Blessed be the Name of God
Today we come to the last Sunday of the Church Year, the last Sunday after Pentecost, the Sunday next before Advent, when we will begin all over again our rehearsal of the life of Jesus and the life of the Church.
Today we also observe the commemoration of Christ the King, a day we have borrowed from our Roman Catholic companions. This observance was initiated in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. It was not in the calendar before that. It was not known to the Early Church or the church of the Reformation. It was not known in the Episcopal Prayer Books and lectionaries either, prior to the current revision.
For this observance, our gospel text for the morning comes from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus telling us of our obligation to the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. That is, our obligation to Christ himself.
For my part, I have a story to tell you and then something to say about today’s commemoration.
This story is true and happened some years ago. Amy and I were serving at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Austin TX. We were a part of the congregation and did supply duties there from time to time. We also served there as interims on two occasions.
On the morning in question, the procession was forming in the entryway when the reader assigned to read the portion of Ephesians appointed for the morning came up to me and said, “Do I really have to read this?” The reader was Ed Adams, a year older than I was, quite good looking, a full head taller and African American. All this notwithstanding, Ed and I presented ourselves as the Adams Twins.
“Do I really have to read this?” “Yes,” I said. “I’m going to preach on that text.”
I should note that Ed’s wife, MaryLou, was the Senior Warden at the time, a very forceful and beautiful presence, to be sure. Typically, Ed and MaryLou sat several rows back on the same side as the lectern, the lectern from which Ed was about to read.
Time came for the reading from Ephesians, chapter 5. Ed approached the lectern, looked over his glasses at MaryLou, exhaled and began to read, “Wives, be subject to your husbands…” If a black man can blush, Ed did it! Everyone in the room laughed out loud and, poor Ed, had to finish his assigned task before returning to his seat and trying to disappear.
This was a text appointed for the Sunday and the preacher knew that it could not simply be read and left hanging there. Hence, the obligation not only to read the text but also to preach on it. The question before the preacher was “How to redeem this text.” The text may have had a faithful value, once upon a time, but that time seemed then and now to have passed.
So, with that story in our imagination, let’s consider this Sunday, designated Christ the King. Like the Scriptural passage in the story I have just told you, the preacher this morning cannot pass by.
What about Jesus as a king? There is an irony that shrouds this whole business, Jesus as king.
This commemoration was created in 1925, following the end of the first world war. Pius XI expressed the hope and expectation that a “lasting peace” would be accomplished, bringing about “the restoration of the Empire of Our Lord.”
Our Sunday readings are laid out in a three-year cycle. That means that for most every Sunday, over that cycle, there are three gospel readings appointed, each intended to bring to voice something to edify us on that Sunday, something to build us up.
For this Sunday, over the three years, we are given a reading from Matthew, as today, a reading from John and one from Luke. These readings are intended by the lectionary makers to aid us in grasping and valuing Christ as King.
In Matthew, this morning, Jesus tells about our obligations and in so doing, he imagines a king. In John’s gospel, we have Jesus before Pilate, who wants to give Jesus a regal title. In Luke, we have Jesus’ crucifixion, where the evangelist records soldiers chiding Jesus about his being the king that Pilate named, and one of the thieves alongside Jesus asking, “…remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
It may be true to say that Jesus being a king was a notion attractive to Matthew in his story, to Pilate in his accusation and to the thief on the cross in his request. It is clear that Pius XI thought so. But the question remains, what did Jesus think?
It may very well have made sense for Pilate to imagine that Jesus was his political opponent. Jesus was a social disrupter, a magnet for many who sought healing and wholeness, someone who could easily have been mistaken as a political rival. But earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus specifically eluded a crowd that wanted to make him king. “When Jesus realized,” John wrote, “that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus] withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Whatever the dynamic in the conversation with Pilate, kingship was not what Jesus was called to accomplish.
Further, the imagery of “King of kings and Lord of lords” arises once in the First Letter to Timothy and twice in Revelation. It appears that this terminology was currently then used by political potentates in the Middle Eastern world, to announce their supremacy. It too found favor with the Church, hence our collect for the morning.
This seems to me to make this festival an occasion full of irony.
So, then, Jesus. Jesus, born in a manger, illegitimate, an itinerate prophetic figure, called by God in the most profound manner. Jesus, who in Matthew, Mark and Luke, is heard to say, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” [Mark 10.42b-45. Cf. Lk 222.24-27; Mt 20.28]
Jesus, who in John’s gospel is depicted in this way, on the night before he died: “Jesus…got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” [13.3b-5] Jesus, kneeling.
And most compellingly, Paul the Apostle wrote in his Letter to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” [2.6-8].
Beyond all this, in a time when the notion of Christian Nationalism is on the rise in this country, talk of the political sovereignty of Jesus should clearly set us on edge. Remember the Pope’s words, “…the restoration of the Empire of Our Lord.”
The preacher, then, is obliged to proclaim, as faithfully as possible, this irony. Jesus, humble, kneeling, taking the form of a slave, emptied of divinity and about to die, this Jesus entangled in a conversation with the Roman overlord about claims of royalty. In the fullest irony, Pilate had the inscription over Jesus’ head read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
It seems to me that whereas the Church seems to have found the idea of the kingship of Jesus attractive, Jesus himself thought otherwise. When Jesus talked about kingship, he spoke, not about himself, but rather about the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God, that time when the expectations of God, the benevolence of God, the generosity and justice of God, were to be fully and completely realized. The time when God, the King of Heaven, would reign, compassionately, full of grace and mercy. The fatherly/motherly God about whom we will sing , “Come, thou almighty King, help us thy Name to sing, help us to praise, Father whose love unknown all things created own, build in our hearts thy throne, Ancient of Days.” [H365, v. 1]
Now then, what are we to take from all this, what is there here that is nourishing and uplifting? What is there here that is strengthening of our faith?
I would urge you to hallow the God whom Jesus called “Abba, Father,” to hallow God as Jesus did. And in so doing, acknowledge the place that Jesus accepted for himself, and to be blessed by that acknowledgment, that confession.
When this regal language and imagery arise associated with Jesus, I suspect he smiles, even now. Yes, he has triumphed over death and the grave. Yes, his spirit continues to nourish the Church and to sustain the hopes and dreams of people like you and me. Yes, he has promised, in due time, to take us to where he is. Yes, his experience suggests to us that although we will die, we will not lose the companionship of God. But in all this, Jesus never claimed for himself what Pilate and others have wanted to impose upon him.
So, my friends, as Christmas approaches and you hear the marvelous music of Handel’s Messiah, especially when the chorus proclaims, “Lord of lords and King of kings” who will “reign forever and ever,” please smile along with Jesus. He knows what we know. He remains Son of God and Mary’s child, the one who healed the sick, anointed the blind, traveled dusty roads with countless wanderers, told stories and parables, befriended those on the margins, died by suffocation on a cross and was raised to glory, leaving kingship to others. In deep gratitude for him, then, let your hearts be filled with gladness.
Blessed be the Name of God.