A number of years ago, I was invited to share in a Passover Seder with a large Jewish family in New York City. Like many extended families, this particular family included an eccentric and outspoken uncle, who throughout the sacred meal insisted on making rather sarcastic remarks about everything that was said and done.
At the first cup of blessing, for instance, when the words are said, “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe …,” this uncle let out a loud guffaw and blurted, “Why do we say that, anyway? Who believes in kings anymore?”
Now, for all of its insolence, his question is actually quite relevant to us today, for we are celebrating the Feast of Christ the King, the final Sunday of the liturgical year, when we might ask ourselves a similar question: what good does it do us to refer to Jesus as a king, when our whole identity as citizens of the modern world is invested in the values of a democratic, pluralist society? Don’t we regard kings and kingdoms as at best quaint relics of the past; or at worst as tyrannical dictatorships, as in the caliphates and theocracies of today’s Middle East? And so can speaking of Christ as king, really be anything more than an awkward anachronism? A pertinent question, indeed, both for our times and for today’s lessons from scripture, each of which dwells on the theme of kingship and dominion!
Jesus himself gives us a clue of where to start in trying to get our minds around how to approach this issue. Drawing a clear line at his trial before Pilate, he says that “My kingdom is not of this world.” Well, if that is true (that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world), then it immediately puts us on notice that all the pre-conceived ideas we have of what kingship is like, are here made irrelevant. From our historical experience, we naturally bring assumptions that kings rule by edit, enforced by armed authority; that kings represent a hierarchical social structure, with enforced inequalities; or that kings rule by dividing and conquering, holding authority through the exercise of raw power.
Jesus, however, tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, and therefore not of that kind. “If my kingdom were of this world,” he says, “my followers would be fighting,” or in other words, they would be asserting that very kind of coercive power which we associate with the idea of kingship. But, to reiterate, Jesus’ kingdom is not of that sort. So of what type is it?
Well, our reading from the Revelation to John begins to point us in an alternative direction. This imaginary vision, full of symbolism and references whose meaning we can often only guess at, tries to paint a vivid image of how all things ultimately fit together. For example, it describes Christ as the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the one “who is and who was and who is to come.” The terms here may be temporal in form, but their sense is that everything that exists, exists only in and through Christ. The implication is that God did not create a universe through his Word and then step back to watch it run; no, the creative activity of Christ is a metaphysical constant, evident in each and every moment. Were God not creating and sustaining our existence right here and now, at this very moment, we would not be.
The creation we inhabit, therefore, belongs to Christ, because it is only through him that everything that is, lives and moves and has its being. And here we come to the essential point: the kingship of Christ is a kingship that is given its meaning by its comprehensive inclusion of everything that is in one reality, rather than its division into competing and warring factions. All things are gathered together in Christ, because they all share in him both their origin and destiny. And so the division and partitions we associate with the kingdoms of this world, turn out to be the exact opposite—the antithesis—of the kingship of Christ. Their politics of division are signs of a world gone wrong, where a focus on power masks the underlying oneness of creation. So as people of faith, we are called to seek the commonality of humanity and creation, not to exacerbate its points of division and enmity: as our collect led us to pray today, “may the people of this earth, divided and enslaved by sin, be freed and brought together.”
To celebrate the Feast of Christ the King is thus to celebrate the drawing together, the in-gathering, of all people and all things and all people into one divine reality (the dominion of all peoples, nations and languages of which we heard in the reading from Daniel). For us as Christians, the kingship of Christ is the focal point of this oneness. And while we have to say that it seems to be the will of God that in this eon there should be a diversity of religious expressions (as Abraham Heschel once put it), we can assert this fundamental oneness with a confidence that at the end of time, the seeming parallelism of the rails of the variety of religious traditions nevertheless converge, like train tracks that mysteriously meet at the horizon.
So, to bring all this closer to home: when we speak of “building God’s kingdom” in here at St. Michael and All Angels Church (as we have been doing throughout this fall), what we mean is our determination through our communal patterns of hospitality, celebration, prayer, and service to create a visible and tangible experience of the fundamental oneness and interconnectedness of humanity in God—right here on Montano Road, in the northwest quadrant of the city of Albuquerque. By building these connections and relationships, we aim for nothing less than that our life together should be a foretaste of that vision in the book of Daniel, where all people, all races, all classes—all religions—are gathered around the heavenly throne. In every act of kindness, every act of welcome, every act of concern we extend to one another, and to the stranger in our midst, we offer a glimpse of that ultimate unified reality.
To make this Feast of Christ the King also the in-gathering of our financial gifts and pledges, then, takes on a much larger meaning than just an act of fundraising (to which we are always prone to reduce it), for in the offering of our personal gifts, we are engaging in a sacramental action that expresses our deeper convictions about the spiritual reality of the kingship of Christ. Just as we offer at this altar bread and wine, and they are returned to us as Christ’s body and blood; and just as we offer our own bodies and souls, and they are returned to us as Christ’s hands and feet in the world; so too do we offer our gifts of time, talent and treasure, only to have them returned to us in the form of the church, the body of Christ in this place. Our gifts are transformed by the Spirit into that wonderful, loving, daring, caring, dynamic community that we call St. Michael’s: that is a truly sacramental experience.
These interlocking patterns of giving and receiving thus take on the larger meaning of being the means by which we experience in tangible terms the kingship of Christ as a parish community, for they are the way we demonstrate that all things belong to Christ, from the most cosmic and transcendent to the most mundane and ordinary. One of our hymns puts it well, where we sing:
Lord, you make the common holy: “This my body, this my blood.”
Let us all, for earth’s true glory, daily lift life heavenward,
asking that the world around us share your children’s liberty.
With the spirit’s gifts empower us, for the work of ministry. Amen.
(“Lord, you give the Great Commission,” Hymnal 1982 #528;
Words by Jeffery Rowthorn)
© Joseph Britton, 2015