I preached last week for Christ the King and am crossposting the sermon here for posterity. It's not my favourite sermon that I've preached, but it seemed worth sharing:
Christ the King is a bit of an odd feast day. It marks the end of the liturgical year while also reminding us of Christ’s role as sovereign and leader. It’s one of those established feasts, instituted in the twentieth century with a goal in mind – in this case, to give the faithful an example of an ideal sovereign – particularly in opposition to tyrants who were governing nations at the time. Yet the feast did not arise out of nothing. Throughout Scripture, we see examples of Christ as ruler and leader, as judge and king. But this Sunday is not simply focus on the notion of Christ as monarch – it also marks the end of the year. Next Sunday we enter into Advent, the beginning of the new year, the transition between the season of Pentecost and the celebration of Christmas. For those of us in academia, this time of the liturgical year is, simply put, odd. We celebrate the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of the new one while trying to juggle the end of the semester and finals. At this time of year, it’s easy to get lost and spin off track. There are so many things clamoring for our attention, it’s hard to focus, particularly on God (unless it’s to offer up frantic prayers for help with final exams and papers).
The feast of Christ the King gives us an opportunity to focus. In Jeremiah, we hear the prophecy of the king to come – the divinely ordained king who will deal out justice and protect God’s chosen people, the heir of David, the Messiah. But we also see God’s judgment on those leaders who have let their sheep go astray. Consider these shepherds in opposition to Christ as shepherd; Christ leaves the 99 to go find that one lost sheep while the shepherds in Jeremiah scatter and destroy the sheep, and for that, are subject to the judgement of God. Through this account we are encouraged to examine our own lives. Here is our opportunity at year’s end to take stock of our own lives. Have we been good shepherds or bad? Have we been blind to the needs of the sheep in our company or have we gone out of our way to care for them – to help the ones who were lost or hurting? Maybe we have, maybe we haven’t. Regardless, this year is coming to a close, but soon there will be a new year, an opportunity for a fresh start.
Being a good shepherd isn’t easy and we can’t do it on our own. God doesn’t expect us to; the reading from Colossians reminds us that we don’t have to. We will be made strong with the strength that comes from the glorious power of Christ – in order that we might endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to God. We have been rescued from the power of darkness, from the injustice of this world, and brought into the kingdom of Christ, brought into the light. Paul reminds us of Christ’s glory, heaping epiteths onto him and reminding us of Christ’s centrality. He is the image of the invisible God. His Incarnation provides us with the example we have to follow. He is our leader, the one who stands at the head of the Church, at the head of each one of us. He is, to put it another way, our King.
And yet, his kingship is different than anything we have seen before. It is manifest in suffering and death, in love and not in power. Bishop Oscar Romero wrote:
Christ is presented to us as the shepherd king,
king and shepherd of all the world’s peoples,
of all of history.
His is not a despotic regime,
but a regime of love…. (From Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, July 22, 1979)
This is not our traditional notion of kingship. Might does not make right for Christ the king. Instead, Christ is the Shepherd, the lover, and the leader. He forgives those who crucify him and offers redemption to all. How then are we to follow this example? How do we live out the kingdom of Christ on earth?
In a sermon that Newman preached during his Anglican days, he observed that “it is as unmeaning to speak of an invisible kingdom on earth, as of invisible chariots and horsemen, invisible swords and spears; to be a kingdom at all it must be visible, if the word has any true meaning.”
Newman’s words provide us with a call to action, serving as the trumpet that raises us from our apathy and turns us back to God from our destruction. We can speak of God’s invisible kingdom as a lofty ideal, but are we ready to work towards a visible manifestation of that kingdom? Are we ready to begin this work now? To strive to be the good shepherd, looking out for the lost sheep and tending to them. Are we ready to approach life with a sense of radical love, bringing the light and justice to those we meet?
We live in a world of injustice. A world filled with senseless violence, war, corruption – a world filled with so much wealth where people still die from starvation and a lack of clean drinking water. A world where innocent people are killed. On this particular weekend, as we celebrate Trans Day of Remembrance, we remember those who were killed simply for their gender identity. In a world such as this, where is the king of justice? When people are murdered for having a ‘variant’ gender identity or when teenagers kill themselves because they are being bullied – it is hard to imagine the kingdom of God here on earth. Yet it is up to us to bring the kingdom of God, to bring justice into this world around. It is our job to look for those who are suffering, to go out of our way to help them, to strive for justice. Our calling is to bring God’s invisible kingdom into the world around us, to bring forgiveness, justice and love into this world.
Some of you may know the story “One Solitary Life” that stems from a sermon by James Allan Francis. I heard it recently in a performance and was reminded of it last night while watching the new Harry Potter movie. The story goes something like this:
“A child is born in an obscure village. He is brought up in another obscure village. He works in a carpenter shop until he is thirty, and then for three brief years is an itinerant preacher, proclaiming a message and living a life. He never writes a book. He never holds an office. He never raises an army. He never has a family of his own. He never owns a home. He never goes to college. He never travels two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He gathers a little group of friends about him and teaches them his way of life. While still a young man, the tide of popular feeling turns against him. One denies him; another betrays him. He is turned over to his enemies. He goes through the mockery of a trial; he is nailed to a cross between two thieves, and when dead is laid in a borrowed grave by the kindness of a friend.
Those are the facts of his human life. He rises from the dead. Today we look back and ask, What kind of trail has he left across the centuries? When we try to sum up his influence, all the armies that ever marched, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned seem trivial in their influence on mankind compared with that of this one solitary life…” (paraphrased)
As we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, we have as our example a man who doesn’t seem to fit with the stereotypical notion of a king. Though wars were fought in his name, he himself raised no army and turned the other cheek instead of repaying a blow for a blow. His message was one of love, radical love that seems out of place in our world today. Yet we cannot leave Christ as the invisible king. We cannot relegate him to the margins – out of sight and out of mind. We should take Christ for our own king, following him wherever he may lead us, even if the odds seemed stacked against us. A king’s power is not always revealed in the crushing of his enemies – sometimes it just requires bringing justice and reconciliation. In the last words of today’s gospel, Jesus promises a place in heaven to the thief who asks to be remembered. Jesus forgives those who crucify him and promises salvation to a thief. This is our king. Merciful and loving. What greater calling can we have than to bring Christ into the center of our lives, to bring his kingdom into our lives. To make the invisible kingdom visible.
As we go forth today – into the last weeks of the semester, into the end of this liturgical year, let us go forth with determination to bring Christ’s kingdom into our world, to follow our King wherever he may lead us.
[originally preached on 19 November 2010 at Harvard Divinity School