this world, this world is subject to his kingdom. We cannot take Jesus’ words here to mean then that his kingdom is some otherworldly thing which has no relevance to this world. Rather, as one commentator puts it, “Throughout the Gospels Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is both otherwordly in its source and quality and present in this world.”
I think what we see here in essence is that Jesus is redefining kingship and messiahship, as he does throughout the Gospels. He does not adopt the term king or messiah directly, because those words for people in this world are shaped by the circumstances and expectations of this world. Jesus is indeed a king, with real authority over the whole world, but not a king like those of this world. We need look no further than Pontius Pilate and the earthly king he represents, the mighty Roman Emperor – ruler of the known world of that day.
The Roman Empire was a vast state, stretching from Scotland all the way to Mesopotamia. Not long before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus had brought the entire Mediterranean world under the heel of Rome, defeated pirates making the whole realm safe for travel and inaugurated the 200 year Roman Peace. The Romans also brought safe roads, aqueducts and other technological improvements, military protection and for those privileged to be Roman citizens, a good justice system. Life was good… provided you were lucky enough to be a Roman citizen, worshipped the Roman gods -and eventually the emperor himself as a god – and had not had the misfortune of being caught on the wrong side of Rome in a fight. For the non-citizen, life meant heavy taxation for the privilege of being ruled by Rome, the rule of an often harsh Roman governor and a severe justice system which carried the potential of being sold into slavery or crucified. Indeed, much of the Roman success was run on the backs of slaves who had been captured from various nations and forced to work on the estates of the Roman nobility in a manner of slavery much like that seen in the American South and the Caribbean in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the Romans took it even farther with the gladiator games in the arenas scattered throughout the empire, in which slaves were made to fight one another to the death for the amusement of the population.
The list of pros and cons about the Roman Empire could go on for quite some time. But suffice it to say, while Roman rule did bring with it some very positive things, it also brought great evil. Sin was certainly no stranger to the Roman realm, and yet the emperors styled themselves as “Son of God” and “Savior of the World.” It makes one shudder to think of the titles which we know belong only to Jesus Christ being applied to the likes of Calligula or Nero.
But such is any kingdom rooted in this world. Rome and her emperors assumed for themselves a sort of messianic status, promising peace and security to the world. And not only Rome has promised this in history. More recently, the thought from the Enlightenment of the 18th Century has led many people into thinking that we can perfect ourselves and our society. For instance, Karl Marx articulated a scheme whereby all the injustices of the world could be dealt with through class warfare, leading to an overthrow of ruling elites and making everything common property. In the 20th century, we have seen the fruition of these secular messianic movements in the worst human atrocities ever committed, such as the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, or the over 23 million killed by Stalin’s régime in Russia – a country which tried to carry out Marx’s ideal. These attempts by mankind to usher in our own utopia always end up with some group of people putting themselves ahead of others, oppressing, persecuting, abusing and even killing them.
Why must it be so? Well, fundamentally, the problem with these kingdoms of this world is that they do not correctly understand the human condition. They do not grasp that each and every human being alive is tainted with sin. We are a race which has chosen to reject our loving creator, the Lord God, the King of the Universe and attempt to usurp His throne, putting ourselves in His place. How could we possibly hope to build a perfect society when it would be run by a sinful people? This is, quite simply, delusional. Like the people of Nineveh in the book of Jonah, on our own we are a people “who cannot tell their right hand from their left.” (4:11)
Let’s take it down to a much smaller level. In our own lives, in our relationships with others, are we not often tempted to seek our own good above others? We want to be loved more. We want – and we think we deserve – more attention. It’s more important that we get where we’re going than the other drivers on the road. Or, this person has wronged me, therefore I hope he gets his just desserts; and oh wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could give it to him myself! And of course, “I know what’s right better than you do, so you should let me control the situation.” This does not work very well for us, of course. I know, for me certainly, these are the types of attitudes that bring me into conflict with those around me. For instance, I have a sister who is seven years younger than I am, and so I often had the responsibility of looking after her growing up. There was definitely a tendency on my part to lord the little bit of responsibility I was given by my parents over her at times. I was often harsh and overbearing, and even thought I was superior. So, we often fought like cats and dogs. If there is such a tendency to be selfish, self-seeking, blind and at times even cruel in small things – in our daily lives and relationships – how much more is it true when more power is given? Thus we end up with kings of this world who are at best flawed but mean well, and at worst the great tyrants of history who have brought suffering to the whole world.
In stark contrast, we see Jesus Christ – the King who is not a king of the order of this world. In our Gospel lesson today, we see Him, the King of the universe, as He is about to lay down his life for each and every one of us. He is the antithesis of the ways of this world. He does not seek his own good, but rather offers himself up for all of us who have rebelled against him and hated him. He does not seek vengeance, but forgives, as He says from the cross as he is mocked by those who crucified Him “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He does not inflict suffering, but takes on the sufferings of a fallen world. As our reading from Revelation this morning says it, “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.” He is a King who rules by love.
My favorite novel – Father Elijah by Michael O’Brien – has some beautiful passages reflecting on Christ being our king which I would like to offer at this point.
“Our King suffers with us. He suffers in us. When His Kingdom is established in its fullness, our love for Him will surpass that for any earthly king, because He has suffered everything that His poorest children have suffered. And suffered by choice, where we have suffered unwillingly.”
As this passage indicates, His Kingdom has not yet come in its fullness, yet He is also now our King. So what does that mean for us?
Well, the New Testament tells us in several places that Christ came in the flesh, died and rose again so that we could become children of God – in some sense His brothers and sisters – the brothers and sisters of the true King! It also tells us in Colossians 3:15 to “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” So we have as Christians in the here and now a profound and intimate relationship with Christ. He is our brother, and the king of our heart, whom we must let rule over us. It is only under the rule of Christ, as we talk with Him through prayer and spiritual reading and receive His Body and Blood in the Eucharist that He begins to address those aspects of our brokenness which are a hindrance to His rule. Indeed, one of the things He touched on very early with me was the need to allow Him to transform my relationship with my sister – which even now He continues to do, as I see new areas every now and then where I owe her an apology. But, miraculously, by the grace of Christ, my sister still loves me despite the times I’ve acted like a tyrant.
We must also show Christ as our King before the world and bear witness to the hope we have for the day when His Kingdom will come in its fullness. We must respect the authorities whom God has set over us. But at the same time, if you paid attention to the processional hymn this morning, we sang of Christ that He is the one “who comes to break oppression, to set the captive free, to take away transgression and rule in equity.” I encourage you to read and meditate upon the words of that hymn if you haven’t already, because they are a wonderful reflection upon the Christian hope we have in Christ, that “O’er every foe victorious, He on His throne shall rest; from age to age more glorious, all blessing and all blest: the tide of time shall never His covenant remove; His Name shall stand forever, His changeless Name of Love.” This is a hope which no human scheme nor king of this world is capable of fulfilling and we must be wary of anything which claims that it can – only our Lord can.
Therefore let us pray that the Lord ever more rule our hearts, transform us by His love, feed us with his Body, wash our souls in His most precious Blood and give us greater hope and expectation for the day when His Kingdom comes in its fullness. Amen.