Sermon for the Last Sunday After Pentecost
Next week at this time will find us marking the 1st Sunday in Advent and launching into a new year in the Christian calendar, making tonight the final Sunday of the old year. It is a Sunday currently observed as the Reign of Christ or Christ the King, whereas in the older Prayer Book calendar it was simply called “The Sunday Next Before Advent.” Here’s a bit of serious Anglican trivia for you… it was also nicknamed “Stir-Up Sunday,” the collect for the week being:
- To listen to the sermon press play:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And you know how people traditionally used their Sunday afternoon that day? In “stirring up” the ingredients for their plum puddings and Christmas cakes. My sister and her family actually still faithfully follow that tradition.
I have to confess that I often experience a level of real disconnect when presented with the readings for Christ the King from any of the three years of the lectionary cycle. The first lesson always picks up on a theme of kingship; tonight it deals with the kingship of David. The Gospel readings, too, have kingship in view, and in two of the three years it is a reading from the story of the Passion. Yet neither of the readings particularly connects to what we’ve been hearing over the weeks and months prior; we just suddenly have kingship readings to go with this theme of Christ’s Reign.
And it is not as if it an ancient feast day either. The Feast of Christ the King was introduced in Roman Catholic practice in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, and it wasn’t actually until 1970 that it was moved to its present place as the final Sunday before Advent. Beginning in the 1980s and in a spirit of ecumenism and of a shared common lectionary, observing this day become more the norm in Anglican, Lutheran, and other churches. You can understand that spirit, and also the instinct that says the old year should go out on a celebratory high point—Christ Reigns!—rather than the admittedly pedestrian “The Sunday Next Before Advent.”
It is, however, a pattern that has raised a red flag for some, including N.T. Wright. Bishop Wright suggests we already have a feast day celebrating Christ as King; it is called Ascension Day. More to the point, though, to mark Christ the King at the end of the church year—at its culmination—might suggest that Christ’s reign is an endpoint—the endpoint—to which we are moving. Yet, says Wright, “Going into the world to declare that Jesus is Lord only makes sense if he is already reigning. The mission of the church presupposes this.”
For all of Bishop Wright’s scruples and for all that these two readings come at us sideways, this year of all years I’m finding myself more open to doing a bit of work with this liturgical day. I think that has much to do with that long sermon series I preached over the summer, dealing with matters of kingship and nation-building in ancient Israel; a series I launched by recounting a conversation I’d had with Lissa Wray Beale, professor of Old Testament at Providence Seminary. Lissa had fairly recently published her commentary on 1st and 2nd Kings, and when I said that at some point I’d like to have her do a session of some sort at saint ben’s, maybe making a case for why people in the church should care about these historical books, she smiled and responded, “Because they’re in the Bible.” Pausing, she then added, “And because we’re longing for a true king.” It was that line about longing that informed my whole sermon series, which time and again had us look at the closest thing Israel ever had to a true and great king, David. David, who had such promise, and whose adventures are told with such delight by the biblical authors. And David, the one whose misadventures and failings are told with such raw honesty by those same biblical authors.
This evening’s reading from 2nd Samuel is framed as “the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel.” They are bold, confident words that this king speaks as he nears the end of his life. “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me,” David says, “God’s word is upon my tongue.”
The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: ‘One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.’ Is not my house like this with God? For the Lord has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.
David’s claim here, in other words, is that it is in God and through God that he has set his house and his nation aright, and that God has recognized that in an everlasting covenant with that house. Yet the writers of 1st and 2nd Samuel and of 1st and 2nd Kings know that David has faltered, and they know in retrospect that his house and his nation will fall, and fall badly. Even as these authors present David’s last words, they know that his is not, in fact, the “last word.” They know all that made him great—“a man after God’s own heart” as he is called—yet they also know about all of the ways in which he fell. They, too, still long for a true king.
Particularly as told by John, Jesus’ trial before Pilate is a study in contrasting understandings of kingdom, power and authority. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks him, because a key accusation brought against Jesus by the temple authorities is that he has claimed for himself royal authority, and in doing so has committed treason. “Do you ask this on your own,” Jesus replies, “or did others tell you about me?” You can almost hear something close to scorn in Pilate’s voice, as he replies, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” And here we hit that crucial moment of contrast, as Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world… my kingdom is not from here.” “So you are a king?” Pilate replies, to which Jesus answers, “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.” And Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’” “What is truth?” The question is asked, but then the travesty of a trial just rolls forward, and Jesus is never given the opportunity to answer.
“My kingdom is not from this world… my kingdom is not from here,” Jesus had said, and it might be tempting to imagine that he meant that his kingdom was somewhere out there, up there, and beyond; somewhere else called heaven. Yet this is the same Jesus who said “the kingdom of God is among you,” (Lk 17:21) and who taught us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Again, as N.T. Wright insists, “Christ is already reigning… The mission of the church presupposes this.”
And his reign is one marked not by the usual trappings of power and kingship, but by truth-telling, deep servant-hood, and self-giving, all of which speak of a deep authority, rather than the kind of power people like Pilate held. To long for a true king is to recognize that all of the usual human ideas of kingship—which are so often tied up in power and privilege—have been subverted in and through what God has done in Jesus.
To again cite N.T. Wright: “Kyrios Iesous—Jesus is Lord—was the earliest confession of Christian faith, the thing you had to say before you got baptized. Confessing that Jesus was Lord—meaning, among other things, that Caesar wasn’t—was basic, bottom-line Christianity right from the start.” And it still is. We need not shy away from using the language of Kingship and Lordship when we speak of Jesus, because he’s flipped those titles on their heads, stripped them of all vestiges of privilege, and given them back to us anew.
“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus had said to the Roman official who held in his hands the power to order his execution. Not from this world, yet anything but irrelevant to this world. That kingdom is among us and within us and constantly threatening to break in or well up, every time any one of us tells the truth, prays “thy kingdom come,” or enacts the self-giving and servanthood into which he steadily calls us. This is what the king we yet long for would have us do.