Thanksgiving weekend is always full of football – neighborhood and family touch football games, high school homecomings, college ball and pro games. It seems to be a time for reaffirming loyalties and connections. Unless, of course you happen to be a Jets fan; then it was a really tough weekend. When your team plays badly, it’s hard to be a fan.
But loyalty, of course, is about much more than just banking on the winner, rooting for whoever is going to score the most points. Loyalty has to do with affection and commitment and a relationship, in some fashion or another. Loyalty requires something of us, it’s a two-way street, not just being a passive onlooker. But, of course, being loyal doesn’t mean offering unquestioning assent in the face of wrong-doing or bad behavior. It is a sad thing when players or coaches or team owners think that they are above the standards of good sportsmanship that we all say we want children to learn through playing and watching sports. And it is equally jarring when elected officials at any level of government play fast and loose with ethical standards, just because they have power. At such times fans and citizens need to speak the truth and hold others accountable; that’s part of real loyalty.
We have come to the end of the Church year - the last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes referred to as Christ the King Sunday. It’s the reason why we have this odd Gospel reading that comes from the story of Christ’s Passion on Good Friday. Jesus and Pilate are having a conversation on two completely different levels, only Pilate doesn’t know it. He is trying to figure out what Jesus has done that has brought down upon his head the wrath of the religious leaders, assuming that he is guilty of treason to the Roman Emperor and even sedition, by claiming to be King of the Jews. Pilate is well aware of the power of the state vested in him to execute judgment, and life or death. But in fact it is Jesus who has the real power of judgment. In this conversation it is Pilate who is shown to be out of his depth, unaware. Jesus says to Pilate, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." In the very next verse Pilate responds cynically, “Truth! What’s that?” There is no truth for Pilate, only power and expedience in many different forms. Jesus’ reign and the Kingdom of God are not given by human powers – whether the religious establishment or political and military might. Power and authority and judgment belong to God first and foremost, and all human and earthly rule and might are merely sub-sets of divine power, intended by God for human good.
As twenty-first century Americans, we probably don’t resonate very well with the image of king or monarch or ruler. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around a picture that may feel either quaint or foreign. And so we don’t often think of Christ as King, all the stereotypic pictures and cartons of God as an old man sitting on a throne to the contrary.
But the whole Church year is framed and punctuated by the reality that Christ is King – of humankind and of all creation. We start the year in Advent by waiting and preparing for the One who is to come – the Lord, the King, the Messiah, God’s own Son, the Anointed. From Christmas through Easter we follow the outlines of Jesus’ life among us, and the power of God’s life over death as Jesus appears to the disciples in his resurrection body. At the Ascension we see that all that is human and earthly has been taken up by Christ, taken to heaven with him, breaking down the barriers between God’s realm and our own. Christ is enthroned or installed or inaugurated as the true Sovereign of the world – a world that encompasses both heaven and earth. After the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we settle in for a long season of parables and stories and images of what it means to live in the Kingdom of God, giving God our allegiance, our fidelity, what the ancient Romans would call our tribute. The season (sometimes twenty-seven weeks long) gives hands-on, practical attention to daily faith and life in following Jesus as Lord. And then, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, we get a final reminder who is in charge, and from whence true power and authority flow. Christ the King Sunday is the bookend to all those weeks and months that was announced by Advent and reached its fulfillment at the Ascension.
So what does this long excursion into the theological shape of the Church year have to do with loyalty? A whole lot, actually. We started out saying that loyalty has to do with affection and commitment and relationship, and that it requires something of us. When we say that Christ is King, or Ruler or Sovereign, we are not just making an abstract statement. We are saying that our faith in Christ calls on us to be loyal to Jesus, to stand by our allegiance to him – not just on Sundays, or not just when we’re feeling spiritual, or ethical, but all the time. If we say that Jesus is Lord (as well as Savior or Friend or Redeemer or Guide), it means that God is in charge of all aspects of our lives: our work, our family life, our friendships, the way we spend money, the way we treat strangers, that way we make political decisions, how we choose to spend our time, what we put into our minds and souls and bodies. Christ doesn’t just want part of us, or part of our loyalty or a little bit of our love; he wants all of it. Jesus gave his whole self for us – life, death, Cross and resurrection – and he has shown us how to live, and given us the power of the Spirit to do so.
Does that mean our loyalty and allegiance to Christ will be perfect and complete? Of course not. But we keep working on it, we keep practicing, we keep offering new and deeper areas of our lives to be under God’s direction; it’s the work of a lifetime, really. And living in this faithful and loyal way will not make us kill-joys or sticks-in-the-mud or modern day humorless Puritans – far from it. God’s saints throughout history have been joyful, sharp-witted, sometimes full of pithy and salty words, nobody’s fools, fierce, compassionate, peaceful, on fire for justice and goodness.
So now, today, this week, as we prepare to begin a new Church year next Sunday, in what way is God asking you to let Christ be the King, to be Lord, to be Sovereign in your life and in your heart?
What will your answer be?
Let us pray.
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love;
Take my feet and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.
Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King;
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.
Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee. Amen. ~ Frances Ridley Havergal, Hymnal 1982, 707
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Last Sunday after Pentecost
November 25, 2012