CHRIST THE KING – 11.26.17
This is the last Sunday of the church year, when we celebrate the festival of Christ the King. For the church, today is like New Years’ Eve and next Sunday, the first in Advent, is New Years’ Day. This day that ends our year affirms that God is the ultimate power in the universe. Today’s readings describe what God’s power looks like. The gospel tells us that Jesus represents God as King, which means that divine power is both mysterious and paradoxical. Earthly power is often used to force others by threat, intimidation and/or violence to do what we want. In previous times, kings have been the symbol of power, dominating their subjects as well as their enemies. Yet the image of a good king in scripture is that of a good shepherd.
Using the term king to describe Jesus is ironic, because throughout his earthly life he never claimed political or physical power, only the power of words. He was a preacher, a teacher and a storyteller. He sought out people who had no power, and were often the victims of those in power – the poor, the sick and the outcast. Ultimately, in his confrontation with those in power, he did not resist them, but instead surrendered himself to violent abuse and an unjust and humiliating death. The crucifixion stories can be seen as a sort of parody of royalty. Jesus is dressed in a purple cloak, crowned with thorns, and crucified between two thieves, in a mockery of a king on his throne surrounded by his court. He is mocked as the “king of the Jews.” His crucifixion is a contradiction of power and control.
Although the church emerged from belief in Christ as the savior, the incarnation of God the king, it could not sustain the most radical hallmarks of Jesus’ witness to the world – pacifism and voluntary poverty. History shows that by the fourth century, the official church was on its way to becoming one of the wealthiest and most dominant powers in the Western world. How ironic that the Feast of Christ the King was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as an antidote to rampant secularism of the “roaring twenties” and the church’s loss of power and prestige in Europe. At that time the Vatican itself had very little tolerance for democracies and freedom of religion. Pius wrote an encyclical called Quas Primas in which he explained his hope that celebrating this feast would give royal honors to our Lord and that “Men will doubtless be reminded that the Church was founded by Christ as a perfect society.” The irony is that Jesus’ greatest power is in his weakness, but the feast was established to protest the church’s loss of power and prestige, the opposite of God’s description of a perfect society.
We can idealize Jesus as king, but we should never forget that the witness of his life to the radically poor and powerless was a way of revealing that God shares those characteristics. God’s power is absolute, but founded in love, and so God does not force the divine will. God does not threaten us to get us to obey. God does not withhold forgiveness to shame us. God does not prevent us from making mistakes or remind us of our failures when we repent.
The power Jesus practiced was unconditional love, and unlimited compassion and mercy. He was the mirror image of God his father, the source of that love, compassion and mercy. That is God’s nature, revealed perfectly in Jesus. Where do we see that love, compassion and mercy? First it is revealed by the prophet Ezekiel, who presents God as a compassionate shepherd. Jesus found that image to be a perfect description of God. Shepherds were among the lowliest peasants in their society, hired to wander with the flocks, find pasture and protect them. In Jesus’ parable of the good shepherd, the shepherd leaves the flock to find a single lost sheep. Jesus insists that the good shepherd will give up his life for the sheep. That doesn’t sound much like power as we know it, but it is a perfect description of God’s power, rooted in unconditional love.
In our gospel reading, Jesus tells us where we can find him. Christ the King has disappeared among the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and those in prison. He is hiding in the least of our brothers and sisters, those who are marginalized and persecuted. He uses his power to move our hearts to compassion. He invites us to exercise the power we are given by God because we are created in the image of God. That power is unconditional love and unlimited compassion and mercy. That is the essence of being a part of the priesthood of all believers, the power to sacrifice ourselves for others just as Jesus did. We are not commanded to exercise that power, but we are blessed by God when we do.
Matthew tells us that the reality of living our lives as God intended will be revealed in the time of judgment, so we should not be surprised when Jesus tells us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, nurse the sick, welcome the stranger and visit those in prison, we are doing it for him. That is how we honor Christ the King. Amen.