Christ the King, Year A
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Christ the King, Year A: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
“It Depends What You Mean By ‘King’”
Kings and kingdoms. Most of us, especially here in the United States, have a rather ambiguous relationship with kings and kingdoms. Recall that Samuel Seabury, the first Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was consecrated in Scotland because he would not swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown, which was part of the rite in the Church of England. As students of history, we associate kings and their kingdoms with capricious despots who wield their power and authority with whimsical nonchalance leaving a bloody wake of victims in their path. Even dear Plato’s republic is not exempt—those sketchy poets, the ones who might imagine something Plato never thought of and sing a new song that no one has ever heard, are banished from the kingdom. And that’s how most kinds of human kingdoms function—through the use of top-down force, and exclusion. Human kingdoms operate on the premise that for the privileged few to be on top, everyone else has to be excluded, declared unclean, unsafe, unsavory, and unhinged. Human kingdoms are all about boundaries and their enforcement—the maintenance of power, privilege, and control through an intricate system of insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, those on top, and those languishing at the bottom of the heap.
The disciples, of course, are not exempt from this kind of projection of all-too-human visions of the coming of the Kingdom onto Jesus. The main source of the misunderstanding between Jesus and his intimates is that they fundamentally misconstrue the nature of the Kingdom Jesus embodies and is inaugurating. The disciples think Jesus’ messiahship is just another version of the same old kind of kingdom they have always known. In the disciples’ minds, it represents a change of who is “King of the Hill” with Jesus simply filling the spot vacated by Caesar. Bur remember, Peter gets rebuked by Jesus for this Satanic misunderstanding—Jesus actually exorcises Peter (“get behind me Satan”) for his lazy and unimaginative equating of Jesus’s power, Jesus’ kingship, with inherited human forms of kingship. When we think of the Kingdom of God in terms of worldly domination, military might, and the maintenance of order through the merciless enforcement of boundaries, Jesus says, we are in the thrall of what Paul Tillich calls “the demonic.” Something other than the Crucified and Risen Christ is King of our heart and the results are disastrous and death-dealing—both for ourselves and for those around us. Human kingdoms are driven by fear. They isolate. Fragment. And fracture. Like the picture of Hitler in his dank bunker under the Reich Chancellery moving imaginary armies around on a map in front of his fawning generals as the Red Army approached Berlin, kingdoms of human power are ultimately delusionary houses of cards that collapse under their own weight. The divided house, the house that is built on the premise of exclusion, is doomed from the start. The human kingdom reveals its true nature as a slaughter house.
Like the disciples, the Church, too, has fallen prey to its own version of preferring its personal fiefdom of power and control to the in-breaking power of the Kingdom of God. Dostoyevsky’s “Parable of the Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov makes the point powerfully. The Grand Inquisitor, faced with the second coming of Christ, patiently and cogently explains to Jesus all the reasons why the Church doesn’t need him anymore. They have the whole Kingdom of God thing figured out and well in hand, thank you very much. But Jesus persists. He knocks at the door of the heart, he pesters, he nags, he hangs around until the Church can’t stand it any longer and crucifies him for a second time for being such a nuisance. The Church prefers the maintenance of its own authority and the status quo of its cozy little fiefdom to the unruly reality of the living God and the in-breaking Kingdom. And we kill Christ, over and over and over, when we choose the maintenance of our little version of how things should be over the risky adventure of following after Jesus empty-handed down a road that leads we know not where. “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4:20).
The Feast of Christ the King—marking the end of Ordinary time and our movement as the gathered people of God into Advent and the celebration of God as Emmanuel, God with us—is meant to put squarely before us the radical difference between human versions of the Kingdom structured by power and violence, and God’s Kingdom, the Peaceable Kingdom. “Thy Kingdom come,” we mutter sometimes three, four times a day. But do we mean it? Who is this Christ the King? Despite our best efforts to dress Jesus up in Royal garb, scepter in hand, and seat him on the throne, Jesus resists all attempts to make him a part of our ordinary way of doing things. Love wriggles free of the ways we try to create God in our own image and baptize business as usual as the Kingdom of God with ourselves predictably at the center.
The Feast of Christ the King is a call to examine all the ways we operate under, and, often unconsciously, participate in, systems of dominance and exclusion. It’s a call to embody a new kind of kingdom that is based on the graciousness of God’s unconditional love for all people, without exception. It’s a call for us to enact, realize, and bring to fruition a kingdom where there is no top and no bottom, no inside and outside, no clean and unclean. A Kingdom founded on serving the last, the least, the lost, and the left behind. A Kingdom where, with the eye of the heart enlightened, we welcome Christ in the stranger, feed Christ in the hungry, give a cup of water to Christ in the thirsty, comfort Christ in the sick, clothe Christ in the naked, and visit Christ in the lonely and the locked-away.
It’s a Kingdom where the King, instead of wielding power and demanding slavish obeisance, stoops to wash our feet and feed us. It’s a Kingdom where the King, instead of sequestering himself away “far from the madding crowd” goes towards those whom society has cast off or taught us to fear—the sinners, the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes. This King eats with them—a symbol not just of sharing food, but of total, loving identification with the other. This King restores to loving relationship those for whom there was only the bread of tears, isolation, loneliness, and shame. This is a King whose “power and glory” look more like weakness and loss to our worldly eyes. This is a King who goes outside the city walls, beyond the boundaries of our human-created kingdoms based on dominance and exclusion, to die, scorned, and ridiculed, hung between two criminals on a trash heap. This King goes to the place where people and things are thrown away and discarded to reveal to us that in God’s Kingdom there are no garbage heaps—that each person, created in the image and likeness of God, is a precious, unrepeatably unique Child of God whose gifts God wants to use to further His work. Whether sheep or goats, all are cared for and loved by the Shepherd who seeks the lost, brings back the strayed, binds up the injured, and strengthens the weak. Any judgement pronounced is the result of not accepting the invitation to the feast of love prepared for us since the beginning of the world.
Jesus goes to and through that twisted tree atop the Place of the Skull to reveal to us that while our human kingdoms wax and wane and require constant fear-driven vigilance and maintenance, the Kingdom of God, based on God’s gracious acceptance of us just as we are, cannot be trampled down. This topsy turvy Kingdom without walls—a giant come-as-you-are party already in full swing with no trash heaps, no shaming, and no one on the other side of the fence—is the only Kingdom that will last, because it’s the only reality there is. Live for that Kingdom, or better, live from that Kingdom and you will taste eternal life not as some exotic locale in the distant future, but here and now.
That’s why we hear in the Letter to the Ephesians that the name of Jesus is—" far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named.” In the face of the dominion of wealth and power—Love wins. In the face of the power of patriarchal domination that treats women like objects of male desire—Love wins. In the face of the principalities of bigotry and racism that scapegoat others and see only through eyes imprisoned by fear and hate—Love wins. Faced with the addictive need to exploit God’s good creation for profit and gain—Love wins. Faced with the seductive power of nation, family, fame, safety—Love wins. On this day, we say together, “You Christ are our King. We unseat those other powers, which return ashes to ashes and dust to dust, and let love rule our hearts. We pray, ‘Thy Kingdom come that my kingdom might be undone.’”
The coming of Advent and the celebration of God as Emmanuel, God with Us, is a call to recognize Christ as the King of our Hearts. We make a little space. We open the door. We wait. We watch steadfast, unmoved, and patient through the flurry of all the human-made versions of the Kingdom that tempt us into false forms of action. But when the dust settles, what we discover is that the living Christ is already enthroned in the depths of our being. He is who we really are, and the work of realizing that, and allowing our lives to be the expression of that truth is what we are called to be as a Church.
That’s why in the coming weeks (fair warning) we will be swimming in a whole fiery slideshow of apocalyptic imagery. The end of the world is coming—but it’s the end of the world with us at the center. It’s the end of all those human kingdoms built on the backs of the voiceless, and the invisible. Those all-too-human worlds of human misery are passing away, and we are called—with Christ as our King—to let them pass. We are called to enthrone the self-forgetful love of Jesus that goes out and doesn’t count the cost in our hearts, and to make room for the startling newness of what we cannot predict or control. We open ourselves to receive what only comes to us as gift. It’s Christ the King in the guise of a stranger. Welcome him. Receive him as your King. Visit with him. And in sharing with this stranger a cup of cool water, you might just discover that you’re never thirsty again.