Christ is King Today!
A sermon preached by The Rev. Sarah E. Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Christ the King Sunday, November 24, 2013
Today we reach the end of our Christian calendar year and next week we arrive at the beginning with the season of Advent. Today is Christ the King Sunday and the reading from Luke’s gospel – of Jesus’ death on the cross – is as mysterious and paradoxical a proclamation of his kingship as the texts that mark the beginning of our Christian year – texts that proclaim the coming of a King born as a vulnerable baby into difficult circumstances.
From beginning to end, Luke’s Gospel invites us into the active presence of Christ’s kingdom here on earth. We see the upside-down kingdom that followers of Jesus – then and now – are called to dwell and work in today. Christ’s kingdom is not a distant reality, it is here among us today – we are called to live into that kingdom today. Just listen to the repeated refrain – today, today, today – as Jesus’ life and rule unfolds in Luke and we come to see what kind of kingdom Jesus represents.
From Luke 2:10-11 we hear the announcement of the birth of Jesus the King spoken by the angels to the shepherds on the hillsides outside of Jerusalem, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day [today] in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
From Luke 4:17-21, in the account of Jesus’ first act of public ministry when Jesus entered the temple in Nazareth: “He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
From Luke 19:8-10, the account of Jesus sitting at table in the home of Zaccheus, a sinner: “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
And from Luke 23, today’s reading, Jesus proclaims as a King would do, to the thief at his side “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” “Today” again because Jesus’ kingship is already established and rooted firmly in the midst of that terrifying gathering of people there to witness the execution of those who had violated the order of the Roman government. Where else would Jesus be to culminate his ministry but where had always stood throughout the gospel of Luke, in the midst of the oppressed, the poor, the lost, the sinners, all of them, all of us caught up in a world of violence. From the cross Jesus offers forgiveness to all, not just those who request it, and God’s love reigns today from the depths of human despair.
Last year on Christ the King Sunday, Pastor Jeff spoke of how the church has struggled in our theologies to understand the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. In fact the church has been dangerously off-base in our understanding of the meaning of the cross. In last year’s Christ the King sermon entitled, “The Way Things are is Not the Way They Have to Be” – A sermon for Orange Day and The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – Pastor Jeff cautioned, “Most of us Christians have been taught that Christ’s suffering was what redeemed us and that those who choose to suffer on behalf of others are to be lauded. But what we rarely examine is how this very narrow understanding of how Christ saves us functions to undergird, to literally justify death-dealing advice that pastors and well-meaning friends give to women in situations of violence and abuse.”[i]
The theologies of the cross are more than we can count and have created much debate in the church. One thing is very clear: if our understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross leads us to perpetuate violence then our understanding needs to be examined. I want to offer you one brief entry-point into an understanding of what it means for us to declare Christ’s kingship from the cross, one that has been enormously helpful to me in wrestling with this mystery.
It comes from Daniel Migliore’s book, Faith Seeking Understanding, in which he writes “As the risen Jesus explains to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, did not the Christ have to suffer all this and enter into his glory? (Luke 24:26). It was divine ‘necessity’ – the necessity of God’s gracious and non-coercive love – that the love of God be fully expressed in all its vulnerability in Jesus Christ. It was sinful human ‘necessity’ – the necessity of a world order of our own making – that this one who mediated God’s forgiveness and inaugurated the reign of God characterized by justice, freedom, and peace should become the victim of our violence because he threatened the whole world of violence that we inhabit and will to maintain.”[ii]
Christ’s death on the cross is the creation of a new order that continues to threaten the violent ways of our world. We, the body of Christ, are called to serve Christ’s new order –
- To love and care for the earth – to live on this wounded earth lightly, carefully, and gracefully – and in doing so to threaten the daily violence inflicted on rivers and streams, mountains and soil.
- To love and care for our undocumented immigrant brothers and sisters and in doing so to threaten the violence of a world that declares any human being as “illegal” or “less than”.
- To love and care for one another in this community and in doing so to threaten the violence of fierce individuality and the dangers of living in isolation.
- To love and care for the poor and vulnerable in our midst and in doing so to threaten economies and ways of living that come at the expense of the lives of others.
- To love and care for the mystery and paradox of the King of Love executed by the Roman authorities, the Lamb of God who rules over the earth and in doing so to threaten the hopelessness and despair that arise from seeing this world through our limited vision only and losing touch with the mystery of Christ’s kingdom that is unfolding around us.
In the final section her poem, “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus”, the poet Denise Levertov puzzles over the mystery of the Agnus Dei, the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. She asks to herself and readers of her poetry, “God then,/encompassing all things, is/defenseless? Omnipotence/has been tossed away, reduced/to a wisp of damp wool?”[iii] Levertov was a dedicated peace activist and poet of protest. She spent many years of her life estranged from faith in God and especially keeping her distance from organized religion because she could not piece together the pain of the world with a loving, omnipotent God. Ironically, at age 58 when she wrote this poem, it her same inability to reconcile God and the hurting world, the weak lamb as ruler that led her back into faith and the church.
Her biographer writes of her journey back to faith, “It was not that she had found a way to reconcile the poles of “the double image,” the terror and the beauty, the ‘fears’ and ‘promises.’ Rather, she came to acknowledge that this quest for reconciliation was an ongoing human effort. [In her words] “One can’t hold the full knowledge of that horror and of joy,…at the same moment. One wants to find a synthesis that will at least answer the question, ‘How can this be?’ And that’s part of the human moral search, that is part of what it is to be human.”[iv]
She found her way into the life of churches that offered her a place to be in solidarity with others who sat with the mystery, who led her to ways of living out the mystery in service to the poor and vulnerable. This service led her deeper into the awesomeness of God’s expansive grace and forgiveness, which, she began to realize, were deeply present in her own life.
Denise Levertov’s journey back into faith is just one testimony of the power of the mystery that we encounter again on Christ the King Sunday. Like her, each of us, encountering the suffering of our world and in our lives has wrestled with the plea of thief at Jesus’ side, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” But this community gathered here is testimony that each of us also has a story or many, many stories of how the mystery of the humble savior has drawn us in and called us out into this broken world to witness to Christ’s all-encompassing love. And so together we praise God today for Jesus the Christ, the paradox and mystery of our faith.
In a moment we will sing together, “You, Lord Are Both Lamb and Shepherd,” proclaiming the mystery of our faith: “Worthy is our earthly Jesus! Worthy is our cosmic Christ! Worthy your defeat and victory; worthy still your peace and strife. You, the everlasting instant; you, who are our death and life.”[v]
[ii] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 189.
[iii] Denise Levertov, “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” in Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 2002), p. 136.
[iv] Dana Greene, Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), p. 150.
[v] From Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, text by Sylvia G. Dunstan, 1984.