HOMILY FOR ‘REIGN OF CHRIST’ SUNDAY 2015—‘Are You a King?’
Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Today, we mark the formal end of the Church’s liturgical year. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, and the cycle of the liturgical seasons begins again. Today, the last Sunday of ordinary time, is known as Reign of Christ Sunday; in some churches, Christ the King Sunday, or the Feast of Christ the King. It is, in fact, a relatively new feast for us Anglicans. It is not found in the BCP, but was introduced at the time of the reforms initiated by the BAS. It also has a somewhat unusual origin. It was created in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as the Feast of Christ the King. Pius was responding to two specific historical events: the disillusionment and crisis of faith generated by the First World War, and the disturbing emergence of European totalitarian movements. In the midst of this social and religious chaos and uncertainty, he wanted to propose a higher form of allegiance: that of Christ as the sovereign Lord, an image which is found throughout scripture. At that time, of course, monarchs still held real power in many places, so the image of royalty had a somewhat different meaning than it does for us today. The divine right of kings, and of queens, is no longer a useful political or theological paradigm for us.
How, then, should we approach Reign of Christ Sunday? How might it speak to us today? What can we draw from it both in terms of the sovereignty and dominion of Christ, but also of ourselves as subjects of his rule? We need to look to the dramatic exchange between Pilate and Jesus that we have just witnessed in the gospel of John. This passage lays it out starkly before us.
Picture the scene in your minds. It’s truly one of those lynch-pin historical moments. Pilate, the very embodiment of all the might and arrogance of Roman colonial power, is dealing with an unknown rabble-rouser in the person of Jesus. This is probably a bit of routine administrative business for the Roman governor. He’s already bored, and he can’t understand why the religious authorities would turn over to him one of their own, rather than dealing with him themselves. Pilate asks the question that could put Jesus in jeopardy: “Are you the King of the Jews?” An answer in the affirmative would place Jesus on a par with Caesar, clearly a case of treason, punishable by death. But Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap. He returns the question with a question of his own: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” It is a classic rabbinical move: answering a question with another question. Jesus makes it quite clear that this is Pilate’s agenda, not his.
Though Jesus may be cautious, he does use this opportunity to enter into a type of dialogue with Pilate, but also to say something important about power, and how the world so often chooses to misunderstand it. In this one-on-one with the Roman governor, Jesus claims his kingship, though he does so rather indirectly. What he does most dramatically, however, is remove himself from the dynamics of worldly power, from those sorts of expectations we might have—and that Pilate and the Romans certainly would have had—about how real power operates. “Yes, I am a king,” Jesus might be telling Pilate, “but you have absolutely no idea what that might mean given your own limited view of kingship and its association with force, and coercion, and oppression. I do not share those values. My kingship is of a different sort. It is not where you, the officious representative of duplicitous earthly power, might expect to find it.” In this bold and confident assertion, Jesus claims ultimate sovereignty for himself and for his mission. He also makes us partners in his seditious move. In these moments of high drama, in this theatrical encounter between two powerful individuals, each one of us, as a follower of the man called Jesus, is being marked as a member, an initiate, of a new world order: one, in fact, in which we are already living, and one reigned over by Jesus.
A new world order? Perhaps that sounds too much like utopian wishful thinking or political science fiction. Perhaps it has overtones of some millenarian master plan. I suspect there may be a tendency for preachers on this day to focus on the glorious kingdom that is to come on the last day and on the great show of divine majesty that will accompany it. The readings we heard from Daniel and from Revelation certainly echo that. It’s easy to project the reign of Christ into the future. It doesn’t cost us anything, and it leaves us in the dark. We won’t even be around to enjoy it. But what about now? What about here? Is the reign of Christ really only a vision of what is to come? Or is it rather a way of seeing the present?
In preparing for this sermon, I can across a quote by a respected biblical scholar that stuck with me, and that, I will admit, has caused me a bit of theological anxiety. I wasn’t even sure that I would use it. But here is what he says: “The second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon, violently or literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence.” Whether the First Coming will be the only Coming, I’m not so sure about. But this quote is valuable because it forces us to shift perspectives. It refuses to place the Reign of Christ in a safe and hopefully very distant future, and one for which we need not feel any responsibility. Rather, it reminds us that this Reign is very much dependant on us: dependant on us now, dependant on us here, dependant on us to be made real, utterly dependant on us. The Reign of Christ is indeed already here; we need only cooperate with its divine presence. We should and must stand with Jesus before Pilate, refusing to play the power game—or, at least, choosing to play it very much differently. Just as he did.
I suspect every age likes to see itself as a time of trial and tribulation, and ours is no different. These have certainly been difficult days. If you’ve listened to some of the rhetoric coming out of world leaders in the last two weeks, you may have been struck—or perhaps even disturbed—by its apocalyptic, vengeful tone. There’s a clear sense of justified anger. The term “barbaric” flows rather freely. I have found myself having to turn off some of that rhetoric in my own mind—not because I don’t understand where it’s coming from (I’m quite certain we all do), but rather because it strikes me as being so self-righteous. I find myself asking what might be a Kingdom response, a Reign of Christ response, to this rhetorical excess. I also realize that this can be somewhat of a hazardous question, precisely because the times are so polarized.
Today’s gospel reminds us of how much the values of this world, and the ways this world speaks of those values, of how much notions of conventional earthly power, are radically different from those that characterize the reign, the new world order, initiated by Jesus, who firmly rejected the kind of authority and royal power embodied in the person of Pilate. A Reign of Christ response to the sorts of rhetorical excesses we are hearing and living with in these times could be characterized by several things: by dialogue rather than anger, by healing rather than revenge, by solidarity rather than exclusion, by compassion rather than disgust, and by hope rather than desperation. We are not hearing these words because other, more loaded terms are masking them. One of the pressing tasks of a Reign of Christ outlook is to disarm such loaded terms, not to be afraid to call them into question, and to propose different, more inclusive, more just words.
There is a single verse not included at the end of today’s gospel reading, and which you did not hear, but it’s a very telling verse. It simply reads: “Pilate asked him: “What is truth?”” Simple, but not simplistic. It’s the great question of life. Often, preachers will say that this was a cynical response on Pilate’s part to those words spoken by Jesus just prior: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” But I’m not so sure. I actually think that Pilate is talking directly to us, that the evangelist is asking us to consider whether we choose the truth spoken by Jesus or that pronounced by earthly potentates. The Reign of Christ, or the reign of the powers of this world? The voice of Christ the true King, or the voice of false emperors? Kingdom words, or words of fear and exclusion? The choice remains as compelling and as urgent today as it was in the Roman Governor’s palace all those generations ago. It’s still the burning question of our times.