Monday, November 26, 2007
Feast of Christ the King
This is the final Sunday of the Church year. Next week begins Advent. We call this the Feast of Christ the King. I have been celebrating this feast my entire life and I was surprised that the feast of Christ the King was only instituted in the mid 1920’s in the Roman Catholic Church as a way to fight the secularization of modern society and as a response to the loss of Papal lands in Europe. I expected that this feast originated in the medieval era with its emphasis on the Kingdom of
God, but this feast was the response to the failing of so many monarchies in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. Now, Episcopalians often love this feast because of their close ties with the English crown. But I find this feast difficult. But the readings help us ferret out what this feast is about. This feast is about Judgement--of Christ coming again.
The Jeremiah reading is a prophecy to remind the kings of Judah of what their responsibility was. The chosen people of God had been nomadic herders so the pattern for good leadership was that of a shepherd who cared for the people of their kingdoms like shepherds cared for their sheep. False shepherds were those kings who fleeced their flocks for their own benefit.
The Colossians reading reminds us that Christ is head of all. Paul does not call him King, but he reminds us “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.”
But it is the Gospel that brings us up short. Rather than a reading about the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, or perhaps the Transfiguration, the Gospel reading is part of the passion of Jesus. It is the story of the two thieves who are crucified on either side of Jesus. This doesn’t really portray kingship at all in our minds. And it should remind us that the kingship of Christ is not the kind of kingship that we see on the pages of the tabloids these days in our history books.
The kind of kingship or dominion that Christ portrays is not the imperialistic model with which we are so familiar either through the royalty of our present generation, or the history of kingship through the medieval era. The kind of kingship that Christ portrays for us is one that turns dominion and domination principles on its ear for one important reason: The Cross.
Friday night I listened to the Rev. Dr. James Cone being interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS. I have always like Moyers' reporting. We grew up not far from one another in TX. James Cone, the leading African-American theologian who teaches at Union Seminary in NYC, also grew up in Arkansas not far from where Bill and I grew up. But James’ African-American experience of faith was quite different from Moyers or mine.
Cone described the Lynching Tree in African-American culture as having the same kind of transformational qualities as the image of the Cross did in the first century. Now that is not an image that any white person in America wants to think upon. But as I listened to Cone I began to not only understand what he was talking about, but a deeper understanding of the Cross than I have ever had. Like many Christians and I would suggest Anglicans in particular, I have a difficult time with the Cross as the symbol of my faith. I believe Lutherans have less difficulty with the theology of the Cross because of Luther’s clear understanding the transcendent nature of the Cross because much of Luther's theology centered in the Cross. But most Christians don’t have that central understanding of the Cross to know that. In many Protestant churches the cross is the sign of the resurrection, not the suffering.
Lynching, says Cone, did not come about until after the Civil War because slaves were too valuable to be killed indiscriminately. It was after the Civil War when intimidation became the name of the game that lynching became such an act of terror. If we look back to the First century, we can find that same issue giving rise to crucifixion as a way to terrorize the people in occupied lands like Judah. For many of us, the Cross has become such a symbol of love, that we have emptied the Cross of much of its meaning. It was an instrument of terror. It was a statement of failure which today has transcended its original meaning. Because of what Jesus did on that Cross makes the symbol something that transcends its original intent. No longer do we shake in our boots at the sight of the Cross as did the first century Christians. It has become for us a sign of hope, a sign of stalwart faithfulness, a sign of love—the kind of love that calls from us our best, our all. I wonder if the pipe bomb or some other terrorist device will become for future generations the symbol of God’s love for us.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” can also be translated, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your POWER.” This is NOT about dying and going to heaven. The good thief understood that the crucifixion of Jesus had to do not with him being called the “King of the Jews”, it had to do with Jesus’ POWER transcended that of Herod or Caesar. Jesus’ POWER went beyond the domination elements of the Roman Empire or all the empires since. Jesus’ power turns all systems of domination upside down---or as my friend, Pastor Carol Krause says” turns things “right-side up.”
The Cross, the Lynching Tree, even perhaps the pipe bomb remind us that Domination Systems are forces that terrorize can kill the body but not the soul. They can do damage, but they cannot separate us from the love of God.
The Feast of Christ the King reminds us that Kingship—monarchy is not about who is on top. The Feast of Christ the King tells us that our king is not the kind who lords it over us. The Feast of Christ the King reminds us that the real relationship with God is not about the kind of “power over” or systems of living together that dominate some to the advantage of others. It reminds us that Christians cannot be supportive of a nation that lords it over others. The Feast of Christ the King means that our faith calls from us a kind of image of life here on earth that says humans do not have to tyrannize others in order to be safe. So in fact, the Feast of Christ the King comes out being just the opposite that Pope Pius the Eleventh had in mind.
Pius the Eleventh, the pope that started the Christ the King feast, was a fairly reactionary pope. In the early 20th century he saw most things that were modern in his days as threats to his papacy, his control. It is ironic that this Feast of Christ the King which he instituted has become a feast in which we recognizes that Christ’s power turns all other power “right-side up.” It challenges humankind to live in harmony without the age-old system that requires class, privilege, or license. Christ’s kingdom calls for the last to be first, the smallest to grow to the greatest, the poorest to receive the kingdom and the lost to be found. Christ the King is the exaltation of one who was one of the least. The Feast of Christ the King says to us here in Sidney, today that we are chosen but not above others. We are loved but not holier than others. We are saved but not at the exclusion of others. We are blessed but cannot expect to be more blessed than others. And we have a God who calls us to live sharing what we have so that others may live as we live—free. AMEN.