Today is Christ the King Sunday. While Christ the King is an established part of our tradition, it is not really that old. It was begun in the early part of the 20th century and there is some debate about why it began. But in any event, it is a day we use now at the end of the liturgical year to celebrate our allegiance to Christ, looking back to his birth 2000 years ago even as we look forward to his coming again, very similar to how we will begin the new church year next week with the beginning of Advent.
Let me just be real honest with you. I don’t like this day. I don’t like the title “Christ the King.” I don’t like the triumphalism of a victorious king who conquers. It is a part of the church’s history, but it isn’t one that I think is reflective of the Christ who actually appeared to us 2000 years ago. And don’t get me started on the second coming.
It is Christ, after all, who told Pilate point blank that if he had been of this world he would have had armies and angels and whatnot to back him up and take Pilate out to defend himself (At least in Matthew and John).
But his point, of course, was that his kingdom was not of this world, and that’s why armies were not something he was interested in. We got instead this man who offers himself to die on a cross without committing a crime, killed at the hands of the political leaders of this world. I can’t think of too many political leaders who run on that platform.
My New Testament professor used to talk about this a lot in seminary– because this was really very confusing to the disciples. They expected their Messiah to be someone who would use the political system of the world to transform it; who would take Caesar by the throats and kick him to the curb to put in place the things that they wanted. But instead they got this Jesus who died at Caesar’s hands. That was a profound reshaping of what it meant to be the King of the Jews– so much so that the title is thrown at him by the Romans as a sarcastic insult- this alleged king can’t even save himself when he hasn’t done anything wrong. Some king.
But it seems that still today, we want somehow for God to win through the political system, or through military power, or through money and wealth, or any of the other influences that Caesar represents. We have in Christ a king who wins a different way.
We have in Christ one who hung out not with the elite, but with those on the margins and so even at the end in today’s reading is crucified with criminals.
We have in this Jesus somebody who, when he encountered people who were not inclusive, did not call them names but educated them. Remember the story of “who is my neighbor” and the good samaritan? It was an outsider who was the most neighborly.
But this Jesus also had an edge. Luke’s version is not in our Sunday lectionary, but Jesus calls out Pharisees and Lawyers (sorry lawyers!) for craving recognition in the community without having compassion for those in need.
And so, here not in Palestine but in the US, not facing Caesar but in the aftermath of a contentious election; I think perhaps it is prudent to wonder: what does it mean to follow a crucified Jesus today?
I have been re-reading parts of a book by the creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment. That was an experiment in 1971 that would never be allowed today because it wasn’t ethical, but pulled volunteers– so-called “normal” male college kids– into a two-week simulation, with some playing guards and some playing inmates. What the experiment discovered is that systemic and situational influences have profound impact on how people behave. The experiment had to be cut short because the guards became abusive and the prisoners became depressed; they all fell victim to the system of what it is like to be in a real prison. For some in the experiment, there were life-long psychological implications. The sub-title of the book is Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, and it covers situations ranging from the Stanford Prison Experiment to the Holocaust, from McCarthyism to the Apartheid.
There were two things that struck me. First, the people caught up in those systems did not have any idea how horrible their actions were when they were happening- the situational factors around them normalized what was going on. Second, almost all of us think “that kind of thing happens to those people but I would never fall subject to it.” But the truth is, study after study finds that most people get wrapped up by situational forces and cannot resist.
I am not a psychologist. But I fully believe that we are wrapped up in those kinds of systems right now. In fact, we always have been, us humans. It’s not a democrat or republican or independent thing. The dynamics of division are a malevolent system that have us – all of us – wrapped around its finger, just like all those other systems I just named.
My favorite moment in this election season was a Saturday Night Live skit that made fun of the systems that we have erected. It portrayed a game of jeopardy with two lower income African Americans and one lower-income white man and highlighted how strange it was that this election pitted them against each other when they have so much in common. All three characters were grossly overdone stereotypes of different lower income demographic groups, but the skit cut through the systems of division we live in to highlight that it is the poor who are losing in the current systems on both the left and the right.
(I’m not suggesting we should be color blind or that racism isn’t a real and present danger or that there isn’t a real systemic problem of racism to address. But the question is whether we will allow the systems to perpetuate deeper division between the most vulnerable among us- and who benefits from that.)
As Christians, we claim a system that is not of this world. We claim a ruler who wins not because they get the most votes or because they hold title to an office or because they have money or because they have political power.
We claim to live our lives by the baptismal covenant, we claim that we died to any other allegiance at baptism as secondary; and we claim that our way is the way of the one who respects the dignity of every human being, who values all life, not just our own; and who endowed all creation with value just because it exists. We can be both for the ending of systemic racism and on the side of the working white family in the hills of Appalachia.
There are economic powers at play in the system at world that want us to believe that hoarding wealth, greedily clinging to what has been given to us– is the only way. But on today, this day of Christ the King, we claim another way. We celebrate with the ingathering of pledges that the way of life is to give, to sacrifice, and to offer of our lives and labor because compassion, love, and justice are the system we claim instead of greed, scarcity, and violence.
And while political leaders, democrat and republican– and even whole countries– will come and go– as Christians we place our trust in the one who never fails, who comes and stands with us, this broken, messy, even crazy human family– even if though it killed him to do it.
And it is only because of we stand with that very God who lives in that kind of kingdom that we can continue to choose a different system; we can live by a different way, a way that values love while also holding each other accountable; a way that looks to build bridges without giving up on our common dignity; a way that sees protest as a part of the prophetic tradition of standing up for those who are voiceless; and who listens to to the other as a part of this beloved human community.
The act of following Christ the King pulls us out of the partisan ideology that the world says we must have and sets us firmly into our identity in baptism. But it is not passive. In fact, it is riskier than anything else we may do in this world. Our king, Christ the King, got killed for it. To be Christian is not to escape politics but to deeply engage politics. We are called to transform the systems of this world, not ignore or avoid them.
The theologian Jurgen Moltmann says it this way:
“Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”
The Dean said last week: we treat others not because they deserve to be treated well, but because of who we are. As followers of Christ, a different kind of king, we offer witness to the world of a different system, a way forward, one that’s neither red nor blue but bathed in the light of God; a chink in the armor of a world that wants so much to be broken open in love that it cries out in agony under its own weight.
And that is why the Church exists: to call out in praise and thanks: Holy, Holy, Holy; you alone, God, are the most high. Not anybody or anything else. Service, protest, contemplation, action, or praise- let everything we do be to break open this world and be a part of the coming of your kingdom, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, just let us be a part of your kingdom; your paradise, in this hour, we pray.
Maybe Christ the King Sunday isn’t so bad after all.
The Rev. Jeff Martinhauk
Christ the King C,
November 20, 2016
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego