Sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday, November 21, 2010 (this is the draft! lots of rewording and polishing still to do)
Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
There’s no denying that winter will soon be here: This week I put out 14 bags of leaves for the final collection of yard waste, had my snow tires put on, and watched semi-final and final games in university and CFL football. And the Official Board met and set dates for our congregational annual meetings in February, which doesn’t seem that far off now.
In the calendar of the church, we’re at the end of the year. That’s right, the last Sunday of the church year is November 21, which is called Reign of Christ Sunday. Some churches name it Christ the King. And so our readings this morning have been about Christ as ruler: the Colossians passage, which is probably an early Christian hymn, and Luke, the description of Jesus being put to death on the cross as the King of the Jews, a title given to him to make fun of him but which is truer than the Roman Empire could ever have known, for Jesus is indeed King of the Jews, the Christ, the Messiah sent to bring God’s reign not just to Israel or to the empire but to the whole world.
So today is kind of like the church’s New Year’s Eve. The church will begin a new year with the first Sunday in the season of Advent, November 28. But in our society there is no longer a season of Advent. For retailers and consumers, we’re already at Christmas; stores had Christmas decorations up on the day after Hallowe’en. And those decorations will disappear after Boxing Day, when the church is celebrating the real season of Christmas. The first Christmas special I have noticed in the TV listings actually aired last night. And some radio stations have already switched over to 24-hour Christmas music. Majic 100 starts tomorrow. A writer I was reading the other day commented that he was invited on a talk show to talk about the so-called war on Christmas; he said if there is a war, Christmas seems to be winning, as it’s now colonizing November. A Jesuit priest said that eventually Christmas will start around Labour Day. Now I’m not sure Jesuits are the ones to talk, as I was at United Church meetings in Montreal, and we rented a lovely Jesuit facility in Pierrefonds, and they were putting up Christmas wreaths – the week before Hallowe’en. I thought, just because Jesuits are the Society of Jesus, they don’t have to start celebrating his birthday two months early.
Now, I like that Christmas is the only time of the year you’re going to hear Jesus mentioned in a song playing at the mall, but I also know that this isn’t the true Christmas - Jesus is very much secondary in this version of Christmas, this essentially Christless Christmas, in which the birth of Jesus and its meaning are buried way, way down under the message of buy, buy, buy. If a war on Christmas exists, it’s being waged by retailers and advertisers.
As I think about Reign of Christ Sunday, with its imagery of Christ as ruler that we heard in our Scripture readings, I wonder who really is ruler where we are? Jesus Christ, or the empire of shopping? Jesus Christ, or our earthly empires, ruled by prime ministers and premiers and company presidents? We talked last week about the persecution the church faces in many countries today. Reign of Christ Sunday was placed in the church calendar in the 1920s as a response to that kind of persecution, which at that time came from governments in Mexico and Russia. Perhaps Reign of Christ Sunday has fresh meaning for us as followers of Christ today, as a response not just to governments but to the materialist consumer “Christmas” whose power will dominate all that we hear and see for the next month.
Now, if the connection isn’t obvious between our theme for Reign of Christ, and our spend like Santa and save like Scrooge shopping spree at Christmas, as Canadian Tire used to put it, or between Reign of Christ and what governments and companies do, we need to look back at when Reign of Christ Sunday was placed in the church calendar. This day wasn’t created to praise Christ’s majesty or to talk about how nice things will be when he rules forever and ever. The Pope who put this Sunday in the Roman Catholic church calendar, and from there it has come to us, said that the Feast of Christ the King will call to this world’s leaders. They are the thrones and powers and rulers and authorities the letter to the Colossians talks about in our reading this morning, which were created through Christ and for Christ, and are subject to him. But they have cast Christ not just out of Christmas, but out of public life, and despised, and neglected, and ignored him. Christ’s kingly dignity, Pope Pius XI wrote, demands that the state should take account of God’s commandments and Christian principles in making laws and administering justice.
This year ministers have been following a new initiative, called the Proper 29 Project because in the calendar Reign of Christ is the 29th, or proper, Sunday in Ordinary Time. The project began after thousands of pages of documents were released about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You may have read about those in the paper, or about the debate in Canada over turning detainees in Afghanistan over to Afghan authorities for possible torture. Coalition forces have been responsible for the deaths of 66,000 Iraqi and Afghan civilians, and have ignored the torture of prisoners. The sponsors of Proper 29 wanted to speak out against this when preaching on Reign of Christ Sunday – but also did not want to point fingers at the military, for that’s too easy to do. All of us are morally responsible for the actions carried out in our name, and all of us are subject to the Reign of Christ.
I thought of this watching George W. Bush talking to Jay Leno on the Tonight Show, far too late on Thursday night. President Bush has a new book out, so he’s on all the talk shows. And he admits – well, he doesn’t admit, he puts it out there because he’s proud of it – that he personally approved torturing al-Qaeda prisoners. Even though waterboarding, which is the technique the CIA used, is considered torture under United Nations conventions which were signed into law in the United States, it’s torture under the terms the Allies used to prosecute Japanese officers after World War II, and it’s torture under any application of common sense. American law says that every act of torture is a criminal offence, and no public official may authorize anyone else to commit torture. There is no wiggle room here. Churches hold that torture is immoral and unjustified under any conditions. Yet President Bush shows no shame and says that he would do it again, and here he is, being applauded by the Tonight Show audience. He tells us that he is a man of faith, that Jesus is his personal Saviour, and I believe him. We are all people of faith, yet we are all sinners, and we are all under Christ’s reign.
Proper 29 organizers specifically did not want to blame the military for what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the soldiers and aircrew and sailors are ordinary people, many of them people of deep faith, making life-changing decisions in split seconds and following difficult orders. When the Director of the CIA asked President Bush whether to use torture to get information out of captured al-Qaeda leaders, he had to make a difficult decision too. I believe, and most churches believe, that his decision to torture was the wrong one. But all of us have to make decisions in our lives, and they need to be guided by Christ as the ruler of our lives.
When Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday was created, the Pope did not just talk about earthly rulers ignoring Christ’s reign. He went on to say that this day addresses not just governments but all Christians, for Christ must reign in our minds, all our minds, which should assent to his teachings; Christ must reign in our wills, which should obey the commandments of God; Christ must reign in our bodies, which should serve as instruments for God’s justice.
You may remember a few weeks ago, on Hallowe’en, Reformation Sunday, when I talked about Martin Luther, who contrasted the theology of glory with the theology of the cross. Well, Reign of Christ was not created to celebrate or promote a theology of glory, dressing Christ up like a king or emperor on earth and making him act like that – what the old Anglican catechism called the ‘vain pomp and glory of the world.’ Next year there will be a royal wedding, with lots of pomp and circumstance, and it will be great to watch, but that’s not how Christ reigns as king.
Christ as ruler does not follow the world’s idea of glory. Soren Kierkegaard, who lived in Denmark about 170 years ago and is one of my favourite theologians, had a little story about Christ the king to illustrate this.
Once upon a time a king fell in love with a humble maiden, but wished to avoid embarrassing or offending her. If he went to her in his kingly glory, with royal garments and a retinue of courtiers, he would overwhelm her. And if she should respond to his love, he could never be sure that she loved him or his majesty. He could disguise himself as a beggar and go to her; but then she would not really love him – he is really a king, but she would love a beggar. The reverse solution, elevating the girl instead of lowering the king, wouldn’t work either; this would imply that as a humble maid she was not good enough to be loved, when it was in fact in this state that the king loved her. The only possible answer was for the king to become a beggar in reality, not just to pretend to be one, and to win the maiden’s love as a beggar.
The king in the story is Jesus Christ – and the maiden he loves, the one he loves the way she is, - that’s us. Christ the King did not come to us in glory, but became a beggar, one of us, to win our love. He is not pretending to be humble like us, he really is like us, even though we heard from Colossians that he is the image of God and all things were created by and for him. The letter to the Philippians in the New Testament talks about this, that Christ was in the form of God, but goes on to say that Christ did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and becoming like humans, and in that human form he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
And our Luke reading is a description of this, how as king, as ruler, Jesus Christ does humble himself, turning all expectations of how a king should act on their head as he goes to death on a cross. Kings are supposed to be in charge, not obedient. Kings are supposed to be powerful, not humble. Kings are supposed to lead armies into battle, not be put to death alone as a criminal. Kings wear crowns and sit on thrones. But this is the theology of the cross, a theology of suffering, not the theology of glory. The only crown Jesus has is a crown of thorns. His throne is the rough wood of the cross, with two thieves on either side. Christ does not follow the ways of the world. He refuses to use violence when it is used against him. He forgives his persecutors. He is indeed King of the Jews, and the king of creation, but a different kind of king, a servant king, a king who will not take up the sword, a king who says he did not come to judge the world but to save it.
Brothers and sisters, it's as if our world is in darkness. We struggle to learn how to move beyond the violence embedded in our culture. We look with dismay at the war and poverty and environmental destruction that afflicts our world, at the way in which human life is made a commodity or even considered worthless. We try the solutions the rulers and authorities of this world tell us to adopt, embracing violence abroad and consumption at home, and find out that these solve nothing at all. We can’t afford either one.
So who can help us? Who can be found to lift us out of this sorrow and fear we have created for ourselves? We are not so lost that we don't realize that we need a saviour. But our saviour isn’t any of the ones we seize on as who or what can make us happy and fulfilled. We won’t be saved by a political party or leader, or a celebrity, or a corporation. Salvation won’t come from a political or economic or social empire. No, the Bible says, God so loved the world that we were given God’s only Son: Jesus Christ, the image of God, the head of the church, the one who created all rulers and authorities on earth, the king who turned away from glory to become a beggar to love and save us and who brought peace through the blood of his cross. And so he alone is sovereign, he alone deserves our loyalty, he alone must reign in our wills, our minds, our bodies. And when we say to him, Jesus, remember me, he says to us as he brings us into his royal dominion as God’s people, you shall be with me in paradise.