Christ the King
And 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.
I still remember the first time I heard Christ referred to as “King.” I was actually a teenager and had been invited to attend a prayer meeting in Palo Alto. The large auditorium in which we met was bare except for a huge, fabric hanging of Christ with a crown on his head. It was an odd image for me at the time because it just didn’t convey an image of Christ either as I knew him or as I wished to know him. At that age, for me, kings and royalty only conveyed authority. But the Christ I knew represented compassion, acceptance, and love. So, when I got older and began to explore images of Christ, I explored further the image of Christ as King. Eventually, it came to be a powerful one for me—not because it conveys something about Christ, but, in fact, because of the origins of this day in the church year and what it says about us.
One of the interesting things, I think, about the Feast of Christ the King is that it is a Feast Day in the Church when, rather than asking the world to respond to an event in the life of the Church (like Easter or Pentecost or Christmas), instead, the Church responded to an event in the historical context of the world—the 100th anniversary of which we just marked this year—the end of World War I.
In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King for regular observance throughout the Roman Catholic Church. He did so in response to the end of what was considered to be the war to end all wars. World War I was the bloodiest war humanity had yet unleashed upon itself. Only a few years before, the idea of a war engulfing all of humanity was almost inconceivable. But with the advent of World War I, no longer was warfare just nation against nation, now it became all of humankind against itself. So, in response to this utter failure of earthly rulers and earthly kingdoms to live in peace, the Sunday of Christ the King was set aside as a day of proclamation. A day for the Church to proclaim in the face of earthly authorities who we believe the true ruler of the world is. And it is in that action that I found the image of Christ as King to be so powerful.
When it was first celebrated, Christ the King Sunday was to be a day when peace would be lived out and the Reign of God would be proclaimed. But in the aftermath of continued wars in Europe later in the last century, the celebration of this day quickly took hold in the Anglican Communion. Eventually, it spread to the United States and several Protestant denominations during the darkest days of the Vietnam War, when many Americans began to question our own country’s use of military force in the world.
Today, as a day when we proclaim the Peaceful Rule of Christ in the world, Christ the King continues to be a day in the church year that has something relevant to say. All we have to do is look at the violence in the world today. Every year it seems there is an escalation of violence between the peoples of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Or between Russia and any of its neighboring sovereign states. Or the threat of war between the United States and either Iran or South Korea. And all the while, the poor continue to go unfed. The homeless continue to look for shelter. And racial, religious and economic discrimination continues to be practiced in the world. Humanity is still rejecting the sanctity that God bestowed upon us by becoming human.
Yet, ironically, it is in these very tragedies that I find hope. Because it is always in the face of injustice and violence that the voices of justice and peace respond with the loudest clamor. As Christians, we find hope in the day when Jesus, who came once in humility, will return in glory. Just as we proclaim his death and resurrection, so too do we hold on to his promise to come again in glory. Week by week we gather in this church and in churches throughout Christendom and, by our very presence at worship, witness to our confidence that Jesus will, someday, establish a “kingdom of peace that will have no end.” What that means in practical terms—how the world or people in the world might be changed—is the topic for a whole other sermon. But, today we at least proclaim that in the hearts of every believer, that day can be today. Because by living into the reality of what we believe is yet to come, we, in fact, make that reality come into being.
The Kingdom of God embraces all dimensions of human life: it encompasses all human relationships—between relatives, between neighbors, with nature, and with God. And, if we turn the energy with which we fight each other toward the energy with which we love each other, we won’t have to wait for Christ’s return to usher in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God will truly, as our Lord said, be in our midst.
By choosing to become human in Jesus, God sanctified all of human life. Living out that reality is what the Kingdom of God is about. It is acknowledging the sacred in all things, and most importantly the sacred in all people. It is honoring the dignity of every single human being—whether you like them or not. It is loving your neighbor as yourself—perhaps the greatest challenge that Jesus called us to. It is all of the things God has commanded us to do out of love. To live into the light of the Reign of God today.
Yet, in this moment when we proclaim the living, victorious Christ, I am nagged by one question—Why does the agony of our individual and collective lives continue? Why doesn’t God reveal if not the fullness of His glory at least a better measure of His authority in the here and now? Why DOES God permit evil to continue to exist? Well, I touched on this a bit last week, but today on this Feast of Christ the King I have to admit that I don’t have a complete, simple answer to this question. But as incredible as it may seem, I still believe we can find hope in the midst of despair. I believe we can find peace in the midst of fear.
Take a moment and think again about the nonsense of all that violence in the world. And as you think about it, tell me if you can’t hear the voice of Jesus coming from those who continue to call for peace in the midst of destruction and violence. Open your heart to someone who is suffering in mind or body or spirit and tell me if you can’t sense in that person’s suffering the presence of Christ—standing by them, sustaining them, comforting them and encouraging them.
While the world goes on struggling with the sins of humanity, I see in the love of friends, in the struggles of those who stand up for not just the dignity of every person but for the value of every person, I see signs hope.
I see signs of that God in Christ who will someday reign in the hearts of every person on earth—not by a force symbolized by a crown, but with compassion symbolized by gracious acts of love. I see signs enough of the Kingdom of God today to accept what is past, to struggle with what is at hand, and to hope for what is ahead.
Today, Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday in the liturgical year, is a day for us to reflect. A day to think about who it is that we want to serve. To question who our King really is? Who our Savior really is. And from that understanding, to remind ourselves that we are loved by God and are called to do the same for others. To dream of what the world could be, and to then go out and make it happen.