Christ The King
November 22, 2015
St. Thomas, Abingdon
The Rev. Canon Kathy Dunagan
Back in medieval times, there was this court jester who just went one joke too far. He insulted the king. The king was furious. He sentenced his jester to be executed immediately. The court was agitated. “Please be merciful,” they pleaded. The king was not ready to back down such that the jester could live, but he did decide that instead of execution, the jester could choose the method of his dying. Turning to the jester, the king said, “How do you want to die?” The jester replied, “If it’s all the same to you, my Lord, I’d like to die of old age!”
Today is the last Sunday of that long Pentecost season and it is also the opportunity celebrate the feast of Christ the King. We should have gotten out the white hangings and vestments and done it up properly, but this particular feast day has sort of hit the skids in recent times. This may be due, in America at least, to it’s unfortunate alignment with this big family holiday, Thanksgiving.
But there is more afoot here. This is a relatively recent feast in the liturgical calendar. Pope Pius the XI instituted this feast (or solemnity if you want a more accurate term) in 1925 in response to a certain growing nationalism and secularism in the West. This period in world history was between World War I and The Great Depression and just prior to the making of the Vatican as an independent City in 1929. There was much debate at this time about who was in charge. For you history buffs, this particular argument was called The Roman Question and it was a big argument, involving mostly Italy but also France. It was all about who was, essentially, King.
Until 1929, Popes had always acted as secular governors but just prior to this era the Roman church began to realize a need to return to more spiritual matters. When the debate was settled, Pope Pius the XI created a new holy day - or holiday as the word has become - for celebrating Christ as the only King.
Kings wield power, and in the story of my opening pulpit joke, the king decided to give the jester a choice. In the Gospel lesson today, Pilate didn’t realize that he was being given a choice. The Gospel truth is that God is in the choice business. Power will not be imposed; power will instead be flipped. The choice is to believe and follow, or not. It is, as usual, an invitation not a command. The conversation about this is inevitably confusing.
My father died 3 years ago just short of his 92nd birthday. Actually he died of Alzheimer’s after about 15 years of decline. There were times this was very difficult, of course. But there were moments of insight and humor along this journey. Now that we have had some time to adjust, the humor lingers.
At some point in the last year of Dad’s life, I noted that he had stopped making sense, most of the time. He seemed to babble or make complete sentences that didn’t align somehow. But sometimes he would clear up and in those moments he knew not only who he was, but who we were and those times were golden - and often those times were the times that were the most funny.
One day I gave him a copy of the latest diocesan quarterly newsletter called One in Mission because there was an article and picture of me in it and I thought this might entertain him. Dad once told me, many years ago, that the Alzheimers unit has many benefits, one is that the residents can hide their own Easter Eggs. Well, the nice thing about Altzheimers, it turns out, is that you can read the newspaper 15 times a day and it seems like news every time! Little did we know, when that Easter Egg joke was Dad’s favorite that a few years later we’d be living with this challenge daily.
So this one day, when he was re-reading that diocesan newsletter, he turned to me and asked, “How can you be one mission? Mission is for a crowd!” This was delightful to hear from him! An invitation to theological debate! I explained that the diocesan motto is One In Mission and the idea is that the One is the crowd. For a moment, we sat silently pondering this. It seemed for that golden moment that we were both making lots of sense even though it may have seemed a confusing conversation to the observer..
I hope that I can make some sense of our Gospel lesson this morning.
It seems funny for us to stop on this, the last Sunday of the old year and think about the crucifixion, the end of Jesus’ earthly story and then next week starting with the first Sunday of Advent, the new church year, begin thinking about the birth of Jesus. It seems that the trial of Jesus before Pilate should be left to Holy Week. Why is it here, in this odd place on the calendar? Well, it was intentionally placed at the end of the church year because this place of last is reminiscent of the end times and also, we should always remember that Christ is the King of Kings, for eternity.
So, we have this classic confusing conversation. Pilate’s image of a king is a threat to the Roman occupiers; Jesus makes it clear that this is not who he is. Instead Jesus is a truth-teller. And the truth about the universe it that God is love and that God is calling us to love. And this is the eternal Kingdom - not of this world - that Jesus is witnessing to and ushering in.
If you notice, Jesus never directly answers Pilate’s question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus states that his kingdom is “not from here” (John 18:36), which Pilate interprets to be an affirmation that Jesus is a king. Jesus also puts the question aside as something Pilate claims, not Jesus.
Ever since this part of the story, we humans have continued to argue over who is King. And many still want Jesus to be the kind of kings who will take our side and destroy the enemy. We continue to forget that Jesus’ kingdom, the kingdom of God, is not of this world.
Many wanted and believed that Jesus would be that kind of worldly, waring king, and many were disappointed and confused. So, Pilate played his hand against this weakness in order to save face, and probably save rank and job, if not his own life. Although Pilate declares to the waiting Jews, “I find no case against him” (John 18:38), Pilate should not be viewed as an innocent bystander swept along by the will of the Jewish authorities. He goes on to play against Jewish aspirations for political independence as he taunts the Jews with the idea of Jesus’ kingship. Pilate’s mockery of Jesus’ kingship is seen later, where he has Jesus dressed in a purple robe and crown of thorns, beaten and then displayed to the Jews. The chief priests and police, seeking Jesus’ death, demand Jesus’ crucifixion. And so Pilate has cleverly put them in the position of demanding the death of their own king (19:6).
To this day many Christians claim that the Jews killed Jesus. But it was rather a clever Roman who stirred that pot.
The manner of Jesus’ death testifies to his true identity. Those who can hear or see the message of Jesus’ crucifixion see a true king. One who rises above the same old human waring, one who is more than a king, he is truth incarnate. Jesus is able to disclose the identity of God because he alone originates from God, has been sent by God, and has shared God's glory. Therefore, on earth he is capable of revealing the glory of God unlike any other. This revelation of glory is a key to the 4th Gospel. In John, Jesus' miracles are aimed to show glimpses of God's glory and those who believed could see it. This revelation comes on the cross. But at no time did Jesus glorify himself. Jesus is the revelation of truth. Jesus brought "grace and truth" from the Father alongside God's glory. In a world of falsehood and error, and divide and conquer politics, Jesus cuts a path, a way, the way, to God that is true and life-giving. He is the incarnation of truth and thereby confronts those who promote lies.
In about a month we will be done with all this holiday rush and celebrate the last of these holidays with one last hurrah of champagne and kissing on New Year’s Eve. If you remember, one tradition for that not-so-holy-day is to render drawings of an old man passing on the mantle to a baby - the old year headed out, the new year in its infancy. That is the image we are left with today on this New Year’s eve of sorts.
And so I leave you with the notion that this is the time for resolutions, not of diet and exercise and the sort, but of love. This is the time to resolve to wait for the Christ child to come. This is when we work at preparing our hearts for living into the eternal Christ who not only waits for us after our final passage but lives with us now and longs for us to long for him in this season and of course comes as the new life baby whom we cling to.