NB: I preached a version of this sermon on November 24, 2019 (Christ the King Year C) at Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is the festival of Christ the King. Is it just me or does it seem to come earlier every year. I still have my All Saints decorations up. It’s like we barely get past the festival of St. Michael and All Angels and bam, here it is again. At least my shopping is done.
Christ the King is not an especially well-known or beloved festival. It isn’t ancient like Easter or culturally entrenched like Christmas. It doesn’t focus on a vivid Biblical story like Pentecost and it doesn’t mark a turning point in the story of salvation like Epiphany.
Why, you might reasonably ask, do we have this festival at all?
It’s a very new festival. It was added to the Roman Catholic calendar by Pope Pius XI only in 1925, and many other churches eventually followed. In the letter announcing the new festival, the pope warned against the spread of nationalism, unchecked greed, and anti-religious ideologies. The festival was meant to help the Catholic world resist those forces. And sure enough, almost one hundred years later, nationalism, unchecked greed, and anti-religious sentiment have all but disappeared.
Ok not exactly. It was Pope Pius’s goal to have a festival reminding the world that Christ was its King, not just in heaven and not just in hearts and minds and not just among the baptized but in fact, here and now, over all Creation. And it was his goal to remind the rulers of the world that the power to govern came to them through Christ, not through their family dynasty or through the will of the people.
In that way the festival of Christ the King originally represented a medieval view of the world. At the summit of the social order is Christ, who is God and also a human king. On earth he is represented by the Church, whose authority grants legitimacy to the kings of the nations. If those kings (or prime ministers or presidents) acknowledge the authority of the Church and of Christ, all will be well. The whole society will be at peace with itself.
The institutions of that day were experiencing what you might call a crisis of legitimacy. I know, that’s hard for us to imagine. People didn’t believe in those institutions, didn’t trust them, didn’t accept the stories they told to justify their power. Hence the need for Christ to be the ultimate king. Put him back on top, make everyone obey him in descending order down the social ladder, and all will be well.
That was almost a hundred years ago. But we still hear versions of that argument today. The United States has never had a king, but we have presidents and a constitution and public institutions that are always being judged for their Christianity or lack thereof. We need a godly president, the constitution is sacred, we need prayer in schools and so on. It’s that same search for a Christ at the top of the ladder. It’s the search for a Christ who can cover all the checks our institutions write. For a King. For a better King.
So today, we get a picture of that King. In fact, we get a picture of his coronation. But it’s exactly the opposite of every earthly king.
Where the kings of the world are carried to church for their coronation, Jesus is forced to march to the place of the skull. Where the kings of the world are cheered, Jesus is mocked. While the earthly king is invested in royal robes, Jesus’s clothes are stripped from him and divided up by soldiers. The kings of the world are seated on thrones and given scepters and crowns that represent their power. Christ is raised up on a cross. Which is not just an instrument of painful execution, but an instrument of abject humiliation. Roman citizens could not be crucified. It was against the law. Only non-persons could be crucified. It was the most shameful and dehumanizing death the state could impose.
And finally, instead of courtiers and attendants, Christ has two thieves, one on each side. One of them, a bitter cynic, says “hey so-called Messiah, use your powers to save us!”
But the second thief rebukes the first thief. Don’t you fear God now, seeing that you are under the same condemnation? And we had it coming, but this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus, he says, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Finally, someone has named him as King in earnest. Someone saw in the midst of this gruesome parody that the true King was here.
And through this whole ordeal Jesus does nothing king-like at all except for this: he grants pardons. This is a power of the king in English law that migrated into our constitution as a presidential power. And Jesus exercises it:
first for the people who are brutalizing him
And then for the thief who asks only to be remembered.
“This day you will be with me in Paradise.” It’s a royal promise.
That’s what I want us to hear on this festival of Christ the King. Because old Pope Pius XI was right: Christ is truly and literally the King. But he does not rule from the top of the social ladder. He rules from below, from the cross, from the most forsaken and abandoned place. If you want a bigger, stronger king to put a stamp of approval on your little local ruler, you want Zeus or Odin; you don’t want this guy. Because this one reigns in powerlessness. This one is crowned with suffering. This one is praised by mockery. Because this one shows his might by granting pardon. This is a funhouse mirror king, an upside-down king, a king who lives and breathes and dies and is gloriously raised to eternal life in unyielding, unrelenting, unending opposition to the petty tyrants and bullies and exploiters of this age.
Over the last several weeks I have met with quite a few of you, with the goal only of hearing what matters to you about church. And many of you shared with me your stories of heartbreaking loss. Experiences that can make us feel very distant and alienated from the universe and even the people around us.
I don’t usually have much to say when I hear these stories. I would only note for everyone’s benefit that there is probably more silent pain in this room than most of us know. That many of us have spent their hour at Golgotha. That for some there is a long desert of suffering on their way to this weekly oasis of praise.
But I will note for those of you who trusted your stories to me, and those who didn’t and perhaps never will: Christ the King is your King. He did not come to bless the social order or make the school board open with prayer or justify the boss or the king. He came to justify you. He went into the heart of suffering to take up his crown, in his own wounds and helplessness and dehydrated gasps. He came there to rule first in us, in our bodies and hearts. He came there to rule for us, for all who call on him and all who don’t know how, for all who want at least to be remembered: Your king hears, your king remembers, your king pardons you and welcomes you in. Amen.