Christ the King Sunday – November 24, 2019
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the youngest of the high holy days on our liturgical calendar. Founded in 1925 by Pope Pious XI, it was moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar before the new year begins at Advent in 1969 by Pope Paul VI. It is a day set aside for Christians to consider and celebrate what it means for this itinerant rabbi from the ancient Near East to be our king and for people like us to be subjects of that king.
In this spirit let’s think a minute about monarchs. In her book Henry VIII: The King and His Court, historian Alison Weir writes the following:
“Tudor feasts were an extravaganza of excess. The King’s hospitality was boundless, and cost the equivalent of around £4 million a year. Up to seven hundred guests might be invited, and 240 different dishes served on gold or silver-gilt plates. When the King entertained thirty people at Windsor, there were fourteen varieties of meat, eight hundred eggs, ninety dishes of butter, eighty loaves of chestnut bread, three hundred wafers, gingerbread coated in gold leaf, and sufficient fruit and drink for each diner to have ten oranges and twenty alcoholic beverages. All guests were seated in order of rank, and served with impressive ceremony. The cupbearers and food tasters attending royalty would remain kneeling throughout the proceedings. The choicest food was reserved for the top table, but might be passed down to lesser mortals as a mark of favour. Along the walls stood buffets groaning with plate; candles were often placed in front of this plate, to reflect more light. The centrepiece of a feast would be a prodigy dish, such as a roasted peacock re-dressed in its plumage or pies baked in the shape of St. Paul’s Cathedral. But the pièce de résistance was the subtlety, [which was] an artistic confection brought in at the end of every course and offered to the high table. Subtleties, which originated in Burgundy, were the opus magnus of the Confectioner’s artistry, and were made entirely of sugar and almond paste, moulded into fantastic sculptures up to two or three feet high, then painted and gilded.”
According to the Biblical scholar Kenneth E. Bailey in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, the splendorous treatment of royalty has also included not only how monarchs were treated, but how they were spoken of as well. Bailey writes, “In the early fourth century a Christian historian named Eusebius quoted a decree issued by [the Roman emperor] Galerius easing the persecution of Christians just before the age of Constantine. It opens: The emperor Caesar, Galerius, Valerius, Maximanus, Invictus, Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Germanicus Maximus, Egypticus Maximus, Phoebicus Maximus, Sarmenticus Maximus [five times], Persecus Maximus [twice], Carpicus Maximus [six times], Armenicus Maximus, Medicus Maximus, Abendicus Maximus, Holder of tribunical authority for the 20th time, emperor for the 19th, consul for the 8th, Pater Patriae Pro-Consul . . .”
And now an ever so regal story of our King, told in the twenty-third chapter of the gospel of Saint Luke, verses 33-43:
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
At Reveille’s Men’s Prayer Breakfast, which meets Monday mornings from 7:00 to 8:00, we are making our way through the Gospel of Luke, something I am greatly enjoying, in part because Luke is my favorite of the four gospels. Although Luke draws on the same sources as the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Luke draws on additional sources as well, and as such, includes stories, wonderful stories, that appear only in Luke’s gospel.
For example, only Luke gives us the extended birth narrative of Jesus that we so love to read on Christmas Eve. Only Luke tells us of the birth of John the Baptist. Only Luke provides us with the one story we have of Jesus’ childhood. There are parables unique to Luke’s gospel, including the Parable of the Prodigal Son and unique stories such as the story of wee Zacchaeus up in the tree, Jesus before Herod, Pilate declaring Jesus innocent, Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus, and Jesus’ ascension, to name but a few. In addition to all of this, Luke is written in a polished form of ancient Greek called atticized Greek, so in my opinion, it reads a bit better than the other gospels.
And yet, what I love the most about Luke’s gospel is what it teaches us about who Jesus is by showing us with whom Jesus spent so much of his limited time on earth. From a young age, we are told by those who love us that throughout our lives, we will be judged by the company we keep, which is no less true for us than it was for our Lord. To know Jesus is to know who he associated with, and Jesus, especially in Luke’s gospel, associated with outcasts.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is especially concerned with the least, the last, and the lost. In Luke, Jesus tells stories about a party where the guests never arrive so the outcasts are invited. In Luke, we hear stories about lost things and lost people being found. We hear a story of a despised tax collector becoming a repentant disciple and a poor man living in heaven. We learn of women who minister and a widow’s son raised from death.
Oh, and was he criticized for it! Jesus gives his beloved Parable of the Prodigal Son in response to the religious leaders criticizing him for the company he keeps, as they said “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
And yet, nothing could stop him. He does it again and again and again until we nailed him to a cross in a futile attempt to get him to just stop. And that is where we find him in this morning’s text: whipped and naked and nailed to a cross, struggling to merely breathe, straining to turn his head to use his dying breaths to tell just one more outcast, one more hopeless case, one more lost cause that there is a place in God’s kingdom for him, too.
In considering this Jesus, this Lord of the outcasts, spend enough time with outsiders, even today, and you may easily find yourself becoming an outcast, too. In his book Martin, Malcolm, and America: A Dream or A Nightmare, the historian James A. Cone writes of how the tragic irony of the deaths of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X is that each was ultimately killed by the very people they were trying to save. I have engaged in enough ministry to the poor in communities I have served to have had the experiences of both helping people genuinely in need and being lied to and deceived by people seeking money for all sorts of reasons. We read Luke’s story of the reformed tax collector Zacchaeus, for whom one encounter with the Lord is all it takes for a person to become a changed man, but I have also spent enough time doing ministry in prisons to know just how often the opposite can be true.
And yet, this is the kind of king that we have. This is the kind of king we are called to follow. This is the kind of king who saves us, the host who invites all of the wrong guests to the party and who continually fraternizes with all of the wrong people. As the Rev. Peter Story is fond of saying “When we pray that beloved evangelical prayer ‘Jesus, come into my heart,’ Jesus always replies to us by saying ‘Can I bring all my friends?’”
I believe it to be true that often we wish we could have Jesus— the loving, forgiving, miraculous, life-giving, redeeming Jesus who we know from scripture. We just wish he would stop bringing his sometimes weird, obnoxious, needy, outsider friends to our parties with him. Anne Lamott writes of this kind of king saying “This drives me crazy. That God seems to have no taste, and no standards. Of course, by the same token, on most days, this is what gives some of us hope.”
And there we have it. We are drawn to Jesus because he is the kind of king who is the servant leader, who is the perfect embodiment of perfect love in our very midst. We are drawn to Jesus because he is the one and only king to ever live who truly never acted out of self-interest, who truly only thought and acted on the basis of what was and is best for the people of his realm, best for his subjects.
In Jesus, we never really encounter a king who instructs us to do what is best for the king. Instead, we encounter a king for whom being a faithful subject means showing mercy, generosity, love, and grace not to our king himself, but to our fellow subjects, and especially the lost and forgotten amongst us. And when this became too much and we crucified him for it, he prayed for mercy for us, even as we drove the nails, and then rose again so that we might live with him forever.
It is a passionate, gracious, and forever-relentless love that we cannot earn and cannot shake, even though we sometimes wish we could.
I mentioned Peter Storey a few moments ago, and thinking of him reminds me of something he shared at a local clergy event a little over a decade-and-a-half ago. He was recounting his time as the pastor of a large urban church in the 1980s. He told us that he and the leadership of his congregation made an important yet quite controversial decision to take a definitive stand on a current, divisive social issue. He told us that this decision resulted in that church’s loss of over four hundred of its members.
The city in which this church is located is Johannesburg, and the divisive social issue that he and his church’s leadership decided to stand against was apartheid, and the people they decided to stand with were the long-suffering oppressed blacks in their nation of South Africa.
“When we pray that evangelical prayer ‘Jesus, come into my heart,’ Jesus always replies to us by saying ‘Can I bring all my friends?’”
I recall that story from Johannesburg from time-to-time to use it as a benchmark against which to judge myself. I have spent just under forty-nine years conducting extensive scientific field research into whether it is indeed possible to please everyone, and my research has thus-far conclusively shown that it just cannot be done.
And still, I consider that congregation in Johannesburg, experiencing the pain and grief of witnessing four hundred people leave forever and I wonder if I would have had the fortitude, the courage, and the faith in this king of the outcasts to press on. More often than not, I conclude that I wouldn’t, that I am but a coward who leans too often upon his own understanding, and it is on those days that I cling to the hope that the crucified king of the outcasts, of the least, the last, and the forgotten has room in his court even for the cowards, those who lack trust and vision and the fortitude necessary for a truly transformative faith, even including the fools like me.
And so, even on my worst days, I can struggle for just enough breath to whisper the words, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” I do this with the same reckless faith and shaky hope as you, and the good news is that our King, even with his dying breath, is able to reply telling us stories of paradise, a paradise that even includes sinners like me, and sinners like you.
It is the reason that we live and serve and try so hard to always err on the side of embrace over exclusion, grace over judgement, and love over indifference or hate. We are simply attempting to do what our crucified king has done for us and for this wonderful yet deeply flawed world our king has died to save. If the gospel shows us nothing else, it demonstrates how no one who stands with outcasts ever stands alone, because Christ our King is there with them, there with you, there with me, there with us, come what may.
As this liturgical year draws to a close, and as we prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of the Christ child this Advent, may we all be ever mindful of the company we keep. It is indeed how we will be judged and our king will be made known. It is so often how we show the world just who our king is, who we follow, and whose we are.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
Weir, Alison. Henry VIII: The King and His Court (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Bailey, Kenneth E.. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (p. 92). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
Cone, James A., Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare? Orbis Books.