There has been much reflection this past week on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death – where people were when they got the news, how they felt, and how we and our country were changed by it. No matter what your politics were, nearly everyone recognized the sense of energy, youth, vitality, optimism, and style that the Kennedys brought to public life that overflowed to the rest of the country. For those of you who were too young to remember the assassination, the death of Princess Diana under very different circumstances thirty-four years later carried the same sense of almost mythic tragedy.
In 1960, the same year that Kennedy was elected, the musical Camelot was first produced on Broadway. It was based on the old legends of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, and a kingdom that was known far and wide for its justice and chivalry, honor and respect; even the weather (according to the title song) was supposed to be a model of temperance and perfection.
But like all mythic stories, this one eventually had its share of betrayal in love, sadness, death, disappointment, and a longing for a glorious legacy. Very quickly, the show came to be associated with the atmosphere and glamour that surrounded President Kennedy and his administration; so much so that his time in office came to be referred to as Camelot, the mythical kingdom - making his assassination all the more shocking when it happened.
Funny thing about that kingdom imagery…we have spent the last six months of the Church year exploring the Kingdom of God.
Back in May when we celebrated Ascension Sunday we marked Jesus’ return to heaven after the resurrection, and we claimed his lordship and sovereignty over all of life – including our own lives. And throughout the summer and fall we have spent our time, in our Sunday Gospel readings, unpacking what it means to be a disciple, to be a follower of Jesus, and for him to be Lord of life.
And now we have arrived at Christ the King Sunday – the bookend to the Ascension; it, too, affirms that Christ is the true and rightful Ruler, the Holy One whose kingdom shall have no end.
And intersecting as it does at this point in the cycle of the secular calendar and observances, this day reminds us that the sovereignty of Christ trumps the political and social power of our world. Luke, the Gospel writer we have been listening to the most in this past year, makes it very clear; and he particularly wants us to remember that God’s kingdom in not just that parallel universe we call “heaven.” God’s kingdom, Luke tells us, has important “this-world” implications:
When we say “Jesus is Lord,” it means also that Caesar is not Lord, as the first-century Roman emperors claimed.
Saying “Jesus is Lord,” means the power of the Roman Empire is not Lord; “Jesus is Lord” means that all of our governmental and political arrangements are only of human origin and cannot be given the status and power of God.
“Jesus is Lord,” means that materialism and consumer culture is not Lord.
“Jesus is Lord,” means that any individual with pretensions to power and absolute authority is not Lord.
We Christians, and Jews long before us, have always lived in a world where there are competing claims for our loyalty and devotion. Three thousand years ago the People of God lived with and were often led astray by the temptation to worship other ancient Near Eastern deities, instead of the Lord God who had led them out of slavery in Egypt and established with them a life-giving relationship – the covenant.
Two thousand years ago it there was the temptation to give in to the Roman conceit that military power – when held absolutely – was the highest and most absolute authority, and could control the fate of any person in the Empire who defied Rome’s right to rule. And at the same time, the Emperor’s, beginning with Julius Caesar, began to claim for themselves the status of gods, and titles like “Lord” and “Savior,” requiring the peoples of the Empire to express their loyalty and worship of Caesar by offering incense at his statue in the public square of every major town.
And ever since, there have been individuals and movements and human systems and whole societies that sought to make themselves the final authority, the greatest power, demanding ultimate loyalty. In contrast to all of that, in every age, God has offered a different vision, a different kind of kingdom that is based not on human power and ambition, but on God’s justice and goodness and purpose.
In his letter to the church at Colossae, Paul describes it this way: “[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” God’ purpose is to offer us wholeness and life and restoration, even as we live in the here-and-now, not in a magical or mythical sort of way, but by making it clear that the rules of engagement the wordly powers put forward are not, in fact the true laws of the universe at its deepest, most God-given level.
That is why we have the portrayal of the Crucifixion as the Gospel today – as strange and out of sequence as it may seem. When we see Jesus on the Cross – that ultimate symbol of Roman domination – we see Jesus acting as Lord and Sovereign, offering pardon and forgiveness to those who were crucified with him, even as he absorbed into himself the totality of death and destruction, and came out the other side into new life. The Kingdom of God was inaugurated in all its fullness by Christ’s death and resurrection, tearing open the veil, breaking down the wall of human pridefulness and over-reaching ambition that separated us from God’s best intentions for us.
The Kingdom of God operates on very different principles from the spheres and fiefdoms of human power. And it begins with forgiveness of sin – that which separates us from God and from each other. Think for a moment about someone with whom you are at odds, estranged from – either currently, or in the past; what is it that keeps you locked into that place with them? It might be fear, anger, rejection, a sense of betrayal, wanting to protect yourself or something you hold dear; that person may have well and truly wronged you, sinned against you and yet you are both caught in a strangle-hold, a Gordian knot that can only be cut through by the power of forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not mean that everything between you is all right, or that pain and suffering and wrong-doing never happened.
Forgiveness is the way, sometimes the very risky and costly way, that the light and love of God enters the relationship or situation and begins the process of healing, restoration and reconciliation. And all of this is possible only because we first know the forgiveness and loving-kindness of God in Christ. That is one of the hallmarks (there are others) of the Kingdom of God in which we are citizens, one of the operating principles of life when we say “Jesus is Lord.”
“In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae, “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Reconciliation, justice, goodness, peace – with God, with others, and with ourselves – this is what it means to live with Christ as King, as Sovereign, as Lord; and it all begins with Jesus’ gift of forgiveness and new life.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, fill us with the knowledge of your will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that we may lead lives worthy of the Lord Jesus, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge and love of God. May we be made strong with all the strength that comes from Christ’s glorious power, and may we be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to you, Heavenly Father, as we share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. You have rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of your beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and for this we give you thanks and praise, this day and always. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King
November 24, 2013