Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Christ the King Sunday is a gift from Pope Pius XI. Only ninety-four years ago, in 1925, he established a new festival to be celebrated on a Sunday late in the year, called Christ the King. Christus rex, Cristo rey.
Pius gave this gift to the church and to the world to declare that Christ the King is the true focal point of the desires of history and civilization. His was an act of protest and objection against the destructive forces of the modern world.
World War I had just ended 7 years earlier in 1918. The new festival declared Christ the King the true source of power against growing secularism, against communism in Russia, and against the rise of fascism in Italy and Spain, a time when German fascist totalitarian developments were already on the horizon.
Who is Christus rex, Christ the King? Is it not a metaphor that belongs to the past? Who needs kings anymore? Does it possibly invite the impression that we avow a triumphalist, imperial understanding of Christ?
Anyone who listens to Jesus’ stories of course knows that the kingdom of which he tells has nothing to do with triumphalism; the kingdom of God is not a place of military or other ranks, but the kingdom is the reign of God which has arrived and has begun. Jesus’ parables of the kingdom are stories of surprising justice, unexpected plenty, riches found in the most unlikely places, joy bubbling up out of corners where you’d not expect any joy to come from.
When Jesus told stories of the kingdom, it became clear that this was a kingdom that no one had ever heard of or visited.
When Jesus healed he made the reign of God physically manifest in ways mundane but life changing: bright shining eyes, a spring in the step where there was none before, an upright posture, brimming life in formerly listless bodies.
In the end, when Jesus turned toward Jerusalem, he became a parable himself, a parable for the reign of God. He was crucified, and he even was a king. A king like none was ever known.
Art that depicts Jesus as Christus rex shows him on the cross with a straight body, not the contorted tortured body of Passion plays or movies. Christ, the king, has his arms outstretched wide and straight, claiming his reign of the universe through cross and resurrection. Head on straight, his gaze looks out at the beholder, calm and radiant. No pomp or circumstance associated with the one in whom victory over death and resurrection life cannot be separated.
God’s universal reign of justice and peace is not triumphalist, and yet more powerful than the shepherds of this world and time, who scatter the flock, who do not care, who kill their sheep. The God of righteousness attends to their evil doings with the word of Christ’s mouth.
God’s people have a role to play in the reign of justice and peace. God’s people take God’s word of righteousness to the world, countering the untrustworthy shepherds’ deeds; normal people, but this king’s people, walking with an upright posture, with bright eyes, with joy, a spring in the step, life brimming. For we are not afraid of the paradox of death and new life, cross and resurrection, reconciliation through the blood of the cross.
On the cross between the two bandits, the two criminals, Jesus dies as a martyr, killed by Rome and its hired collaborators. Martyrs are dangerous to their murderers. They surprise them by speaking calmly and rationally and by refusing to scream in pain when tortured to death. Calm and radiant. The Roman cross cannot crush the humanity out of Jesus. This is trouble for the oppressors.
Jesus is surrounded by mourners, followers, family, women, observant Jews; they also cannot be crushed. Everywhere in Jesus’ passion there are people of faith. Even on the cross next to him. This bandit knows that Jesus is a king and has a kingdom. One of God’s kind. The kingdom of justice and righteousness. This is something that only a faithful, expectant Jew would know.
On the cross Jesus remains the same he was. He cannot be crushed. Therefore the message at the bottom of our baptismal font reads just like our bulletin cover today: Jesus Christ is victorious, remains victorious – even in the swirling chaotic dangerous waters of baptism.
This is our good news, sisters and brothers. He is our king, Son of God, holy and glorious, most sublime, powerful without peer, beauty unsurpassed, wisdom of great price.
It amazes me, dear friends, that the small group who started this congregation in 1945, would call themselves Christ the King Lutheran Church, just 20 years after Pope Pius established it with calm and confident faith. Christ the King as festival was not a concept in the Lutheran church at this time, not until Lutherans adopted the Revised Common Lectionary in the 1970’s. But in 1945 World War II had just ended, a war even darker, with greater forces of evil and annihilation than WW I. In Europe, the war ended in May and in Asia in August. The charter to incorporate Christ the King Church was voted on in August 1945, and signed in September.
Christ the King, Christus rex crucified – calm and radiant, a counter sign of hope and promise in the dead of unspeakable darkness. And so still, Christ the King congregation, the crucified king’s people, in 2019, void of pomp and circumstance, walk with an upright posture, bright eyes, with joy, a spring in the step, life brimming. We worship our God with quiet awe and humble thanks. Hear the words of the hymn of the day, before we sing it, by Susan Briehl.
Holy God, Holy and Glorious
1 Holy God, holy and glorious,
glory most sublime,
you come as one among us
into human time,
and we behold your glory.
2 Holy God, holy and powerful,
power without peer,
you bend to us in weakness;
emptied you draw near,
and we behold your power.
3 Holy God, holy and beautiful,
you are despised, rejected;
scorned, you hold us fast,
and we behold your beauty.
4 Holy God, holy and only wise,
wisdom of great price,
you choose the way of folly:
God the crucified,
and we behold your wisdom.
5 Holy God, holy and living one,
life that never ends,
you show your love by dying,
dying for your friends,
and we behold you living.
(Credits: Thanks to Dr. Richard Swanson of Augustana College, Sioux Falls, for his homiletic essay on Luke 23:33-43, November 24, 2013, published at workingpreacher.org)