|Today’s scripture readings:
Early in the 1920s, times were tough in Western Europe. The Great War had just come to an end and people struggled to pick up the pieces. The War had decimated their cities and their spirits. If many people in Europe had once taken great pride living in an enlightened civilization based on liberal, progressive values, the War shattered any illusion that they had achieved some sort of unprecedented greatness, as though they had cast off the barbaric inclinations of previous generations once and for all. World War I exposed their very present capacity to turn in on themselves and against one another.
On top of all that, intellectual developments in the years leading up to the war stirred pessimism and fear. Karl Marx’s work had foretold the demise of their economic system. Charles Darwin’s theories on genetics had given rise to the eugenics movement and attempts to eradicate from humankind those deemed undesirable. Sigmund Freud’s research had exposed ugly, primitive impulses lurking deep within each one of us. Despite what many of us have read about the “Roaring Twenties,” one historian has described the 1920s as a “uniquely gloomy and fearful era, a morbid age that saw the future of civilization in terms of disease, decay, and death.” The people were filled with a sense of doom and impending disaster.
Pope Pius XI sensed that too. He lamented that Christians were treating each other not as brothers and sisters in Christ, but as strangers and even enemies; that political life was dominated by hatred and grievances; that extreme nationalism had caused them to forget that all people are members of one human family. Above all, he lamented that so many people had thrust Jesus Christ out of their lives and that Christian values no longer seemed to have a place in their public or private lives at all. In his view, there would be no lasting peace in their personal lives or in their collective life until they put Christ back at the center. The pope admonished that Christ should reign in their minds, Christ should reign in their wills, and Christ should reign in their hearts. And so, in 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted the festival of Christ the King, which in our tradition has come to be called the Reign of Christ—the festival we celebrate today.
We’re not so far from 1925. Seeing one another as strangers and enemies? Politics dominated by hatred and grievances? Nationalism that causes us to lose sight of our shared humanity? Reign of Christ is the festival we need today.
On this Reign of Christ Sunday, the Gospel reading from Luke gives us a sense of what kind of king Jesus is. He’s not a king or political leader any of us would recognize today. For starters, Jesus is a king who is crucified—executed in the most gruesome and humiliating way imaginable. He’s a king who forgives the people who have done him wrong rather than holding a grudge or exacting vengeance. He’s a king who grants salvation to people who have been written off and condemned. And Jesus is a king who stands in solidarity with those who suffer. Just think of that criminal on the cross next to Jesus who begs for mercy. In his encounter with Jesus just moments before he would die, this criminal was assured that there was someone who saw his suffering, who was willing to be in that suffering with him, and who spoke up against the forces that had inflicted that suffering upon him. This man died knowing he wasn’t alone, and that he was worthy of love and mercy even though the powers that be wanted him gone. Christ the King stands beside those who suffer and says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
What would it mean for this Christ to reign in our hearts, in our minds, and in our wills—to put Christ at the center of our lives?
Maybe it begins with adopting a mindset of mercy. Jesus’ only response to the soldiers who crucify him and the leaders who mock him is, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” Maybe that’s where we need to start, with forgiveness. It’s worth remembering that Jesus didn’t reshape the world by calling names or shaming his adversaries. The story of Jesus would be long forgotten if he had responded the way most of us respond when we feel wronged or insulted. Jesus knew that our knee-jerk human response never gets us anywhere. Instead, Jesus disrupts the usual pattern of shame and blame by offering forgiveness. This is part of what the Reign of Christ looks like: more mercy, less judgment.
Jesus speaks only two lines in today’s Gospel reading: “Father, forgive them,” and, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Following Christ the King also means being agents of salvation for those who have been written off and condemned. “Today, you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus says. Not “someday” but “today.” He doesn’t just offer hope for a better future; he promises that the one who seeks mercy will experience salvation today. When Christ reigns in our lives, we don’t just hope for a better future; we trust God is at work today and that God works through us to offer salvation to those who feel cast off and thrown away.
This week I’ve been re-reading a book by theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon called Resident Aliens. They argue that the primary public task of Christians is not to transform the world but simply to be the church—a church radically faithful to Jesus Christ. Not to champion particular political candidates as though they could save the world; not even to advocate for legislation or policies that reflect the kingdom of God. They believe that the church’s most credible witness—the most effective thing the church can do for the world—is to be a living, breathing, visible community of faith rooted in the gospel; that the church should influence the world by modeling a radically different way of living together. The church serves the world “by showing it something it is not… a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.” They want to see a church “that again asserts that God… rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of [any government], and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”
I wonder if this is a time when we are being called more boldly than ever to be a church that is radically faithful to Jesus Christ, to model another way of living together, to be a beacon of hope in a dark and despairing world. Maybe the role of the church is to hold up a mirror and say to the world, “Look what you’re doing to yourselves. There is a better way.” This church will continue to be a community marked by mercy and forgiveness; we will continue to be a community that stands with those who have been written off and condemned; and we will continue to be a community that puts our lives on the line—because we are a community that proclaims the Reign of Christ and patterns our lives on Jesus.
One week ago today parishioners arrived at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, to discover their building had been defaced, spray painted with swastikas and anti-LGBTQ hate speech. Later that day the Indianapolis Bishop Catherine Waynick posted on the diocese’s website that while it is “deeply disturbing to be on the receiving end of such vitriol, it is also an opportunity to be very clear, with ourselves and the world around us, that we take seriously the commandment of our Lord to love one another with the same love God lavishes on every person—no exceptions.” She went on: “The Episcopal Church will continue to welcome all people, to seek and serve Christ in the world around us, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being—even those who deface our buildings.”
This is what it looks like to proclaim the Reign of Christ in a world rattled by hatred and fear. We will serve the world by being a living, breathing, visible community of faith rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We will be the church, and we will be the church better than we’ve ever been before. Today we are called to get crystal clear about who we are and to stay laser focused on our mission; to read today’s gospel lesson and say with absolute clarity, “This is our king. This is who we follow. This is who we will be.” Amen.
The Economist, “A Sense of Dread,” April 23, 2009, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.economist.com/node/13525864.
Stanley Hauerwas and William H Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989).
Karoline Lewis, “Who and What is Your King?” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4754.
David J. Lose, “Christ the King C: What Kind of King Do You Want?” on …In the Meantime, 2016, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/11/christ-the-king-c-what-kind-of-king-do-you-want/.
Pius XI, Quas Primas [Encyclical Letter on the Feast of Christ the King], accessed November 18, 2016, https://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_11121925_quas-primas.html.
Pius XI, Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio [Encyclical Letter on the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ], accessed November 18, 2016, http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_23121922_ubi-arcano-dei-consilio.html.
Lynette Wilson, “Episcopal churches in Maryland, Indiana vandalized with hate speech,” from The Episcopal News Service, November 14, 2016, accessed November 19, 2016, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/11/14/episcopal-churches-in-maryland-indiana-vandalized-with-hate-speech/.
The featured image for this post, “Cristo Rei,” is copyright (c) 2014 FUMIGRAPHIK_Photographist and made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.