Today, as Episcopalians and Christians, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ. This Sunday is the last Sunday of Ordinary time before going into the Advent season, and as a relatively new Episcopalian I have always considered the Scripture texts puzzling. I mean, how does the death of Jesus on a cross relate to celebrating the kingship of Jesus. Death and kingship seem like polar opposites.
I decided it was time for me to do a little digging into the background of this feast day. This is what I found out. Pope Pius XI instituted The Feast of Christ the King in 1925 for the universal church. The Feast of Christ the King has been celebrated in the Episcopal Church since 1970. According to Pope Pius many Christians, including Catholics, had begun to doubt Christ’s authority and existence, as well as the Church’s power in the secular world. Pope Pius had three goals with initiating this feast day: (1) that nations would see that the church, or in this instance the Catholic Church, has the right to freedom and immunity from the state (2) That leaders and nations would see that they are bound to give respect to Christ and (3) That the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies.
With our recent election results in the United States I was struck by the power behind these three belief statements, especially number three. How do we the faithful gain strength and courage to celebrate this feast with authenticity? How does our Gospel lesson equip us to lead with Christ as our example? Jesus is not your typical earthly king who leads with an iron fist, he leads with an open heart and hand.
In Jesus we have a king who is crucified. We have a king who forgives the very people who put him to death. We have a king who, while hanging on the cross in agony, grants salvation to the criminal on the cross next to him. And if that wasn’t enough, we have a king who brings the condemned into Paradise with him. The question we must ask ourselves is this, “Would we vote for this kind of servant king today?” In our consumer-ridden Western world today, it is doubtful.
Pope Pius XI brought forth this feast day, because he thought the church had lost their influence in the world. I am not going to second-guess the pope’s original motive for initiating this feast day, but his words are a current challenge to Christian believers in the United States. Notice he does make a statement that you must believe like the Catholic Church to engage in Christian ways of following Jesus. Instead, he zeroes in on the core issues behind people’s apathy and disinterest in following in the way of Jesus. He states that following Jesus is a heart problem.
Karoline Lewis, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota says this about the current church, “We can no longer be secure in the fact that the church leads differently than the world, that our [Christian] leaders are better than secular leaders simply because they run a church” … she goes on to ask the question, “To what extent has the church contributed to the latent misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and exceptionalism in our ‘mainline’ and seemingly respectable institutions, practices, rhetoric, and confessions. Said more simply, “Has the church screwed up by not following the way of Jesus?”- His way of love, compassion, and courage. Because those three actions describe how and why Jesus died on the cross.
I have learned a hard lesson during this past election. I have learned that believing the right things does not necessarily lead to change or enlightened light. I have grappled with the truth that a person can have strongly held beliefs, and still be fearful, self-preoccupied, and terribly narcissistic. I can have strongly held beliefs, and still be angry, judgmental, mean and violent. Christian history and the history of other religions give us many examples of this. Because the bottom line is this, believing has little transformative power. Being Christian is not about right beliefs. Power comes about with a change of heart. Jesus transformed evil power into self-giving love on the cross, and I need to give way more thought on what it means to be a Christian.
I can easily allow the words of the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed to roll off my lips without these beliefs having any influence in my life. Believing in those early 4th century years meant something way different than it does now. The word believing back then meant something like the English word ‘beloving’. To believe in God, or believe in Jesus, was to belove God, to belove Jesus. As Bishop Curry might say, “Do you love Jesus enough to follow His way?” Personally, I want to say, of course, I’ll follow Jesus. I love him? But will I?
Following Jesus means I need to rethink power. What is good power? What is evil power? And how is good and bad power shaping my own perceptions? How honest can I be with myself as I examine my own motives to live for Christ? I have three actions I plan to exercise in my life: (1) I am going to listen to others, both inside the church and outside the church. (2) I am going to examine my own fears as I wrestle with challenging the status quo and (3) I am going to sit with forgiveness.
First, I will listen to the voice that has a different viewpoint of Christianity and my political reality. I will try to grasp their words and thoughts without judgment or the need to change their position. I was reading the Peanuts cartoon a few days ago, and Lucy held up a sign saying, “Power to my kind.” And Charlie Brown responds, “Good grief.” Exactly, good grief, how can I expect everyone to think like me, or be like me? It’s unreasonable, or even crazy thinking for humans to clone each other’s thoughts or actions. God uniquely designed each person, so can we as Christians respect true diversity, and still claim our own truth.
Colossians says, “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 the Father.” If we reclaim the words from Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun,” then we can say with confidence that God resides in all things, even those parts of life that do not make sense, or challenges our strong-held core values.
Second, I must grapple with my fears, so I do not live a life filled with anxiety. Am I afraid to speak out for the immigrant who needs my voice? Karoline Lewis states, “To think that rhetoric can’t make a difference is to let the rhetoric of hate have the dominant voice … to think the church needs to remain neutral so as not to offend is to forget that the empty tomb was thought to be a load of crap.” We must learn to be braver in our speech, and bolder in our actions. Will I be the criminal on the cross asking Jesus boldly “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Lastly, I will sit with forgiveness. I will examine my own heart for anger, hate, and bigotry. I will ask God to forgive me for the evil I cannot see in my own heart, and ask that the Holy Spirit continue to give me eyes that can discern good and bad power. And then I will grieve the things I cannot change about myself, or the evil I cannot change in the world around me. I will grieve to keep my heart and hands open to the suffering around me.
The Song of Zechariah sings to us: “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” As Karoline Lewis says one more time, “Look for the crack, as small as it might be and preach it. That’s how the light gets in.” It is the same light that the criminal saw in the man called Jesus, King of the Jews when he asked to spend eternity with Jesus. Jesus is that kind of King. One who came from humble roots, and proclaimed that his kingdom looked quite different than the Roman kingdom, or our present U.S. culture. Christ is King! Hallelujah. Hallelujah.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.