Pastor Joe Britton
Christ the King
St. Michael’s Church
“Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin,
may be freed and brought together under [Christ’s] most gracious rule.”
(Collect for Christ the King)
I saw a cartoon this week, depicting the world as one of those 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles—and the box containing the puzzle had been upset and the pieces were strewn all over the floor. The state of the things does seem a bit like that right now doesn’t it: all cut up into little pieces, disconnected and scattered.
That disjointedness weighs especially heavily upon us, because one of the basic human instincts is to seek wholeness and unity. We want to feel that things add up, and that our lives are part of something complete and comprehensible. Indeed every religious tradition, in one way or another, has at its core a variation on the theme of a search for unity, an embrace of the underlying oneness of all things.
So whether that unity is expressed through an appreciation of nature, or through the doctrinal convictions of monotheism, or through the unifying principles of physics and mathematics, or even through an embrace of ultimate emptiness and nothingness—we human beings have a deep intuition that the universe is not a random assortment of unrelated matter, but that there is some fundamental reality that ties it all together.
The Feast of Christ the King, which is today’s liturgical theme, is all about this search and longing for unity. Today is the end of the liturgical year—and next week we will begin at the beginning all over again, anticipating the advent of Jesus Christ. But today we can enjoy the summarial assurance of unity that this day affords as a kind of exclamation point at the end of the current year, encouraging us for just a moment, to look beyond the discord of life in the present moment, to the bigger picture that holds it all together.
And the big picture that is held up before us is this: in Christ, all things are brought together and find their intended unity, because (as today’s epistle puts it), “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, … all things have been created through him and for him” (Col. 1).
Now, you may at first find those words a bit off-putting, because they don’t appear to have much to do with the world as we know or experience it. They may sound like so much metaphysical gibberish.
But there is actually something rather important going on here that merits our attention. In writing about the world being made “through and for” Christ, the epistle writer is trying to express the idea that creation is ultimately purposeful: God brought the universe into existence, in order to have an object for the love which is at the very heart of God. Christ, who is the Father’s manner of loving the world, is the one through whom God communicates to the world, that it is loved—or, in the terms in which we began, that it is made whole and unified by being the object of the divine love.
In our Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah tries to use the image of a shepherd and his flock of sheep to express much the same thing. A shepherd is someone whose whole being is focused on the safety and well-being of his flock. As the one who first brings the sheep together into a fold, nurturing their life so that they may be fruitful and multiply, the good shepherd is one who brings a sense of belonging to each member of the flock. The shepherd is the unifier, because the shepherd is the one who loves and cares for the sheep. In the same way, Christ is the unifier of the universe, because he is the one who loves and cares for its very existence.
But there is more. Christ does not just love the world in some vaguely appreciative manner, like we might love a piece of music or a favorite meal. We are not just God’s hobby.
Rather, as today’s gospel lesson taken from Luke’s account of the crucifixion reminds us, Jesus loves us by totally emptying and expending himself on our behalf. Derisively mocked upon the cross as the “King of the Jews,” Jesus turns the mockery upside down by demonstrating the sort of kingship which it is uniquely his, is to love the whole of creation even to the point of extinguishing himself on its behalf—on the cross, nothing is held back, there is no left over residue of unexpended love, but everything is poured out on the world’s account.
Last night, several of us from St. Michael’s went down to Holy Family Catholic Church to attend a mass at which Richard Rohr (the well-known Franciscan spiritual teacher) celebrated and preached. If you know anything about Fr. Richard, you know that he is always pushing the envelope in what he says and does—and we discovered last night that he tends to ad lib quite a lot in saying mass, inserting his own interpretive comments along the way.
So at the “words of institution” in the Eucharistic prayer (when the priest is meant to recite the words Jesus himself is recorded as having said), Richard departed from the text and put in something that went like this: “On the night Jesus was handed over for us, he took bread. And identifying the bread as his very life, he handed it over to the disciples—he gave himself to them—so that they would know that in remembering him, they could also feed upon his life, making his life their own.”
That is the nature of Jesus’ kingship: the emptying of the self, on behalf of the other. And the good news in that for us is that because this Jesus is king—and no other—we can with confidence emulate his own example of living sacrificially for one another, because we have no reason to fear that someone more powerful will take advantage of our self-offering. Because Jesus the love incarnate is our Lord, we can live confidently and courageously, knowing that love conquers all.
The pseudo-kings of this world, of course, urge the opposite upon us. We must stand our ground, we are told; we must fear the stranger; we must protect what is ours; we must draw lines of division and be suspicious of collaboration.
But all of those instincts are directly contrary and contradictory to what this feast day of Christ the King proclaims: that the underlying unity of the whole of creation is given in the self-emptying, sacrificial love through which we were created, and by which life is sustained at every single moment.
Of course, we have the option to choose to live defensively, fearfully, protectively, and suspiciously—but to do so puts us so at odds with reality, so egregiously out of touch with the true nature of things, that we necessarily fall into the anger and unhappiness and discontent that comes from being so out of sync with life as it was created to be.
I believe that at heart, each of us know this truth already, because we are by nature programmed to love, just as the whole creation is. Life seeks life; love seeks love; the lover seeks the beloved. At some level, we all know the intense joy and satisfaction that comes from seeing another person thrive because of what we are able to do for them in love: parents find that joy in their children; teachers find it in their students; doctors and nurses find it in their patients; chefs find it in their guests; musicians find it in their audience. There is no greater joy than to expend oneself for the sake of love, and to give that love without hesitation or reserve.
The poet Pamela Cranston, who happened to be my associate at All Souls Parish in Berkeley, California, wrote a “Poem for Christ the King.” It expresses well the centrality of love to the meaning of this day, and I close with its words:
See how this outcast King
lifted himself high upon his savage Cross,
extended the regal banner of his bones,
draping himself upon his throne – his battered feet,
his wounded hands not fastened there by nails
but sewn by the strictest thorn of Love.
© Joseph Britton, 2016