Christ the King Sunday, Nov. 21, 2016
Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
By Charis Weathers
In the Christian calendar this is called Christ the King Sunday. It acknowledges the lordship, sovereignty, and rule of Jesus Christ over this whole world and is the very last Sunday of the whole liturgical year. It’s like New Year’s Eve.
The next worship gathering that any liturgical church will have, is the start of Advent, when we again turn our hope to the coming of Jesus.
I find tension in Christ the King Sunday. The calendar is trying to tell us that Jesus DOES rule, and that Jesus DOES have actual authority, and that God IS in control. But next Sunday tells a different story: Jesus hasn’t come yet.
The Church calendar can be a little maddening this way. It’s this seemingly never-ending cycle: it ends on Christ the King Sunday, but until Christ comes back “for real” we begin Advent the very next Sunday.
“He’s the King!,” “Oh wait, he’s coming!” Every. Single. Year.
Curiously, Christ the King Sunday isn’t found in ancient calendars. It came about in 1925. I found out about this when I heard Bishop Martin Wells preach on this Sunday last year.
He quoted Ben Stewart, a liturgy professor, who said,
"It was in 1925, against the backdrop of the rise of Mussolini and the growing popularity of the Nazi Party, that Pope Pius announced this new feast day, designed to remind the church that Christ didn’t rule over only inner, subjective, spiritual things, but Christ’s rule extended over everything else: the way we vote, the way we govern and the way we care for the vulnerable and outcasts in our society. The feast was meant to remind us that Christ’s reign was universal and extended over the worldly rulers like Mussolini and Hitler.”
Christ the King Sunday was implemented intentionally when Nazis were gaining power. The Pope responded to the political threat of his day with Christ the King Sunday.
Because government can go wonky at any point (if it isn’t already), this Sunday has a message for government, and it also has a message for citizens. This Jesus guy matters.
He reigns over the whole earth. He brings peace, and justice with his rule.
But that peace and justice is NOT ruling worldwide in any literal sense today. And in 1925 things were only going to get a lot worse in regards to human political power in Europe. A lot worse.
But Jesus DOES rule….right?
There’s all kinds of paradox in the Christian faith. Seemingly two opposite things exist side-by-side. What we deal with on days like Christ the King Sunday is that we live in an extraordinary amount of tension between the “now and not yet.”
The “not yet” is secure. From Scripture we place our hope in that there WILL be a time when the gracious rule of Christ will extend physically over all the earth, but until then there is a spiritual reality that Christ reigns. Similarly, death was conquered once and for all through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but for now, we still experience physical death.
Death will come, even though death is defeated. Christ will reign, even though others reign right now.
But Christ CAN reign right now, too.
That is what Ben Stewart was getting at when he said that Christ the King Sunday was “designed to remind the church that Christ didn’t rule over only inner, subjective, spiritual things, but Christ’s rule extended over everything else: the way we vote, the way we govern and the way we care for the vulnerable and outcasts in our society.”
In the knowledge that the gracious rule of Christ is coming, we have the opportunity to embody Christ-like values in regard to power and leadership. The rule of Jesus isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky future thing that will save us all – the rule of Jesus is an invitation for his followers to live out, to “en-flesh” what his rule looks like.
And with that long preamble to Christ the King Sunday, we’re now we’re finally getting to the texts! Our passages for today give us an idea of what God values in leadership, in ruling.
From the Jeremiah passage we are told that God will raise up shepherds who will round up sheep that have been destroyed and scattered. They will be gathered, brought back into the fold, and given safety.
Very explicitly Jeremiah says that God wants God’s appointed king, David, to execute justice and righteousness in the whole land. I can’t say that David did that very well, but that doesn’t discount what God was wanting from David.
In the Psalm we are told that in the midst of terror, in the midst of uproar, and tottering kingdoms, God is steadfast, a refuge, and strength. God, the ruler, stops war. God says, "Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth."
The bottom line is that human rulers will never be over God. God embodies peace and safety.
The Colossians passage holds some of the most powerful, recognizable text about the ruling Christ:
1:15-18 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
And what does this rule accomplish, according to vs. 20? Through Jesus, God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self ALL THINGS, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the work done on the cross.
Reconciling and peace-making is the work of the ruling Christ.
And, finally, the Luke passage. This last Sunday of the church calendar has Jesus on the cross, and a literal inscription, “the King of the Jews,” is placed over him. He is mocked by authorities, by soldiers, and by a fellow prisoner – “if you are the King of the Jews then save yourself!”
It’s a scene that we don’t usually think about much because it is so "yeah, yeah, Jesus dies on the cross," but a compassionate guy, someone who challenged the status quo, was being publicly executed. He was naked, he was hanging by sharp pieces of metal that had been nailed through each hand and foot, into large, upright beams of wood. His head was bleeding from a mocking, thorny crown that had been forced into his scalp.
This is the KING of the Jews.
This passage is astonishing in many ways, but two things stand out for me on Christ the King Sunday.
The first is that Jesus asks God to forgive those who were inflicting this pain that would end in his death, because “they do not know what they do.”
The guards and onlookers DID know what they were doing: they were executing him.
But they didn’t know the larger picture: they were executing way more than a whimsical caricature of the King of the Jews, they were humiliating and killing the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; the one in whom all things in heaven and on earth were created… the one in whom all things hold together.
Instead of wrath or judgment there is mercy. A mercy that is hard to imagine.
The second astonishing thing in light of Christ the King Sunday is that Jesus doesn’t save himself.
Presumably, he could. He performed miracles that were way more impressive than getting himself off of the cross. Yet he doesn’t. This king, this ruler over all things, forgives his killers, and he doesn’t save himself.
This isn’t politics as we know it.
As much as I can squirm under the very term “king,” because it smacks of patriarchal authoritarianism, this kingship of Jesus is very different than what we think governing is supposed to be.
In Goodwill this week I happened to pick up a collection of essays by E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web. Thumbing through it I found one passage in which he writes that God must’ve felt very awkward when a minister declared in a Democratic Convention that Adlai Stevenson was God’s man to be president. I found the image of God feeling awkward to be amusing.
I wonder how many times those words have been spoken or written throughout the ages: “so and so is God’s choice to lead us, to lead them.” We’ve got these notions of what kingliness, of leadership, is supposed to be. But God has a very funny way of turning our notions of power on its head. We simply can’t forget that it was the religious authority, those who were trying to live “righteously”, who condemned Jesus. We’re not so good at predicting who God’s person is, if there is one.
In our texts for today the ruling one or (ones) gather and provide safety for those who have been destroyed and scattered. They make peace, they reconcile, they forgive, they don’t seek their own welfare as the highest ideal.
THIS is how Christ rules as King today: By the people of Christ embodying these principles.
Christ the King Sunday tells us Jesus will literally reign over all the earth one day. And until then the reign of Christ is carried on in…..people.
It’s outrageous. And it’s possible.
A few weeks ago I went to hear a favorite author of mine, Mary Doria Russell, at the Jewish synagogue here in Bellingham. She’s an academic in anthropology who happens to write extraordinary novels. Whenever she sets to write a novel she researches the heck out of her subject and context, and for this talk she was discussing what she learned when she was looking into the plight of Jews in Italy in WWII.
Russell is Italian. Like, very Italian. And she’s a convert from Catholicism to Judaism, so this has deep meaning for her. What she found was incredible heroism on the part of Italians, and the Italian military, to save Jewish people. Before the deportations to concentration camps there were about 50,000 Jews in Italy. After the war there were about 43,000 Jews in Italy. Across Europe as a whole 90% of all Jews had either been killed or relocated. But in Italy, between 80-90% of Italian Jews survived. The Italians saved them. Russell’s novel is filled with hard-to-believe stories that are based on real people that she has actually met and interviewed.
Recently there was story running through social media about an elite Italian cyclist who helped save a lot of lives during the war, but he is just one example. Whole villages harbored Jews, and on at least one occasion when a village was found out, all the villagers were marched into the local church and it was burned to the ground. Many paid dearly for their courage.
I’d like to remind us that it was this time, on the eve of WWII, that Pope Pious XI declared Christ the King Sunday, to remind the church that Christ didn’t rule over only inner, subjective, spiritual things, but Christ’s rule extended over everything else: the way we vote, the way we govern and the way we care for the vulnerable and outcasts in our society.
Pope Pious XI was Italian, living in Italy. He made speeches against Anti-Semitism, stating that Christians can have no part in it. Humankind is all one race.
Italians lived the reign of Christ in WWII. They are also living the reign of Christ right now in taking in Syrian refugees.
As much as I want to chafe against the idea of Christ the King, it’s important. It’s relevant to how we live our lives. Do we make peace, reconcile, forgive, gather in the scattered? Because this IS the reign of Christ.
I think it’s important to again remind us that Advent begins a week from today. I’m not sure there is a time when we DON’T need the birth of Christ in us, when we don’t need a reminder that Jesus is coming.
We are the receivers, the receptacles of this King, of this infant, of this man who turned all notions of power on its head.
He is here.
And he is coming.
We need this. Every. Single. Year.
 Jeremiah 23:1-6 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD. The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."
 Psalm 46 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. "Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth." The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
 Colossians 1:11-20 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to God, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of God's beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to God's self all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
 Luke 23:33-43 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews." One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
 “Essays of E.B. White,” in the “Bedfellows” essay.
 Her novel based on this time period is called, A Thread of Grace. Her first two novels, The Sparrow, and Children of God, are my favorite.
 Some additional info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Italy#Jews_during_the_Fascist_era