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Reign of Christ Sunday, November 20, 2016 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Power and Strength
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
It helps now and then to step back and take the long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. . . . We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. . . . We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders. . . . We are prophets of a future not our own.
Archbishop Oscar Romero
Today is the last Sunday of the church year, the Sunday known as Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday—a Sunday on which we thank God for God’s reign over all time and all history. One of my preacher friends once called this Sunday a beautifully problematic feast day. It is beautiful for what it used to stand for but problematic because we assume we have lost the context of the language.
Here is the original context: Christ the King Sunday was established in 1925, in between World War I and World War II. In the face of growing nationalism and secularism, Pope Pius XI wanted to remind Christian people that their first allegiance is to God rather than to any earthly ruler. So the Pope instituted this feast day in order to proclaim something we preached last week: that Jesus the Christ is the head, the ruler over all human institutions, countries, political entities, every economic and cultural ethos, etc. (www.thehardestquestion.com).
Observing this Sunday as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday was intended to remind the church that calling Jesus “Lord” was a radical act during the time of Caesar and the Roman Empire. When early Christians said that Jesus was Lord and King, they were also saying that Caesar and Herod were not. Frankly, when early Christians used “Christ as King” language, they were making a statement of resistance, and making statements like that could be dangerous, because they often drew the suspicion and ire of those in power.
But that might be hard for us to connect with, because for us, in our day and time, the language of kingdom and royalty no longer holds much resonance, at least not in this country. Claiming Christ as king certainly does not possess the same kind of radical power as it did in the days of early Christianity or even in the 1920s. That disconnect is one reason why my friend Joe Clifford, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Charlotte, typically starts all Christ the King Sundays by declaring “Grace and peace to you from Jesus Christ, the Leader of the Free World.” That language resonates with us, doesn’t it? Jesus Christ—the Leader of the Free World.
And yet I think we feel a sense of dissonance with this Sunday, with speaking of Jesus as either King or as Leader of the Free World, and not just because of the outdated concept of royalty. Rather, our sense of dissonance might also be because the way that God in Jesus chose and still chooses to use power, the way God expresses God’s rule and leadership over all creation, is so radically different from the ways we often see power used and leadership displayed in our day and in our context, and the contrast between the two can be rather bewildering.
But we are not the only ones who might be bewildered by the contrast between how God expresses power and how we express it in our world. The way God chose to express power and rule through Jesus also bewildered those standing at the foot of the cross and those hanging beside him. Luke tells us that as Jesus hung there, those who were watching started to shout at him. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” they yelled. Even one of the criminals hanging next to him got in on the act: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” And though I have always previously read those words as malicious, I have begun to wonder if there was also an undertone of pleading in their taunts.
Perhaps those angrily shouting at Jesus, furiously mocking him, also hoped deep down that their words might motivate Jesus into action. Maybe they hoped they could make Jesus angry enough to actually do what they were saying—to save himself, to come down off the cross and to act like a real king, a real leader, by taking on Rome and the other authorities that oppressed them with a kind of power and might they understood: a power that looked like a sword rather than a cross; a crown of gold rather than a crown of thorns; a conquering Messiah exacting vengeance rather than a suffering Savior pronouncing forgiveness. I’ve started to wonder if those thoughts crossed their minds as they stood there watching Jesus choose to die instead.
Have you ever wondered any of those things? Have you ever wondered why Jesus did not fight back? Why God chose to save us, to show us God’s love, like that? Why did God choose to be God in such a vulnerable way? Jesus, our King of kings, Lord of lords, the fullest revelation of who God is, the one whose reign we honor this day, to whom we give our life, that Jesus just hung there.
He hung there, spoke words of forgiveness and welcome, showed compassion, and died. God’s actions in Jesus, the way God expresses God’s power and dominion, are so dissonant with what we know of power and leadership in our world. Seriously, what are we to make of a God, our Sovereign, our King, who suffers and dies by choice?
It can be hard to know what to make of it. Father Robert Capon tried to give words to the struggle in his book Hunting the Divine Fox. In one chapter entitled “Superman,” Father Capon puts it this way:
The human race is, was, and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. We don’t want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: he claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. . . . He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying. (Robert Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox, p. 91)
Coming down to fight, refusing to give into death, those are the qualities of power and leadership that we understand, that we see, that we certainly prize. Forgiving, expressing compassion, showing welcome, being vulnerable—all things Jesus did as he hung there, dying, our King—we don’t prize those things the same way, do we? I dare say that most of us probably don’t see those actions as expressions of strong leadership, as appropriate expressions of power. We might even secretly mock them or use them as taunts against each other, against those we don’t want to see in charge.
Honestly, I wonder if that reality might be the saddest revelation unmasked in this last one-and-a-half years of constant political fighting. Maybe I missed it—I inevitably missed some—but I do not recall seeing anyone who ran for the office of president this past cycle, regardless of party, express much forgiveness or compassion, certainly not towards each other. I don’t remember anyone radiating welcome. I certainly do not remember any of our candidates expressing vulnerability as a deeper kind of strength. And I understand why: we, as a people, probably would not have rewarded those traits. In our world, in our time, we are not all that different from those at the foot of the cross: we don’t see those traits as signs of power or leadership or strength. The kinds of leaders we want are those who jump down and jump into the fight, those who refuse to give up or to give in.
Though it did not hit me until I started writing this sermon, I grieve that reality. I grieve not just because of what it does to us as a country, what our “we must constantly fight each other” environment teaches our kids, but I also grieve it because of what it does to us as disciples, as people who follow the One who chose to express his power, his rule, his sovereignty over all of creation by hanging there, forgiving, welcoming, and dying, rather than fighting, refusing to give in, and conquering with violence.
I know from the feedback I have received over our pastoral letter and over last week’s sermon, both affirming and critical, that this constant fight over power that we have all experienced in these last couple of years has left a residual coating of much pain over us as a people. I have heard expressions of pain over feeling like you’ve been unfairly labeled a racist or a “deplorable” because of who you are. I have heard expressions of pain over feeling like you now constantly have to watch your back because you feel targeted because of who you are. I’ve seen Facebook arguments—mean ones—between people I respect who read each other’s posts with new suspicion and mistrust, feelings that were not there a year ago. I have had people tell me there is no way they are going home to be with their family over Thanksgiving because the divisions have grown too deep and wide.
There is so much pain and fear being expressed. So many of us are on edge—one word, one phrase—sets us off, even if the person saying it meant something completely different from what we assumed. And I wonder if one reason for all of this pain is because we have learned that expressing forgiveness, compassion, welcome, vulnerability does not count as strength, does not communicate power. Those are not the first traits we want in our leaders, so we are losing our appetite to show them, as well.
But we learn from Jesus’ crucifixion as told in Luke that they never have been traits we wanted in our leaders, in those who have power over and with us. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us! Use your power in a way we understand and can respect.” And yet forgiveness, compassion, welcome, vulnerability—that is the way God, our Sovereign, has chosen to be our God.
And we as disciples must remember that, ground ourselves in that truth, allow ourselves to feel that dissonance between the way we choose to use power and the way God chooses to use power. When we feel that dissonance, we are then called to step even more deeply into it, choosing to imitate and reward not the ways of power in this world, but rather Christ’s way: forgiveness, compassion, welcome, vulnerability, a love that holds back nothing.
Now living that way, following Jesus’ Way, has always been hard in our world, and it is not getting any easier. But it is our work, it is our call, because we believe that our Sovereign, our King, chose to reveal God’s self most completely in the helplessness of an infant and in the brokenness of an executed man (Michael Jinkins, Called to be Human: Letters to My Children on Living a Christian Life, p 32). That is the primary way God expresses God’s power and strength, a way completely foreign to our world, a way that is certainly not to get any votes or be rewarded. How on earth are we supposed to imitate that?
Two years ago, a friend of mine, Agnes Norfleet, went with members of her congregation on a tour of East Germany. One day they were doing walking tours of Leipzig and started making their way over to the famed Lutheran church of St Nicholas, built in the twelfth century. When they arrived at the church, they realized a funeral was going on. But it was not just any funeral. It was the funeral of St Nicholas’s beloved and incredibly brave pastor, Christian Führer. The streets were filled with mourners and with Germany’s political and religious leaders, because Reverend Führer was being celebrated as the East German dissident who led the Peaceful Revolution many of us remember.
In the 1980s, the Lutheran pastor determined that the Wall that divided East from West was evil and that human freedom was not just a political issue but a theological issue as well. So he began hosting weekly prayer services for peace. The gatherings at the church were small at first, but once word spread, the crowds grew to the tens of thousands. And then, in October 1989, the Monday-night prayer service culminated in a standoff between this peaceful resistance and the powerful Communist Party. The pastor admonished the demonstrators to be nonviolent. “Put down your rocks,” he preached. So the demonstrators carried candles instead.
And when the Communist Ministry for State Security arranged to occupy more than 500 seats in the church during the Monday prayer service, more than 70,000 peaceful citizens gathered in the streets. Meanwhile, heavily armed security officials waited for instructions from Moscow and Berlin on when they could subdue the demonstrators. They were ready to exercise their power and control. But the order never came, and the police gave up.
The security chief who desperately wanted to subdue the rebellion by force was later shown on film as he stared out at the crowd in front of his headquarters—the crowd whose freedom march had begun in the church; the crowd who had heard the prophetic witness of a pastor emerging from decades of oppression saying, “Let’s move forward in peace”; the crowd so enormous that it stirred fear in the incredibly powerful chief of security, with his tanks and tear gas and firearms; and yet, in that potentially explosive moment, the security chief ready to unleash his armed guards was found saying, “We planned for everything. . . . We were prepared for everything, everything—except candles and prayer.” The Berlin Wall came down less than a month later. Forgiveness, compassion, welcome, vulnerability, candles, and prayer—those church-based demonstrators expressed a power and a strength no one, certainly not those sitting on the earthly thrones of power, ever saw coming.
But it was an imitation of divine power and strength, and it took down a wall and liberated those who were oppressed. It was and is a divine power and strength that took down death and liberated all of creation. It is the kind of power and strength to which we are summoned, that will save us not just today, not just tomorrow, but for forever. For on this Reign of Christ Sunday, we claim that God and God alone is our Sovereign. And forgiveness, compassion, welcome, vulnerability, candles, and prayer—that is the way God has chosen to be our God. And we are God’s people. May we live it. Amen.