So let me just take a moment to explain our holiday, the last Sunday in the Christian calendar. Next Sunday is our New Year’s Day, the First Sunday in Advent, as we prepare to remember the incarnation of Our Lord at Christmas. But Advent looks also to the return of Christ at the end of all ages, and this day, Christ the King, is meant now to remember Christ’s lordship over all the created order and Christ’s coming again at the end of time.
November 22nd, 2015
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14;
Christ the King also happens to be the newest of all Christian holidays—it was announced by the Vatican in 1925, and some scholars think it was first set aside to combat the popularity of the Reformation celebrations in the Protestant churches, but I think rather that it was put in place for the purposes Pope at the time declared: to combat ultra-nationalism in the wake of World War I to remind the world of its shared humanity. In 1969, Pope John XXIII moved the date of the holiday to mark the end of the church year, emphasizing at the end of the year the end of time: to remind Christians of our creed, which says Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. Or, to put it a different way, we believe Christ will come again to bring all nations to himself, and to bring an end to human division.
It’s not an ancient holiday, Christ the King, and nobody seems to complain that no one says, “Merry Christ the King!” Many Christians find this day troubling: can the people of a democratic republic have any idea about what it means to live under a king? What could the kingship of God mean for our autonomy—our will? Moreover, doesn’t calling this holiday Christ the King perpetuate the very wrong idea that God is male? And anyway, shouldn’t we be leaving these ideas of kingship and rule behind? In them don’t we resemble ISIS and the fundamentalists—isn’t it precisely this idea, of Christ as a powerful emperor figure, that aided the crimes against humanity that were the crusades and Europe’s brutal colonization of the rest of the world, and even the horrible thrall most Europeans suffered under their kings?
All of these are true, in a way, but notice what Jesus says to Pilate today: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” I want you to picture Jesus now—betrayed by his friend, abandoned by his followers, tried by his priests and leaders, given over to a colonizing and occupying government, standing before a corrupt and merciless official of the empire. Death was coming, a public death meant to torture and to terrorize. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting…” Jesus says. And where are his followers? They have all gone, fled fear of fear and empty vacuum of their failed faith. He is surrounded by soldiers. He is bound and captive. He stands like his people, the Jews, who were bound captive by Rome. We cannot forget that this little window into the passion of Jesus shows us that violence was a real possibility, and indeed, violence was the habit of all this story’s protagonists, save Jesus. Fighting and violence were the source of strength and power—yet there Jesus stands, without an angel army, without a sword, bound and doomed.
In fact, all our texts have steeped in a toxic broth of threat of violence and human faith in violence. The Gospel of John was written during a time when early Christians were being handed over to authorities and forcibly torn away from their synagogues. In Revelation, we hear John speak of his vision of the Risen Christ, who speaks first of grace and peace, the wish of the ruler of the kings of earth, but also by whose coming all the tribes of the Earth will wail—wail because their reign will be over, their faith in the powers of violence will be found empty. The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign, and none of the powers of the earth can rule any more.
And Daniel—there is so much to say about this passage from Daniel. The scholarly consensus seems to be that “one like a human being,” or one like a son of man a cipher, or a synecdoche, or in which one thing takes the place of the whole set of things—in this case, the one like a human being means the holy ones of God. These holy ones are the people of Israel who have suffered persecution under the Seleukid emperors, under whose rule the Jews were killed for being Jewish, forced into camps, their books and scrolls burned. But God comes to Daniel to tell him that although the people of God are oppressed, seeming powerless, but yet comforted by God’s promises to them in world dominated by violence. In the stead of a persecuted nation, a man comes, and to the downtrodden is given God’s glory and honor and dominion and strength. And the holy ones, Daniel says, will receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.
In all our texts, there are an oppressed people. In Daniel, it is the people of Israel under the rule of Babylon. In the Gospel it is Jesus and his people, the Jews, under the rule of Rome; in Revelation it is all the people of the earth. God has chosen the oppressed, the frightened, the fleeing, to be his own; indeed, even thought Jesus’ friends have fled and betrayed him, he dies for them. And God does this so that we do not fear—because the Lord God is in control. We christians call Christ the autobasileia, or the kingdom in himself. He receives this title because he bears the suffering of the world and gives us God’s eternal life—this is why we call him Savior. The life of God is stronger than death, and the resurrection of our King has put death to death. And it has put to death all flags and borders and kingdoms and republics. In God’s kingdom no flag flies, and the only anthems are hymns of praise to God. We pray for Christ’s coming again, but we do not believe we can make it happen. His kingdom is not from here, and so we do not fight to protect it.
ISIS is fighting to bring about the kingdom. It wants an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. It wants to call down the power of God to bring on the apocalypse. In a great article in the New York Review of Books, some scholars shared the results of their interviews with people who joined ISIS or wanted to join ISIS, and strikingly, they wanted to join because they wanted a meaningful life. They wanted to join a movement that was about more than a new car, a good job, and successful life. They wanted to liberate people who were getting bombed by warplanes. They wanted to serve God. They wanted give their lives to something greater than a culture that seems dominated by material gain and greed.It is a movement that is created by violence and believes in violence. But on this day, when we stand up to praise our King, our church has a message: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of those who seek to destroy and terrorize. They have no power over us. They are called terrorists for a reason, and if we start acting like them, if we start fearing them, we demonstrate that we believe in the power of their weaponry more than we believe in the power of God.
Instead, be afraid of missing God’s kingdom. Be afraid of retreating into fear. God calls us to use this moment to act in faith of God’s goodness. We cannot be afraid to welcome refugees. By welcoming and loving and caring for people who do not believe in their twisted faith, we demonstrate that God’s power is greater than all the terror they can muster.
Today we have people of all different faiths in this sanctuary. I do not pretend that we all believe the same thing about God, nor do I believe that all religions are the same and lead you to the same place. Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, two statements that are incompatible with Islam and Judaism. But nevertheless, you are here. If ISIS saw this they would implode. Welcome is the key to destroying hate—the courage to take in the suffering, to care for an enemy, to love a stranger, that will end them more quickly than anything else can. Justice must be served, and we must protect ourselves from attack—but most of all we must protect ourselves from fear. And we should not be afraid, because we believe in the Alpha and the Omega, the Ancient of Days, who rules over all. Amen.
The Reverend John Flack