(I preached this sermon on Sunday, November 22, 2020 in response to the Gospel reading – Matthew 25:31-46. You can find the full recording on our church website.)
The Feast of Christ the King is what we celebrate today. Do you understand what that means? Really take it in for a moment and consider what it means to declare Christ as king.
While that doesn’t sound very controversial, here’s what I know – every pastor that I know is struggling with what to preach today. They are struggling with how much of the Gospel to share. They are struggling with how much to talk about Christ being king and what that means and what Christ’s kingdom is really about. They are struggling because the proclamation of Christ as king has a natural tendency to butt up against the Civil Religion that we experience daily and that tugs at us and demands our allegiance and attention.
The American variety of Civil Religion doesn’t get talked about in the open all that much. It’s just assumed to be the normal way of life – of what we commonly experience. A civil religion has certain fundamental beliefs, values, and holidays (holy days) associated with its nation. There’s an origin story. There are rituals similar to religious practices. There are even martyrs – Abe Lincoln might be the best example in the US. Politicians act in priestly roles declaring God’s blessing on the nation. There are texts that are considered sacred – ours would be the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There are sacred symbols, like monuments, and buildings, and the flag. And there is a belief that the nation is special and under God’s eye and that God uses the nation to carry out God’s will – which more often than not just so happens to match up with our national interests.
You can see why it’s dangerous to talk about civil religion. Even just bringing up the subject, without any critique of it, may make you a bit uncomfortable.
And yet, if we are declaring that Christ is king, what does that mean in relation to civil religion? Questions like this are why pastors are struggling to preach today.
The feast of Christ the King is a relatively new addition to the liturgical calendar, dating back only to 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to the growing secularism at that time.
Here’s what one commentary wrote about why the Pope added Christ the King Sunday to the calendar:
“The old monarchies governing Europe had been dissolved by this time and had given way to the modern nation state. The new secular environment had become a breeding ground for dangerous and dehumanizing ideologies elevating loyalty to the nation state and its rulers over all other claims. As Pope Pius saw it, this new nationalism amounted to idolatry, constituting a threat both to the Christian faith and to human worth and dignity. Sadly, the horrific events that unfolded in the following decades proved him right. Sadder still is our generation’s failure to learn from this history the dark places to which nationalistic idolatry invariably leads. Saddest of all is the American church’s failure to address the godless ideology of nationalism as it rears its ugly head once again, not only within our nation, but within the very heart of our congregations.”
As we declare Christ as King, what does it mean in relation to our national identity? Questions like this are why pastors are struggling to preach today.
What does it mean for Christ to be king? Kings are not kings of individuals, but of nations and large masses of areas with large populations. When a king proclaims something, it is no different than a law being proclaimed. When a king tells their subjects to do something, they do it.
If Christ is king, then what does that mean for us collectively? Questions like this are why pastors are struggling to preach today.
I think that one of the distortions that some of western Christianity has tried to sell faithful people on is the idea that faith is only a personal thing, a private piety, just a compartment of our lives, like anything else.
It has been a great dis-service to the faithful to sell the idea that as long as we voice the right beliefs, we can be Christian while in worship for an hour on Sunday, and then put that away the rest of the week, closing our vision from seeing the image of God in others by ignoring the hungry, the poor, and the oppressed. Coming up with rationales for why they deserve their situation. Or that it is ok to turn away the stranger because of some kind of legality, or claim that the strong survive, that the ends justify the means, and to see nothing wrong with bursting prisons. There is no Scriptural basis for any of that. But often there are ideological ones. Scripture and Ideology are not the same thing.
Does anyone see the irony of claiming that Christ is King and then believing that faith is only a private affair that has no public or communal impact? Where is that idea in Scripture? It’s not in the reading from Amos two weeks ago. Not in Zephaniah last week. It’s not in the Gospel passage today.
If Christ is king, then what does that mean for living the faith publicly and having a public impact? Questions like this are why every pastor is struggling with what to preach today.
Pastors are concerned about the people that we love, and serve, and care about. For too long, the church has sinned by sheltering the faithful from hearing the Gospel as fully as possible. From hearing how unsettling the Gospel truly is. That’s what the Gospel is – it unsettles the norms in our world in order to instill the Spirit and the kingdom in our lives and our communities. There’s no sugar coating it. And that’s why the Gospel is so powerful. It transforms everything and everyone it touches, including our identities, beliefs, communities, and more. When you the Gospel, it grabs hold of you, and will not let go. And it will change you.
If Christ is king, then what does it mean for our life together in community? Martin Luther King, JR. talked about the beloved community – his take on the kingdom that Jesus was bringing about.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
This is what Christ as king means. A new kingdom, a new community. New expectations.
Jesus talks about these things in our Gospel passage today. A summary that I saw for this Gospel reading expressed it well – What the nations do to the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned are what they do to Jesus. This isn’t about individual service. It’s the judgement of the nations. And that includes us.
How are we doing, how is any nation doing for that matter, when it comes to these things? Just look around.
If Christ is king, then how do answer these questions? Questions like this are why pastors are struggling to preach this week. We struggle to proclaim the truth that we see around us – that there are far too many people who are struggling to survive in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in history. And we don’t know how to talk about it so that people will see for themselves and see this as a matter of faith, rather than some kind partisan thing. Arguments over partisan identity have never helped anyone in need.
Today we proclaim Christ as king. And that is good news. Because that means that the ways of the world and the nations are ending. At the end of time, at the resurrection, at judgement day, we won’t be asked about our nationality, or our work, or what we possessed, or what our politics were.
Today we proclaim that Christ is King. That has real world consequences. When we declare that Christ is king, we are declaring and then acting on that proclamation because Jesus is not only king of our personal individual lives, but of all of creation. Following Jesus has a very public impact.
When we declare that Christ is king, then the hungry are fed – those who are hungry for food, but also those hungry for justice in all of its forms. When we declare that Christ is king, then the thirsty are satisfied – whether they be thirsty for clean drinking water, or thirsty for meaning and purpose. When we declare that Christ is king, then the strangers are welcomed – regardless of where they are from or how we encounter them because they bear the image of God. When we declare that Christ is king, then the naked are clothed – whether that is someone who is homeless or only has the clothes on their backs, or whether they are in need of being clothed in forgiveness and reconciliation. When we declare that Christ is king, then the sick are cared for – whether that is those who are physically or mentally unwell, or those who are sick of the complacency of inaction towards other human beings in need in our midst. When we declare that Christ is king, then the imprisoned are cared for – whether that is those literally in prisons or those who are held in bondage to addictions, brokenness, racism, sexism, greed, or other idolatrous systems.
If Christ is King, then what does it mean to live into what Jesus says in our Gospel today? Pastors are struggling to preach this week. And for good reason. Declaring Christ as king is dangerous. Dangerous because it means that the world is changing. That what is considered expected and normal is shown for what it is – not normal at all, but lacking. When we declare Christ as king today, we are declaring our loyalty to Christ as king. We are declaring that Christ’s kingdom is what we are moving towards. We are declaring that Jesus is on the move and is active. We are declaring that Jesus isn’t going to settle for what exists right now. Jesus has a mission, and the church is called to live into that mission.
And we do that because Jesus has already been carrying it out. Jesus has been working on each one of us.
So, while every pastor will struggle with what to preach today, every pastor will proclaim the same message with fear and trembling. Let this be declared – that Christ is king. That we want to be a part of Christ’s kingdom as it unfolds in our midst. If Christ is king, then what does that mean for us? Not just individually, but as a congregation? As a community? As a nation? Christ is king and that has real world consequences. Christ as king changes everything. It changes lives, it changes congregations, communities, and yes, even nations. I invite you to declare it and live into that declaration – Christ is king. Thanks be to God. Amen.