Proper 29, Year B, 2018 (Christ the King)
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
In the Autumn of last year I was serving as a field ed intern at Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church in the Mission District of San Francisco. I was also living at my seminary, CDSP, in the middle of Berkeley. A stone’s throw from the north edge of the UC Berkeley campus. It was a volatile year, with protests, minor riots, and clashes between white supremacists trying to march through town and students refusing to let that sort of hatred find any welcome. During all of this a white supremacist from England, Milo Yiannopoulos had attempted to hold rallies on the UC Berkeley campus and a conversation ensued about free speech. Cal has always upheld itself, from the earliest days, through the Vietnam war, to today as a bastion of free speech. But, when they canceled the visits of someone who incites violence and hatred towards people of color and women, people questioned whether this was hindering free speech or much like not being able to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, was not allowed as it posed a threat. During all of this I had a conversation with a congregant at Holy Innocents I will never forget. She was struggling to make sense of the situation, on one hand knowing that what this person wanted to proclaim from a stage was hate speech, was horridly racist vitriol that would serve only to buoy up the most hateful of people, and on the other hand she thought it was very important that free speech be preserved. She asked me how I saw a way through this conundrum and my answer was simple: the confusion comes because we are straddling two very different value sets. As Americans, we grow up being told that freedom of speech is an inalienable right, core to the values of this country. But what we never stop to acknowledge is that it isn’t a Christian value. In fact most of our rights, laws, and what are drilled into us as inalienable as part of this man-made government have absolutely nothing to do with Christian values, and they aren’t supposed to. I suggested to this person that her struggle was not in figuring out what is and isn’t acceptable free speech, but rather the values of empire were conflicting with the values of the Kingdom of God, and honestly I’m not sure there are any easy answers to that conflict. Which brings us to our feast observed today.
Today is the Feast of the Reign of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost. It is the end of the Church year, and marks the triumphal end of the narratives around the ministry of Jesus that we’ve heard through the summer. Soon we begin anew, moving into Advent and anticipating the birth of the Messiah. But first, today, we celebrate Jesus as sovereign King. The Reign of Christ the King sounds like a grand, medieval tradition that one observes in concert with countless throngs of Christians for centuries before us. A quick search on the internet will show you that in fact the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe as it was first called, was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius the eleventh. Not so much the ancient observance one would think. It was instituted at a time when the world was changing, and in the eyes of the Roman Church, not for the better. Post World War I there was an increase in secularism, nationalism, and Benito Mussolini had been ruling as Prime Minister of Italy for three years. This feast was instituted with the hope that it would encourage people to turn more towards seeing Jesus Christ as their supreme head, the one to whom they were to be most obedient above all others and away from the growing shadow that was spreading across an already war torn Europe.
While I think we could certainly go down the road of comparing the values of the Kingdom of God and following Jesus Christ to our own current political climate, and which path we should probably be choosing, it occurs to me that there is something far deeper here to reflect on. Something that can help us think about how we approach (or whether we approach at all) calling this the Feast of Christ the King.
Let’s stop for a minute to really think about the way we live. How many times have you done what Jesus commands of us throughout the Gospels? We’ve all done something, we’ve fed the hungry, we’ve donated clothing, and we’ve reached out to those in need and tried to help as best we could. We do what we can to live as subjects under the rule of Christ the King. But I suspect we’ve also walked past the person on the street and not offered our kindness. I suspect many of us haven’t spent a lot of time visiting those in prisons. We often put the values of a capitalist market or the worship of the Empire above the Kingdom of God. We also fail sometimes to be faithful subjects. What matters is how we try to live our lives, knowing that perhaps we are going to have to decide from time to time what we are going to follow. The point here is that if you want to live outside of the Kingdom and serve the Empire all the time, if you are going to consistently turn your back on those in need, then you will build up for yourself a place that feels separated from the Love of God. And I’ll let you in on something. I personally do not believe for a minute that we are ever actually separated from or beyond the Love of God. We are only unable to experience that which we turn ourselves from. It is turning ourselves away from sharing that love with others, it is disconnecting ourselves from our human condition with each other that brings us to a punishment, albeit self imposed. God is always there ready to extend the Love which is asked of us, when we are ready to embrace it, whether that is now or in some unimaginable future.
Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” To me this statement makes clear that to be of the Kingdom of God one is removed from the kingdoms of the Earth. It’s not an easy task, or one that is even fully possible. I cannot, as an example, refuse to pay my taxes because I do not wish to contribute to the Empire. I will not cease to vote, whether it feels pointless or not, because influencing government is not a Christian value. I will strive to exemplify the values of the Kingdom of God, and how I live as a subject of Christ the King above any other fealty I might be expected to swear.
This passage allows us the open door to ponder what our image of God is, especially when coupled with the idea of ‘Christ the King’. Do we see God as Christ the King? What even is a king to us? Do we see God as Queen? Do we see God as punisher, as healer, as parent, or perhaps as a feeling or an emotion? I want to invite you to take this question and spend some time, perhaps this week, really thinking about how you see God. What is God to you? Because I promise you that whatever you come up with for God will be in some way what you either want to or are reflecting out into the world as your best self. We strive to be of the Kingdom of God, to live into those values as much as possible, and yes sometimes those are going to conflict with the values of the Empire we have been taught to uphold. In those times we must ask ourselves what the cost of discipleship is, what is God’s Kingdom, and how are we to proceed?
What is God to you and how do you live into that truth and serve that Kingdom? That is your work. Do not squander the knowledge of God’s Love, or forget to remind the world to what we are all called and to who’s Kingdom we ultimately belong. Some days we will serve the Empire. Some days we will do better at serving Christ the King. But every single day for the rest of eternity you are held in the Love of a God that has already come to cast down the power of every earthly empire and ruler, the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty, and invites you into their embrace.