Saturday, November 24, 2012

Willing Subjects of His Most Gracious Rule

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."
John 18:33-37

Many American Christians are—and have good reason to be—uncomfortable with the popular name of this commemoration. I say popular, because in our Calendar this day has only one official name: “The Last Sunday after Pentecost.” It is not, in and of itself, a special feast day or commemoration above and beyond that of every Sunday: a celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But the Collect for this Sunday alludes to another name for this day: the Feast of Christ-the-King. This prayer speaks of Christ as “King of kings and Lord of lords,” being exquisitely careful of capitalization in doing so. The Feast of Christ the King (coming to us from the Roman Catholic communion in the earlier twentieth century) has not been officially adopted by the Episcopal Church, but has been adopted by popular acclamation in most parishes, replete with white vestments, the Gloria in excelsis, and many hymns speaking of Christ in royal terms.

Our discomfort with the Feast of Christ the King on an “official” level probably has something to do with our ongoing American dislike of monarchy as an institution, as well as a concern (in some corners) about the overtly "male" quality of its focus. But the Collect tells us something extremely important about this matter, about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, in essence.

Christ’s kingship is utterly unlike any earthly kingship. It relies not on force but love. Its glory comes not from earth but heaven. Its power is found not in ruling but in service. It reigns supreme, but through humility. Only this Kingship—and not all the earthly substitutes devised in the past or today—can free us from our bondage to sin. This is the pattern for all true Kingship today and in the future: Christ’s “most gracious rule.”

The last Sunday of the Liturgical Year looks out from the edge of time and history into Eternity, and sees not the bleak vacuum of space, the black abyss of human wrong, or the bitter finality of nuclear destruction and ecological disaster: it sees a final victory of love over hate, faith over fear. Together with Christ, we live in the light of that victory already won on the Cross. We are a people of present hope in the midst of ongoing struggle, and this Sunday explains why.

Christ is our king. He does not require flattery or abject groveling. He requires we become like him. To be his “subjects” means treating every person as the subject of God’s immense outpouring of love in Christ, not as mere objects to be manipulated for the benefit of a system or ideology. Anything--anything--that takes us away from this truth must be rebuked as a temptation to abandon our King for another.

The Gospel reading today is extremely important in this context. Pilate tries to get Jesus to call himself a king. Jesus responds that his kingdom is “not of this world.” It is a defining moment for authentic Christianity—though it has often been ignored by those who follow Christ. For, in saying this, Our Lord has rendered impossible all attempts to conform his rule to the world as it is. He has shown us forever that all he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, all he did in eating with sinners, was true. He meant to live and die by it. So must we.

The Kingdom of God will never be found in resorting to the methods—acknowledged or not—of human kingship. It will only be experienced when those who follow Christ are willing to lay hold of his unique Victory of Love and its extraordinary strength.  Every sharing in the Holy Eucharist is a participation and nourishing in that Victory, as well as a trumpet call to return to it if we have wavered.

Those who have ears to hear will understand and lay hold upon this truth. For us, though still imperfect in our understanding, this Feast is a celebration of something beautiful and not the least bit monarchist in the conventional sense of that word. We rejoice in this sort of kingship, and are challenged to be loyal to it by living lives that, like a compass needle, point for all to see to Christ our King.

Indeed, in a world dominated by various people and movements striving to occupy the same place as the kings and queens of old—now armed with more insidious forms of weaponry and manipulation than ever before—this celebration of the unique and merciful Kingship of Christ is an act of counter-cultural affirmation that this kingship alone is worthy of our efforts, our loyalty, our lives.

Collect for the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ-the-King
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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