Sermons That Work

Until the Thirteenth Century…, Christ the King (A) – 1996

November 24, 1996

Until the thirteenth century, the cross as the symbol of our salvation was fashioned not with a corpus, but was encrusted with jewels. Precious gems spoke to the faithful of the time of Christ’s victory over sin and death, and of his reign as king of heaven and earth. Although crucifixes have generally been styled more realistically since then, thanks in part to the influence of Francis of Assisi, the image of Christ’s triumphant kingship has not been completely lost. By their portrayals of Christ’s passion and crucifixion, the evangelists underscored the fact that Jesus went to his death not as a defeated victim, but as a victorious king; not as the last act of a dramatic tragedy; but as one of the last scenes of a well- planned love story.

Like Christians in the centuries before us, our lives are guided by our images. If our image of hospitality calls us to drop everything when unexpected visitors arrive, then we put aside our work and share our time with our guests. If we imagine that persons committed to peace do not lash out at others in anger, we try to live by that image. So our images of Jesus Christ guide and influence our lives. each of us has a favorite image of Christ. We may prefer to picture him as the good shepherd, or as a teacher who embraced children. Still others may think of Jesus as a brother, companion, or friend.

Yet the glorious image of Christ as king can be a difficult one for twentieth-century Christians. The image evokes a certain distance, such as Paul’s vision of the pre-existent Christ who has dominion over the universe. But there is another side to Christ’s kingship that is important in a society with no direct experience of kings, and in a church which seeks to balance images of dominance and authority: Jesus Christ, ruler of the universe, and the center of our hearts and minds.

Christ rules our lives as our chief teacher and as the center of our values. His teachings and ministry to the oppressed, his gospel of love, justice, and mercy, and his imitate relationship to God, are offered to us as a pattern for our lives. Jesus is lord and king to the extent that we make him and his way of life our central value — a value that overrides cultural emphases such as wealth and power.

Given this view of the kingdom of Christ, the parable in Matthew’s Gospel we read today serves as the summary of Jesus’ preaching ministry where he clearly outlines what is expected from those of us who hope to share in his heavenly reign. The choice between the “two ways” that Christ offered his followers is the same in our own day. On the one hand, there are those who mock, discreetly or blatantly, by arguing that the life of Christ is hardly a key to conducting affairs in the “real’ world; a king of hymnody and ceremony rather than a king of human lives in terms of food, dignity, freedom, and peace. On the other hand, there are those who are convinced that the kingship of Jesus Christ is not in the remote past, but now; not in the realm of pious imagination, but in the substance of human affairs on every level of complexity and risk. That is the kingship of Jesus Christ. It is a different kind of kingship, a different mode of government from that to which we are accustomed. It is the rule of a Savior-king who operates within our lives, and who has the power to change oppressive human structures.

Those of us in positions of authority — parents, teachers, clergy, managers, executives, politicians — frequently face the temptation to exploit the power of our office or station in life. But in our better moments we hear a prophetic voice telling us that there is power that does not depend upon coercion. We sense that our world and our relationships do not have to be a series of power plays that drain our physical and spiritual resources. We can believe that our power is to be used for the good of the weak, and that judgement is reserved for those of us who do not use our power for the good.

Today, throughout our Communion as we celebrate the feast of Christ the King we also celebrate Anglican Youth Sunday. It is an opportunity for us all to reflect on Christ’s message in relation to the human family in its entirety. Do we impart the generosity and helpfulness of Christ’s kingship to the young people in our midst? How do we minister to “the least of these” members of Christ’s family in our daily lives. Just as Jesus said that his kingship is to be found in caring for the poor — the sick, the hungry, and the imprisoned — so we must realize that the poorest on earth are children and we are called to care for them. Even more than adults, young people throughout the world suffer profoundly from poverty, injustice, war, and disease.

It is sometimes difficult and painful for adults to look at young people today and wonder how Christ would have us respond to them without feeling guilty or inadequate. Yet one of the challenges confronting those of us looking toward the reign of God, is to face the issues of young people, and even more painfully, to face our own participation in the forces working against young people today. To be sure, unless we invest ourselves in the struggle to better support young people, an entire generation will continue to be disproportionately poor and under-educated. The formation, education, health and security of young people are our responsibility now, as well as in the future. The late archbishop Oscar Romero commented on the role of Christians in relation to youth when he wrote:

Let us not develop an education that creates in the mind of the student a hope of becoming rich and having the power to dominate. That does not correspond to the time we live in.

Let us form in the heart of the child and the young person the lofty ideal of loving, or preparing oneself to give oneself to others.

Anything else would be education for selfishness, and we want to escape the selfishness that is precisely the cause of the great malaise of our societies.

We acknowledge Christ’s kingship when we put on the mind of Jesus, seeing the world, ourselves, and others through Christ’s eyes. Christ is our king if we are faithful to building the kingdom and when we try to become more like him. Christ is our king when we consider the needs of the whole human family, and we offer ourselves as a gift in whatever situation we find ourselves. In these ways, we allow the mind and vision of Christ to rule our hearts and minds.

Jesus Christ was a man with a tremendous capacity of achievement, a vast vision, and an unbounded hope. He was not a humble carpenter content with his lot; he was a man who would be king. He did not bargain with God, or sell his soul to save himself; and when the world did him in, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and because of that God exalted him above all things.

The reading from the gospel today teaches us that when we stand before the king of heaven, God will not ask why we weren’t as accomplished as another, or why we haven’t done the righteous deeds of another. When we stand before the throne of the ancient of days and the one who shares God’s power and glory, lesser sacrifices will not be desired. What we will be asked for is ourselves, and God’s law and word written upon our hearts. Jesus did not die and rise again to make the world a better place. That’s your job and mine. Christ was exulted to share divine power and glory to make the world a different place; to make it possible that we need fear neither life nor death of we know him and are committed to him.

The Feast of Christ the King calls us to stand before the risen Christ and make a positive, unqualified, declaration of faith that Jesus Christ is the supreme ruler of our lives — as Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, “so all will be made alive in Christ.” We end this liturgical year and prepare to begin a new year by making a clear commitment “for” Christ in our lives. We cannot be Christ’s followers by default, but by choice. Our prayer this day is to be part of the kingdom and reign of God.

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Christopher Sikkema