St Matthew’s, Bloomington–John 18:33-37, Daniel 7:9-14, Colossians 1:11-20
There’s no saint’s day on today’s calendar, so we’re celebrating a votive Mass of the Reign of Christ, which is to say, Christ the King. Right away, I think we need to acknowledge that this is a bit of an awkward notion for Americans. We are steeped in egalitarian democracy, the idea that no one is inherently better than anyone else. We may not actually live that way, but it’s the underlying ideology of our culture. So monarchy is a hard concept to get our heads around. We don’t have a king. We don’t have a queen. Our political ancestors fought a war to overturn the authority of a king. Rebellion is in our DNA. Monarchy is an abstraction for us, a thought experiment, a fantasy. But it’s not a concrete political reality. We’ve never had to work out the details of what it would be like to live under royal authority.
Now, it may be some bit easier for our British cousins, but, even then, not completely. Sure, Great Britain has a queen—a much beloved and widely admired queen, as a matter of fact—but her authority and power are severely constrained by centuries of evolved custom. Have you seen that TV show, The Crown? If you have, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a staggering list of subtleties and nuances that a British monarch has to navigate. Long gone are the days, in most parts of the world, where a king or queen can simple rule by decree. “Off with their heads!”
The kingship of Christ that we celebrate today, and every year on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, is, by contrast, wild, free, unrestrained, unfettered. It is complete sovereignty, as illustrated in the vision of the prophet Daniel:
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
The gospel appointed for this liturgy is almost comically ironic, a burlesque of kingship. Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilate—on trial for his life. This passage doesn’t include the bit about the crown of thorns and Jesus being dressed in purple and mocked by the soldiers, but it’s along those lines. Jesus appears to be a victim, being judged by a cynical technocrat in the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire. But John wants us to see it differently. He turns the scene on its head, and Jesus is revealed to be the one doing the judging, and it is the world that stands in the dock, waiting to be judged. Pilate comes across as the one who seems anxious and unsure of himself; Jesus is calm and in control. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus tells Pilate, which is to say, in the manner of a six-year old, “You’re not the boss of me!” You may think you have me, but you don’t really have me.
In John’s gospel, even more than in the others, it’s clear that Jesus is not any kind of victim. He hands himself over to what happens, he volunteers for it. Everything that happens to him happens according to a plan, and that plan is nothing less than to save the world, a world that needs saving because it is “divided and enslaved by sin.”
The collect for this votive Mass, which is the same one we use on the feast of Christ the King in November, speaks of humankind as “divided and enslaved by sin.” We are divided from one another by all sorts of things. In recent weeks and months in our country, we’ve been focusing on racial division. But we have, of course, been divided by sex—male and female—since time out of mind. We are divided by language and culture, by educational and economic status, by being fans of the Cubs or fans of the Cardinals—you name it! And at the root of virtually all our divisions is sin—an inherited propensity to worship our own egos, to put ourselves where only God should be.
The collect says we are also enslaved by sin. This propensity to worship ourselves is something that binds us. It controls us. It lies behind family dysfunction and divorce and gang violence and drunk driving and pyramid schemes and world wars. We didn’t ask for it. We didn’t choose it. We were born this way. And we are powerless to do anything about it. There is no amount of determination or grit that can enable a person to overcome enslavement to sin, and the division—and ultimately, death—that results. We are in a world of hurt.
What does God do about it? Does God just sit by smugly, watching us dangle? Or does he act? St Paul, writing to the Colossians, suggests that God has acted: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Or, in the language of Eucharistic Prayer B from our Prayer Book: In Christ, God has “brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”
In short, getting back to the language of the collect now, God has taken us who were enslaved and freed us. He has taken us who were divided and reconciled us. We have been “freed and brought together.” But this liberating and reconciling doesn’t just happen in a vacuum; no, rather, we are freed and brought together under his most gracious rule. There is an infrastructure, an operating environment, for our freedom and reconciliation, and it is the “gracious rule” of Christ the King.
By his saving acts on our behalf, Jesus has, in effect, earned the status from which he can rightfully command our ultimate allegiance. To have a Lord, to have a King, to have monarch is to have, using some very old-fashioned language now, a liege—you can still hear that word if you watch enough old movies about the middle ages. A liege is one to whom we pledge allegiance—that is, fealty (another old-fashioned word), obedience, service.
When we do this with an earthly monarch, when a subject of the United Kingdom pledges allegiance to Queen Elizabeth, for example, there’s an implied contract, a presumed understanding, that in return for our allegiance, the monarch will provide a social infrastructure and a security framework that will encourage our flourishing, that will enable us to lead happy and peaceful lives. The lord in the manor house on the hill ruled the serfs who worked the fields, but it was his also his duty to protect them from malicious outsiders and to maintain civil order. They didn’t always do that, or do it well, but that was the working assumption. Now, Jesus’ sovereignty is so absolute that there can be no implied contract of this sort. God owes us nothing. But, the reign of Christ is, as the collect says, “most gracious.” In the kingdom of Christ, mercy abounds. This abundant mercy leads to liberation. The service of God is, as we say in our prayers, “perfect freedom.” And the abundant mercy that flows from the “most gracious rule” of Christ the King also leads to reconciliation, the coming together of those who, under the enslaving rule of this world, are at each other’s throats.
Such abundant grace appropriately commands our ultimate affection, our ultimate loyalty. It is higher than our love of ourselves, greater than our dedication to our family, above any loyalty to our country, or any other commitment, because Christ the King is, back to the first chapter of Colossians now, “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
In the words of the hymn writer Isaac Watts, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.”