Proper 29 Year C 2019 – Reign of Christ the King
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Today marks the last Sunday of the Church Year. We observe our annual calendar through the narrative of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, and we hear today from the Gospel of Luke the end of Jesus’ earthly life, the violent and brutal end that he endures. There are perhaps more triumphal passages from the Gospel that we might wish we were hearing, more powerful moments from Jesus’ narrative that make us feel like the king we follow is more like what the people of Israel also expected out of a messiah. But today’s reading shows us quite purposefully the nature of Christ and the Kingdom to which we belong and owe sole allegiance.
As far as regular feasts of the worldwide Christian church go, this observance is the most recent addition. It was originally added to the calendar in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. He did so to respond to a troubling increase of both secularism and nationalism in the world following the First World War. It was meant to be a reminder to Christians that Jesus Christ is the King of all. Pope Pius XI wrote to his bishops, “If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our (limbs), which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”
As we listen to the Gospel reading, we hear a story of a man arrested by the government, beaten, tortured, and ultimately put to death. It is part of the story of a teacher who spoke of a Kingdom of God greater than any earthly kingdom. A teacher who refused to acknowledge the powers and principalities of the Earth, and ultimately who took the sword from Peter’s hand when they came to arrest him in the garden. This King of ours, this God made human, is mocked by those suffering a similar fate, “Are you not the Messiah? Safe yourself and us”. Previously in Luke’s Gospel even Satan offers Jesus all the Kingdoms of the world, if Jesus worships him in return. But Christ refuses. He stands by his teaching and the salvation narrative he knows must play out. For us we are left to reconcile a world that tells us ‘might makes right’ and a God who says nothing is greater than the command to love. We must wade through nearly two thousand years of the Church finding and losing its ways over and over again in our world.
In Dostoevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, a poem is recited by one of the characters, Ivan, to his brother Alexei, a novice monk. The poem is entitled, “The Grand Inquisitor”. It details the return of Christ, who returns to Earth in Seville, Spain during the Inquisition. Jesus begins to perform miracles, and people recognize him and begin adoring him at the Cathedral in Seville. He is quickly arrested by the Church inquisitors and scheduled to be burned at the stake the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell and tells him that the Church no longer needs Christ. He argues that Christ was wrong to turn down the three temptations in the desert in exchange for freedom.
The Grand Inquisitor explains that Jesus has misjudged humanity; that they do not want and cannot handle the freedom which God’s kingdom brings them. Instead, the inquisitor says that the church has the wise and dread spirit of death and destruction to direct the people, and they are happier for it. Finally the inquisitor tells Jesus that he should have turned stones into bread, as humanity will always follow those who will feed them. Casting himself down from the temple to be caught by angels would assure his godhood in the minds of people, who would follow him forever, and that ruling over all the kingdoms of the Earth at the cost of worshiping Satan would ensure their salvation. Throughout all of this, Jesus has been silent. Instead of answering the inquisitor, he kisses him. With that the inquisitor releases Jesus and tells him to never return.
While this story was written more than one hundred thirty years ago, it rings no less true for us today. Would we actually be able to welcome Christ back into this world and let go of all the things that are not of God’s Kingdom? Thankfully I don’t believe our salvation hinges on that, nor do I believe that when Christ returns we will have much choice. At the end of all things, we will be caught up into the Kingdom of God and the full glory and understanding of Christ’s message will be emblazoned on our hearts for eternity.
But we are clearly not there yet. We have work to do in the mean time. The faith that we proclaim, the title we use as Christians, the lives we live should reflect the Gospel of Christ and his example to the world. Of course we are not greater today than back in 1925 or the 1880s, during the age of Christian Imperialism or the Crusades. We certainly are not greater than the apostles themselves. Those people learned at the feet of Christ. They watched him live out his teaching of God’s love and forgiveness. They watched their messiah die and resurrect. And they also faced a lot of complicated and confusing times in the early Church after Jesus ascended. Even they found it hard to hold to Christ’s commands. While it’s true that humanity has struggled and continues to struggle to live up to the teachings that God brought to us through the incarnation, we must always continue to improve ourselves as much as we can in the pursuit of God’s kingdom alone.
Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ the King. This king to whom we offer every bit of our devotion did not rule over the land in the way we think of kings. Our king did not command armies to destroy his enemies. Our king taught love, taught God’s grace, sought to show us what the only kingdom we belong to actually looks like through humility and service. Next Sunday will herald the beginning of Advent, a time where we begin examining our hearts to prepare for that king to come again. But just for now, I invite you to reflect on how your life shows forth your citizenship in God’s kingdom. Southern Baptist Pastor Steve Bezner writes, “Sometimes I joke about what I’d do if I had one day left to live. Eat junk, go crazy. Today it hit me: Jesus knew. And he washed feet.” Would we, if faced with Jesus among us today welcome the return of our king, or like the inquisitor, tell him there is no place for his foolishness in this earthly realm of ours.