So, Christ the King. Not an easy thing to take on board in an Episcopal Church in 2014, right?
I mean, we don’t do kings anymore. We’re Americans. New Yorkers don’t believe in monarchs, other than maybe the odd royal wedding, which we enjoy as an anachronism all the more because it’s over in England . You know, where it belongs.
But a king over us? We fought a revolution against a pretty mild and inoffensive king in 1776, and that’s certainly not how Jesus comes across in today’s Gospel is it? Separating the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous. Welcoming the righteous to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. And the unrighteous? They get tossed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Not to mention the poor old goats.
But don’t worry—it gets worse:
The feast day of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, in an encyclical that explained just how bad separation of Church and State is. As he put it:
The empire of Christ over all nations was rejected. The right which the Church has from Christ himself, to teach mankind, to make laws, to govern peoples in all that pertains to their eternal salvation, that right was denied. …the religion of Christ came to be likened to false religions and …placed …on the same level with them… then …tolerated more or less at the whim of princes and rulers.Pius hoped that the Feast Day of Christ the King would serve as a reminder that everyone, individuals AND rulers and princes -are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ.
the last judgment, wherein Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults; for his kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles.
For Pius, the State should obey the Church, and enforce its doctrines.
As I said, gets worse before it gets better.
So what does Christ the King mean to us? How do we grapple with this difficult gospel?
I think we should start by understanding that the gap between our world and that of the pre-Enlightenment world gets in our way. From before the time of Christ to the Age of Elizabeth I, the natural order of things was seen as having a moral dimension.
That’s why, in Shakespeare’s plays, if a great injustice is done—say Macbeth kills the King, and seizes his throne, or Lear is dispossessed by his daughters—nature protests. There are storms, and strange phenomena. All creation was seen as being intimately connected, by relationships, from God down to the smallest, least important insect. All were linked in a Great Chain of Being, in which everybody had a place, everyone was valued in their place, and surrounded by love, whatever his or her rank.
Didn’t work out that way in practice, of course. But the ideal was that a king ruled not just for his own glory and power, but as a deputy for God. A King was meant to protect, to create peace and security, and a civil framework in which all could flourish. A king was meant to defend his people, at the cost of his own life if necessary.
We think of kingship as inherently unjust, and we’re not wrong. It placed the subjects at the mercy of the king, and all too often, the king had no mercy. But the thing to take away from the ideal of kingship is that when we celebrate Christ the King, we are declaring our faith that our Creator has designed us each to take a unique role in relationship not just with each other, but with the world, and with God.
And what is that relationship to God? Through Ezekiel today, we are told of a God who says “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” We are told that God will feed them with justice.
And in Matthew’s Gospel today, we are told to do the same. Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. Give a cup of cold water to those who are thirsty. Visit the sick and the prisoners. Do this in Jesus’ name, because what we do –or what we fail to do—for others we do for Jesus.
A few years ago, the deacon at my home parish bullied me into going on a three day retreat called Cursillo. It’s very happy clappy—singing hymns I’ve never heard of, total strangers sharing their experiences of God, and all the stuff that can make you feel very nervous as an Episcopalian. I earned my membership in the frozen chosen. On the second day of the retreat, a blizzard of mail came in for us all, quite a lot from prisons. Men’s prisons and women’s prisons. Large hand-drawn cards on posterboard and torn out pages from spiral notebooks. All signed by people in prison praying for us that weekend, hoping that we would have what they had already experienced, a knowledge that God loved each and every one of them, and that they had work to do. That work was sharing that knowledge, and their joy with us.
They were in prison, and wanted to set us free.
All because some other people—people I don’t know—took seriously Jesus’s commandment to love him enough to visit a prisoner for his sake. Someone took the words of today’s Gospel to heart.
Taking that leap of faith—[pause] no; that leap of love—is what Christ asks us to do. To see ourselves in relationship to each other, through him. That’s the kingdom. And the king? Christ the King served whoever came to him in need, and that’s what he urges us to do. In a world where all too many so-called leaders demand to be catered to, imagine that. A king who serves.
So for me that’s what makes Christ the King a day worth celebrating. A king who asks us to serve. To serve the vulnerable, not him. To do what he did, and through us today still does: Take care of those in need. Bring the cup of cold water, if that’s all we can do. Learn that having been fed ourselves, it’s our turn to feed others.
In the name of God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit.