Sermon: What does Christ's kingship mean for modern politicians, and for us?
Delivered at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit; Bellevue, NE; 11-21/2-09. Year B, Proper 29: 2 Samuel 23:1-7 • Psalm 132:1-12 • Revelation 1:4b-8 • John 18:33-37, often referred to as "Christ the King Day" or "The Reign of Christ."
I had the privilege of ending my college career with a course called “The History of Modern Germany, 1750-1944.” One of the conclusions I came to in my final paper was that Hitler’s motivation was not to kill all the Jews, not to take over the world, nor even to glorify Germany. Hitler’s motivation was Hitler. This was a man who believed that Germany could not and should not win without him, saying, “Neither a military nor a civilian personality could take my place… the fate of the Reich depends on me alone.”
The Allies, on the other hand, were blessed with leaders who put their countrymen first. Take Winston Churchill. For all his social vices, this was a man who understood what was at stake, who spoke not of himself but of his nation’s values and of the undying tenacity of its people. Which modern king do you think was closer to being Christ-like? The drunkard who fought for a cause bigger than himself, or the madman who thought his own self-glory was the biggest cause of all?
Today we celebrate Christ the King. Here is a ruler who holds dominion but does not dominate; a lord who does not lord our weaknesses over us. Ours is a king who does not demand taxes or conscription, merely His love returned.
Christ’s walk did not end the reign of other kings. Now, we may not call them kings anymore. From the heights of the U.S. to the depths of Iran, most are known as “President.” But no matter what we call them, they’re certainly still around. What can these men and women learn from a king who preceded them by 2,000 years? And for that matter, what does this kingship mean for those of us so far from DC?
An awful lot. The language of the Bible is far more political than it may first appear. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus admits to the governor that yes, he is a king. This is an extremely political thing to say, for in the next chapter, a Jewish faction reminds Pilate that “Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”
This affront to Rome is a bit of a running theme in the Gospels. In their book, “The Last Week,” Jesus historians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write that whenever there was a major Jewish festival, the Roman Governor would come to Jerusalem from his coastal palace to assert a colonial presence just “in case there was trouble.” They describe Pilate’s pre-Passover procession, likely held on Palm Sunday, as “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses… foot soldiers… banners… weapons... sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: marching of horses… clinking of bridles… the beating of drums… Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology.”
Yet while all this happened at the city’s west gate, a second procession came through the east gate. A second king held his own parade, but in this parade, there were humble donkeys instead of regal horses, liberating palms instead of vengeful spears. It is what Borg and Crossan call a “counter procession” and a “planned political demonstration.” This second king, OUR king, is not about imperial might but about peace, liberation, and love.
Christ carried a very political message, and yet we are also taught that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s. This juxtaposition works because before rendering comes identifying: What is Caesar’s? And what is God’s? And what must modern Caesars do to separate their kingdoms from the kingdom of God?
Servant leadership is a good start. One of the many reasons Hitler failed to achieve great heights of leadership was that he regarded himself strictly as a warrior and not, like German leaders before him, as “the first servant of the state.” Christ, however, was a servant, a washer of feet, who told Pilate that kings should not be so quick to use violence. A king should not think about himself and his own strength, but about his people.
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
N.T. Wright, a Bishop in the Church of England, writes that for Pilate, “the only place you get truth is out of the sheath of a sword (or, as we would say, out of the barrel of a gun.)” Like all kings, Christ claims to have truth. He makes this claim, however, not with a weapon but with palms and donkeys, surely a shocking thing for Pilate to hear.
It wouldn’t be hard for Christ also to be a violent or corrupt king. God has far more power than any earthly ruler – but as David says in today’s reading, for God, ruling is about justice, not the other way around. Christ’s rule says to today’s rulers, do not use your dominion; hold it in reserve! Let your people see that you are big enough to lift them up rather than yourself!
So okay, Christ’s kingship is definitely a political thing, but is that all it is? What about those of us hundreds of miles from Washington? What does Christ’s reign mean for us?
First of all, we mustn’t follow leaders who don’t themselves follow Christ’s model of kingship. When our rulers depart from Christ, we must hold them accountable by advocating for the Christian values of love and justice. We do that each week when we pray for elected officials in the Prayers of the People. We can write to and about our lawmakers when we feel they support the wrong policies, and we can vote against corrupt Congressmen. We can also support Christian missionaries and non-violent resistance groups in oppressive places like Zimbabwe or the Sudan. But that’s just more politics. What is the king’s tax, what is required of our daily lives?
I’ve been a lifelong Rite II goer and will admit that it is my favorite service, but there is one thing that I absolutely love about Rite I: the inclusion of Christ’s two commandments. Right there on the second page, before we even get to the weekend’s lessons, we hear the celebrant say: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt
love thy neighbor as thyself.”
That is what Christ’s kingship means for our daily lives: we must love God, and we do that by loving each other. Revelations tells us that God “made us to be a kingdom.” So when we hear about the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Heaven – that’s us! If we are all God’s children, and if God is king, than are we not all princes and princesses? And when we meet a fellow princess on the street, should we not treat her like the royalty she is?
One of the most powerful things we can do for each other is to be kind in the little moments. It’s not just unpractical to be rude, but an affront to the humble king who rode a donkey. Letting that car in front of us change lanes; checking the pew behind ourselves to make sure others have enough room to kneel; smiling rather than scowling in the checkout aisle. These are the little things that can touch one another far more than we sometimes know – especially on the Omaha freeways.
We can also care for each other in the big ways. Being environmentally-friendly is important justice work. From Deacon Betsy Blake Bennett’s diocesan efforts to Ruth Richter and others here at Holy Spirit, I am so excited to have joined a parish already involved in creation care. Other outreach efforts, from the two food pantries to the Boy Scout Eagle projects, are equally wonderful.
Yet for all that, if Christ’s kingship only means one thing, it is this. There will be times when we are rude to one another. There will be times when we don’t see the corruption in a given public policy that we may support. There will be times when we don’t pray the right prayers or read enough Scripture. And all of that is okay, because we can keep trying. Ours is a king who does not say follow me or else; ours is a king who says follow me because I love you.