Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King
November 25, 2018
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.”’
In the name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
American political scientist Harold Lasswell once defined politics as ‘who gets what, when, and how.’ This definition is helpful, I think, because it highlights the fact that power is fundamental to politics, and as another political thinker, Lord Acton, famously noted, ‘power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ We recognize truth in this statement, and I also suspect it is this reality of politics that makes it a topic that is greeted with great enthusiasm and fascination by some and with equal dread and contempt by others. Perhaps this dynamic played itself out over your Thanksgiving table this week. Those who approach the topic with dread might well be wondering why I am beginning this sermon by talking about politics. ‘Don’t we already hear enough about it on the news?’ one may reasonably ask. Some may also believe it best to keep politics and religion separate. I am unconvinced that such a separation is desirable or even possible. And given that politics infuses all of our lives, it seems all the more important for us, as people of faith, to speak about it.
As an undergraduate I studied political science. I loved the intellectual exercise of studying political behavior, history, and political principles, but at the same time I had a general distaste for the lived reality of politics. I had little patience for the antics of politicians in Washington, most of whom seemed to prefer political posturing to a genuine desire to govern the country for the good of the people whom they had been elected to serve. Of course, these actions were situated within the well-documented and undeniable trend in the politics of our country away from consensus and compromise toward greater division, animosity, and demonization. Disagreement on issues has become grounds for hatred. Compromise across party lines has become a sign of weakness or betrayal of one’s party allegiance. The consequences of this toxic way of operating, which, it’s worth noting, is followed by politicians of all ideologies and parties, have become all too obvious for us.
As an undergraduate student, I told myself that I could be an engaged student of politics while simultaneously staying out of the realities of political life. I wanted to simply be an observer and act like a scientist in the lab, observing and gathering data. The issue with a social science like politics is, of course, that these experiments take place not in the controlled environment of a laboratory but in real life. The results cannot be carefully controlled. Peoples’ lives are changed by the actions and decisions of our government. No matter how disinterested or disengaged you are from the political process, it is a reality that we all are constantly affected by it.
Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. In the church’s system of keeping time it is also the last Sunday of the year as we look ahead to the start of the new liturgical year next week on the First Sunday of Advent. As we begin to turn toward that season and its call to consider Christ’s coming in great power and triumph, this day invites us to consider a similar theme, the kingship of Christ. Today an important question is set before us, one that Christians have grappled with since the emergence of Christianity in the midst of empire– how are we as faithful followers of Christ to interact with the politics and powers of this world? Despite the perennial nature of this question, the origins of this particular feast day are actually quite modern. Pope Pius XI introduced the observance of Christ the King in 1925 in the midst of a complicated world political environment. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and subsequent developments in Russia had led to the establishment of the communist regime of the Soviet Union. Fascism first emerged in Western Europe with Benito Mussolini seizing power in Italy in 1922. As we know all too well the trend toward authoritarian and violently repressive regimes only accelerated in subsequent years. It was in this environment that Pius XI introduced this day of remembering the kingship of Christ. Some might say the circumstances we currently face are quite similar, with so much uncertainty and concern pervading the political environment of our world. Perhaps we especially need the reminder this day offers.
What does it mean, then, to celebrate the kingship of Christ? And what sort of king is he? Today’s gospel passage is a scene from the passion narrative of St. John’s gospel. We hear this story every Good Friday when we remember Jesus’ betrayal, trial, journey to Calvary, crucifixion, and finally his death. It is an intense and sweeping story. Today we find ourselves placed within one brief but important scene between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea. Prior to this moment, Jesus had been arrested and brought before the high priest, who had questioned Jesus and then ordered him to be sent to Pilate, who alone could authorize Jesus’ death. Pilate enters the praetorium and asks Jesus the question that goes directly to the heart of the matter– ‘are you the King of the Jews?’ It is a political, not explicitly religious, question. Pilate’s sarcastic statement, ‘I am not a Jew, am I?’ reveal his utter disinterest in the inner workings of Jewish religious life. He does not care if Jesus claims to be the Messiah, the anointed one of God. He does, however, care if Jesus is claiming to be a king who may rival the power of Rome and thus threaten Pilate’s position.
Pilate continues and asks Jesus, ‘What have you done?’ Jesus response tells all– ‘my kingdom is not from this world.’ Pilate’s initial fear are misguided. Jesus is not seeking to take power from the Roman authorities using the traditional means of politics, much to the disappointment of many of his followers. We hear throughout the gospels how many of the disciples expected Jesus to be a figure who would fight to overthrow the Roman authorities and restore the kingdom of Israel. They are repeatedly disappointed, for Jesus is not this sort of king. His kingdom is not from this world.
Pilate then asks Jesus, ‘so you are a king?’ Jesus gives what might seem to be a frustratingly indirect response– ‘you say that I am a king.’ Jesus does not deny his kingship, but neither does he cling to his title as a source of power and prestige. He came ‘to testify to the truth’ (John 18:37), which he does not through clever argumentation but through his actions. We know how this story continues beyond this encounter between Pilate and Jesus. He was beaten and then clothed with a purple robe, a color associated with royalty, and crowned with a crown of thorns. He was mocked and forced to carry his own cross to the place where he was brutally put to death. And then he was nailed to that cross and lifted high to be mocked further still, as Pilate made a sign and affixed it to the cross with the words, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’ (John 19:19). Here is our king at his moment of coronation. Humiliated, mocked, beaten, yet crowned in glory for all the world to see, Jesus is a king unlike any other king. Here is one whose kingdom is not from this world.
In the midst of our broken political environment, here is a reminder of our king, the one who demands our ultimate allegiance. Jesus is a king who chooses the way of self-emptying, of humble submission to the Father, and of loving self-offering for others. It seems hardly necessary to note the difference between the example of Jesus and the realities we experience in our political world. Does that mean we can disassociate ourselves from this world and wait with expectancy for the world to come? Throughout Christian history there have been various groups who have chosen to isolate themselves from the structures and political systems of this world and have refused to participate in politics. As Anglicans, however, and particularly as people rooted in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, we assert the fundamental importance of the incarnation. God loved us and this world so much that God came to dwell among us. Creation has been hallowed, and as such we believe ourselves called to be deeply invested in this world. We are not asked to ignore the realities of this life as we wait for the bliss of the promised life to come. No, we must be faithful followers of our Lord now, in this time and this place.
But what might that mean, and what might faithful witness to our Lord look like? As people whose ultimate allegiance is bound to the King of kings and Lord of lords, we are invited to be people who are always cautious of identifying too closely with any particular personality or ideology. We know too well the failures and brokenness of humans and our political systems. Our identity as Christians invites us to be people who are always showing the powers of this world a different way of being– a way that does not seek to accumulate power but instead offers ourselves joyfully in service to God. We can be people who seek to hold up the way of self-emptying love as a different way of being, one that does not corrupt but leads to life. This, it seems, is a glimpse of what it might look like to be faithful witnesses to Christ in the midst of the hostile political environment in which we find ourselves. For no matter how much trust we place in any one person or one party, and no matter how convinced we are of the validity of one particular ideology, we know they will not save us. We are citizens of another kingdom not of this world. Our salvation comes from our true king, Jesus Christ.
The psalmist tells us, ‘put not your trust in rulers, nor any child of the earth, for there is no help in them… happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the LORD their God’ (Psalm 146:2,4). History and our own experience teach us that the rulers and kingdoms of this world, no matter how benevolent and beloved or evil and despotic, will all pass away. Christ our king and his reign, however, will never pass away. And there we can find our deep and abiding hope. The LORD is King, let the earth rejoice! (Psalm 97:1).
In the name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.