The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The Feast of Christ the King
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It was introduced into the liturgical calendar by Pope Pius XI in 1925, and soon adopted by Anglicans, Lutherans, and others. The reason this feast was established was to counter the rising tide of nationalism and secularism of that era. It was a time between world wars, when nationalistic fervor was high; when communists were purging churches and killing clergy; and during the greed and other excesses of the Roaring ’20’s, taking us into the great crash of 1929.
Christ, this feast day proclaimed, is King. Not nations, ideologies, war, pleasure, or money. Christ is King.
And so even though those times are past, today we still sing hymns and heard readings that speak of thrones and dominions, judgment and subjugation, glory and power. To many of us, these images are archaic, even repellant. We’re democratic Americans. It’s a flat world. I want to be personally empowered, not subjugated. Who needs it?
Then, in the gospel reading, Jesus himself comes along - a subversive, paradoxical king. He stands before Pilate, the one who had all the power, glory, and authority of the great Roman Empire. Jesus stands before Pilate. By contrast, he was naked, poor, accused of being a rebel and a heretic - a criminal to both Rome and the Temple.
But he was powerful, with a significant following. So Pilate wants to know if Jesus is going to try to usurp his authority, as the rumors indicate. He asks “Are you, as they say, the King of the Jews?” And Jesus does a remarkable thing. He remains ambiguous. “Maybe you think I am. Maybe the people think I am. But my kingdom, such as it is, is not of this world. My power is not like yours. My power is in testifying to the truth. And the citizens of this unworldly kingdom are those who listen to the truth.” Puzzled, Pilate can only reply “And what is truth?” He thought he knew. He thought it had to do with empire and money and dominance: might is right. But now he’s not so sure.
Jesus did what he did throughout his life. He turned the tables on conventional thinking and values. The last are first, and the first are last. He made us wonder “What is truth? What is true power and authority? On what basis is judgment made?”
Jesus does not answer when Pilate asks “What is truth?” How could he possibly explain it? All he could do was stand there silently before him, testifying to the truth by his very being. All he could do was point to everything he had said and done for the past 3 years of public ministry. His life was truth.
A number of years ago on a study day I decided to skim quickly through the four gospels and jot down phrases that seemed to be characteristic of what Jesus was all about, especially what he taught about being human. It helped to use the Bible I received on my confirmation, one of those old red-letter editions, where Jesus’ words are printed in red.
Afterwards, the phrases on the page formed a kind of mosaic. Standing back from them, a very clear picture emerged: the truth. There it was - the universal truth about life, human experience, happiness, suffering, faith, and God. Later, the phrases became the chapter headings of a book that I eventually published, called Becoming Human: Core Teachings of Jesus.
Some of the phrases were:
Be humble, be real; Purify your heart; Be religious; Don’t be too religious; Help the poor; Don’t worry; Enjoy the feast; Evolve beyond violence; Associate with the wrong sort of people; You can’t earn God’s love; Forgive yourself for being human; Love everybody; Wake up; You can’t do any of this; You will be made new.
Now if you went through this exercise, and I hope you will some day, you’d probably come up with a slightly different list of phrases, but I would hope that viewed from a distance, a similar mosaic of Jesus would reveal itself. Jesus isn’t just whatever. He had a particular character, and he taught some very specific things.
This Christly character and teachings, the church has always proclaimed, is truth. It is what we are made for. And it is what we, as followers of Jesus are to look to as our authority; it is what we are to model our lives after, and it is what we are to try to bring about in the world around us.
Which brings me back to kingship. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Which is why those who want to make this or any other nation a Christian nation are wrong. He didn’t come to take over the local school board or the Congress. He came to testify to the truth, and to spread this truth like a virus throughout humanity.
Jesus also said that everyone who belongs to the truth is a part of this hidden kingdom. Which is why those who want to turn everyone into a church-going Christian are wrong. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice, he said.
Jesus, and by extension, the Christian message, isn’t whatever. But anyone who is Christ-like - who is humble, who helps the poor, who tries to love everybody, who exercises forgiveness and generosity, anyone who wakes up and relies upon the free gift of God’s presence - they belong to the truth and they hear Jesus’ voice. He himself said so.
As followers of Jesus, as the Church, our mission is to testify to the truth. Our mission is to live as Jesus lived, to do what he taught. Our mission is to join with others who may not be of this fold but who nevertheless belong to the truth, and to trust that by the hidden working of the Spirit among all of us, the truth will spread like a virus.
God knows we need this truth. This is a world where different groups are trying to bomb each other into terrified submission. This is a a world where corporations and the obscenely rich use simplistic, manipulative advertising to sway the gullible, so that their selfish interests will prevail. In some ways, things haven’t changed much since the 1920’s, when this feast day was inaugurated. God knows we still need the kingdom of truth to spread like a virus throughout the world.
But you and I need the truth as much as the world does. It’s easy to live by a falsehood, serving values that will, in the end, do us no good. This, again, brings me back to kingship. As Dylan sang many years ago, You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be self-interest; it may be fear or ambition, superficial diversion, or trying to get along without conflict; but You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Why not serve Jesus?
If you’re like me, parts of you do, and parts of you don’t. We’re humble at times, prideful at others; compassionate at times, indifferent at others. But the walk of faith takes us further and further into the kingdom that Jesus testified to, into the territory that contains ever more faith and generosity and purity of heart. The walk of faith also takes us into areas we’d rather not examine, habits we’d rather not change, until we surrender them one by one. More and more of our whole self comes under Christ’s gracious rule. We are less divided internally, more unified, as one. And we find that we are not held down by his authority; we are set free.
And so we pray, paraphrasing the Collect of the Day which is appointed for this feast day:
Eternal God of truth, mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, grant that I, that we, who are divided and enslaved in so many ways, may be freed and brought together within that hidden kingdom that our Lord Jesus lived in and taught about. Grant that this kingdom may spread among us and within us like a virus, so that we may be unified in your truth, and that your will may be done on earth, in us, as it is in heaven. Amen.