Rev. Bernard J. Owens
Homily on Christ the King Sunday, Nov 26th, 2006
John 18:33-37: We have come to the end of another Church year. Next week we begin the new liturgical year with the first Sunday of Advent, but today is itself a feast day, Christ the King Sunday, on which we mark the end of the year by celebrating the victory of Christ's love in our broken world.
Christ the King is a liturgical term and it refers to a number of things. Of course, today is "Christ the King" Sunday, so that's one meaning. The other meaning for Christ the King is a particular type of cross that is used in many churches, often called by its Latin name: Christus Rex.
In most Episcopal churches you'll usually see the type of cross that we have, which is something a little different. That cross - like the others - is of course shaped to signify the means by which Jesus died - the very particular way he suffered and died - yet the cross is empty, a proclamation that Christ could not be contained by that moment of sacrifice.
A second cross is the crucifix. Those of you who have spent some time in Catholic churches will have seen this, though they are seen in some Episcopal churches as well. On a crucifix, the corpus - the body - is on the cross, the nails are clearly in Jesus' hands and feet, and his side has been pierced. Christ wears only a dirty towel, his body is sagging, literally hanging, as a man in agony would be, and his suffering is evident from the sculpted face. Here we see what it meant for God to take human form, and through it God's suffering is connected to our suffering.
But today I want to draw attention to the cross known as the Christus Rex, one that is seen less often than the other two. Like the Crucifix, there is a human form on the cross. Yet gone now is the dirty towel, the man in agony, the nails and the pierced side. Now Christ is adorned as a king, with beautiful robes and a crown, his hands lifted from a cross in a gesture of blessing. His hands are freed of the nails that held him to the wood, but the marks of the nails remain. In most depictions, he is barefoot, that we might remember that his feet, too, endured the terrible pain of crucifixion.
This image of Christ the King holds great power for me: barefoot, wounded, triumphant, graceful, yet still on the cross. The cross is in fact his throne, so that we might know that his power is rooted not in dominance or wealth but in his own suffering and sacrifice.
Even Jesus' feet are now clean, befitting his royal status. But they bear the marks of his wounds, that we might know, once again, what it means to believe in a God who feels pain, who walks among us and suffers with us, and whose love for us is the greatest triumph of our lives.
If Christ is our King, than what does our Kingdom look like? The Gospels speak of two Kingdoms: of this kingdom, in which we live, and of the one ushered in by Jesus: "My kingdom," he says," is not from this world."
That sounds pretty clear, but I think that there's a lot to that statement. It would be so easy to take this passage and divide the world down the middle into two kingdoms: this kingdom, and that kingdom. The Kingdom of Humankind, and the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of Today, and the Kingdom of Tomorrow.
If that's how we read this, then it changes how we see the world. It is true that when Jesus speaks of his kingdom, he is speaking of something different from the world of our daily lives. But he is not a King apart from the world in which we live. The Kingdom is a part of our future hope, but it is not only something to which we look forward. Of course, we are all in need of great hope, and we need to be able to hold on to a future in which the troubles of this life are converted to great joy. But if that's the whole story, then our future hope becomes synonymous with a very particular vision of the apocalypse: the simple vision of a present time of evil which will be redeemed in the future by the coming of Christ. That vision is missing something important, I think.
There are two little problems with that vision of the Kingdom of God - as solely a future thing - and one very big problem. The first little problem is this: if that's what you believe, then you put a lot of energy into making the end of the world come about. You actually get excited about a time when Jesus might come to separate the good from the bad. Just look at the phenomenal success of the "Left Behind" series. Millions of people picked up those books for the spine-tingling chill of reading about the rapture, and many, I think, confident in their status, secretly thought, "When Jesus comes to end it all, things are going to be great for us." That's the first problem with this kind of kingdom-thinking: it is arrogant to believe that the "Kingdom of God," is in fact our kingdom, built to our specifications, and open to everyone who looks, believes, and thinks like us.
The other little problem is this: if you believe hard enough that the end is really upon us, that this kingdom is about to give way to the next, then it isn't so hard to stir up a little violence to influence the outcome. That is of course the root of holy war - it is a sad part of our Christian History, it is the scourge of militant fundamentalism that claims so many lives, and has even become a curious and frightening shadow in our own American religious ethos. Us against them. Our Kingdom against theirs. One more theatre of war in a conflict that has raged for a thousand years.
We find very powerful images of these different kingdoms in scripture, especially as we read the apocalyptic books of Daniel, Revelation, and even the Gospels. Christ does indeed speak of two kingdoms. Yet if we give into the temptation of dividing the world straight down the line, into this kingdom and that, into the present evil and the future joy, then we fall into the trap of the biggest problem of this kind of thinking: we forget that the grace of God is ever-present, even in this fallen, broken, kingdom, just as God's grace is abundant in the kingdom that is to come.
I think that it is our call as Christians - indeed, as people of any faith - to make the Kingdom of God a reality in this broken world. To me, this means sharing the transforming love of God with people who have forgotten what they were created to be. This means abandoning our own selves and being completely open to other human beings, to becoming agents of grace and healing in the relationships that make up our daily lives. Not thinking in terms of overthrowing another Kingdom, but letting ourselves be transformed, one heart at a time, by the love of Christ.
The real power in Kingdom-thinking isn't the idea that things will all work out once we enter Canaan. The reality is that we live in this Kingdom, we live in this world, where there is suffering that we don't know how to alleviate. Where we feel pain. Where we feel loss. Where relationships are broken, even the ones that we depend on the most. And yet in the midst of that, here in the heart of the Kingdom of humankind, we turn to a King who suffers with us, and who offers us a taste of the healing that we need so much.
And so, I return again to the image of the Christus Rex, Christ the King adorned in royal clothing while standing on the cross. Standing on the very thing that destroyed his body, barefooted and bearing the wounds of his crucifixion. His hands, scarred by the nails, raised in a blessing for the people of God. May we all celebrate his humility by offering ourselves before him: to let him walk barefooted among us, to welcome him beside us in our joy and in our suffering, and by bowing our heads to receive the blessing from his wounded hand.