November 20, 2022
Today’s Gospel is startling – we are catapulted from pre-Thanksgiving to Good Friday, as we see Jesus on the cross, nailed there by an authoritarian regime that ruled by violence, lined up beside two criminals who, like his own disciples, didn’t understand the nature of his authority and who were baffled by his lack of self-preservation. This isn’t a picture of a king. This is a picture of a broken, defeated man, unjustly condemned and tortured, suffering in agony, who nonetheless cannot help but offer love, compassion and hope to his fellow sufferers. Even in the midst of his own tragedy and pain, Jesus has good news to share.
The last Sunday of the church year, Christ the King Sunday was instituted in 1925 to help people of faith refocus our vision on who is really in charge of this world. That period of history, between two world wars, was a time of upheaval across the world. Authoritarian rulers and dictators were taking power; the countries involved in WW1 were struggling to recover; democracy was at risk; antisemitism was increasing; secularism was taking over. Sound familiar? The world needed a reminder that there is more than one model of leadership. And we need that reminder today too.
We bring our preconceptions of monarchy to our celebration of Christ the King. Scripture tells of good but flawed kings like David and Solomon, and wicked monarchs who reigned with absolute power and didn’t hesitate to steal, lie, and murder for their own benefit. Back in the day, when the people of God demanded a king, the prophet Samuel warned them that they would come to regret it. In our own day we watch shows like Hamilton and The Crown, which portray monarchs as buffoons or emotionally paralysed individuals trapped in a toxic system. What is a monarch good for? We ask, and give thanks for living in a democratic republic where we choose our own leaders. So this celebration, Christ the King, or more recently the Reign of Christ, may seem anachronistic, unworthy of an enlightened post-modern population.
The prophet Jeremiah rails against kings who rule without wisdom and compassion, shepherds who have scattered their flock instead of caring for it. Jeremiah’s people – God’s people – are in exile; they have no strong leadership and are scattered and weak. Their leaders are failing them in a time of crisis.
The nurturing of unity is an important element of leadership. Building up community is especially needed in challenging times, and it is a central pillar of our corporate life here at St. Paul’s. We strive to strengthen community with our worship and our gatherings, like the receptions after each service today. In my pastoral work I hear too many stories of congregations that become divided over a decline in resources; of families that fall apart after a death, just when each family member most needs support. What a contrast with today’s Gospel where Jesus comforts the two men suffering alongside him and assures them of their ultimate inclusion in his kingdom. Or in Jeremiah, where God promises to bring the alienated people of God back together, to once again give them a home and a shared purpose.
Humanity lives in tension regarding leadership. An authoritarian ruler appeals to our longing for security; a looser form of rule speaks to our desire for freedom. The two dynamics pull and push our human societies and our individual selves. We want to feel safe, to know what we are supposed to believe, to be sure of fitting in, but we also want to use our own reason and come to our own conclusions: about our bodies, about Scripture, and about meaning.
People who come to the Episcopal church from more dogmatic faith traditions sometimes find it hard to adjust to our way of providing the information and equipping people to discern their own positions. But I believe that the latter – equipping the saints for the work of ministry, as St. Paul puts it – is a more faithful approach to living as members of the Jesus Movement. It’s an approach that follows the example set by Jesus, who didn’t compel but always invited. The Gospel gives us a fresh image: this is a king who rules by love; who forgives freely; who is willing to be humiliated; who offers up his life for his people. This is shockingly different from those other portrayals of monarchy. As so often when we closely examine Scripture, our preconceptions are exploded by a close examination of its witness.
This idea of giving power away is counter-intuitive, at least when that power is held by the good guys. We want to protest: don’t give it away, use your power for good. This sounds fine until you remember the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, when Satan invited him to use his power to eliminate hunger – turn these stones into bread; an invitation that Jesus declined.
OK then, we think, use your power to rule over all the earth, instead of all these imperfect human rulers. Again we hear Satan’s voice: See all these kingdoms? I will give them all to you.
Well then, at least set up protections so that the good people with power are protected from evil. Once again – throw yourself off this tower and let the angels catch you, proving that you are invulnerable. No, no, and no. The power that our king wields is a power of love, of persuasion, of compassion and vulnerability. He will not use his power to impose change on the world: we have to want it, to work for it, even to suffer for it, because this is what love does for the beloved.
A prophet names the present, locates it in its past, and looks forward to the future that God has prepared for God’s people. Jeremiah speaks to a people who are worn down, divided, fearful and stuck in the past. He gives them a word of hope; a future that is better than the now. In that same tradition, Jesus speaks to the two men dying beside him. He gives them a word of hope: a future that is better than the now. Whenever we find ourselves in a place of loneliness, despair, or pain, Jesus speaks to us from the Cross, promising to stay with us no matter what, giving us a word of hope: a future that is better than the now. This is good news, and it’s good news that our neighbors desperately need to hear. This is what we are about at St. Paul’s, as we open our campus to the community, as we go out into the neighborhood, as we rebuild our attendance and ministries after the pandemic.
On Thursday morning we will gather to express our gratitude to the God who has brought us together and brought us through a very difficult couple of years. I hope you’ll join us here. But Thanksgiving isn’t just a single day: it is a way of life for those of us who follow Jesus. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist we offer the Great Thanksgiving, grateful for the incredible generosity of God and of his son Jesus, who offered compassionate love from the Cross and who lives and reigns in our hearts, yesterday, today, and forever. Thanks be to God.