The Last Sunday after Pentecost
The Feast of Christ the King
November 25, 2007
“Once upon a time, in a far away kingdom, there lived a king… and after a series of amazing adventures and heroic rescues, the handsome king and the beautiful princess were married and lived happily ever after.”
For many of us who grew up with fairy tales, such stories of handsome and heroic kings and beautiful and often downtrodden princesses, and most of all, ‘happily ever after’ endings shaped our view of royalty. As a small child my imagination was fed by such tales, and reinforced by real events chronicled in the Life and Look magazines that arrived in the mail each week: the fairy tale marriage of Grace Kelly to the Prince of Monaco, stories about Queen Elizabeth and her growing family, about the marriage of Princess Margaret, and then years later, the marriage of Diana to Prince Charles. Royalty meant beauty and glitz and fairy tale images of palaces and coaches and crowns.
Of course, those of us who grew up with those images also came to realize how shallow they were, how insubstantial and fleeting the storybook ‘happily ever after’ turned out to be. Kings and queens and princesses have feet of clay, just like the rest of us, or so it seems--ordinary people cloaked in extraordinary surrounds, whose real day to day lives cannot live up to our fairy tale expectations.
I wonder if it didn’t feel a little like this for Jesus’ followers in today’s gospel. Their leader, the one who had preached and taught and healed, the one who proclaimed the coming of a new kingdom, the one Pilate had asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” now hung on a cross, subjected to a degrading form of punishment reserved for the lowest members of society, hung there in the midst of two common criminals to die a slow and painful death. Was he after all, they must have wondered, just another human with clay feet pretending to be more than he was? If he was really the messiah, the anointed one, wouldn’t he save himself from such an end?
Of course the answer to those ponderings, the truth of Jesus’ message, of his identity would be fully revealed a few days hence when his tomb was found empty. But today as we end our liturgical year, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, and our gospel focuses not on the resurrection, but on the crucifixion. So we must ask ourselves, “What does this story about Jesus on the cross reveal to us about his kingship?”
From the very beginnings of his ministry, Jesus defied all expectations of what a “messiah”, an anointed one should be like. In a world in which the Roman Empire reigned supreme, a world in which the fate of the people of Israel, the chosen people of God, seemed to hang precariously on the whims of various puppet kings working in league with the empire, hopes were high for a messiah, a king anointed as David had been who would liberate them, set them free and restore their land and their fortunes and their status. There were of course, many who claimed to be that one, and there were minor rebellions and uprisings, all quickly squashed by the Romans. So when this simple man Jesus emerged out of the wilderness to preach and teach and heal and proclaim the coming kingdom of God, he made an unlikely figure to fulfill the hopes of the people.
His teaching and his actions were persuasive, however, and he attracted throngs everywhere he went. He challenged his followers not to revolt militarily, but rather to live counter culturally—to love God and love neighbor as the highest virtues, to place little value on earthly goods and earthly honors but to strive to enter the kingdom of God. He preached a radical gospel that called his followers to turn the other cheek, to give up not only their cloaks but also their inner garments, to feed the hungry and care for the prisoner. He consorted with those proper society shunned—tax collectors, Samaritans, women. He called his followers to repent—to turn away from the powers that controlled their lives and to take up a new way.
In all this, Jesus, the unlikely messiah, attracted enough attention to worry the powers-that-be. Certainly he was of no real threat—he had no armies, he incited no revolt. But his message asked those who heard him to rethink the lives they were living, to resist the powers in a more subtle and ultimately more potent way, and that could not be tolerated.
And so we find Jesus on the cross, mocked as the King of the Jews, degraded and dishonored and left to die. “You saved others, now save yourself” one of the evildoers along side him called out. But just as Jesus resisted the temptation in the wilderness to throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple to show his invulnerability to death, so too did he resist the temptation to save himself from death on the cross. In accepting that death, that ignominious and untimely death, Jesus showed his true kingship. His power broke the earthly powers that shackled him and shackled the people of God. And he broke the earthly powers that shackle us as well.
We celebrate the feast of Christ the King, our king, in recognition that since that moment of his death we have been living in a new world. No longer can the powers and principalities hold us in the same way if—and this is a big if—we are willing to follow the way Jesus laid out for us. Counter cultural today as it was then, radical, and demanding. A way that calls us to give up those things—power, wealth, prestige, conceit, honor, status, violence, aggression, vengeance, all those things, whatever they are—that make us complicit with powers and principalities and separate us from God.
We celebrate the feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday in Pentecost, the last Sunday in our church year. Next week, the first Sunday in Advent, we begin a new year. We look forward to the birth of the Christ Child, we celebrate his ministry, we live through his death and glorious resurrection, and in all that we seek to reshape our lives so that we can better realize the Kingdom of God that Jesus’ death on the cross ushered in. On this new year’s eve, I wonder if we might, as we do for the secular new year, think about our hopes for the coming year. What might our world look like a year from now if we began to live more fully the way Jesus calls us to live? How might our lives be more fully transformed if we really took seriously Jesus’ new way?
We often say that only in fairy tales do people live happily ever after. But in truth, happily ever after is what God’s kingdom is really all about. Not the happily ever after of princesses and castles and crowns, but the happily ever after of a world in which no one goes hungry, no one is shunned or cast out, a world in which violence is laid to rest and peace reigns. It’s not living in a fairy tale to imagine such a world, because that is the kingdom God promises us. That is the kingdom Jesus died on a cross for. That is the kingdom that is here but not yet fully realized. That is the kingdom we can work for, if only we will. That is the Kingdom of Christ the King.