Under the Gracious Reign

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79; Col. 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Rev. Canon Dr. Timothy Connor, St. George’s Anglican Church, London

The Last Sunday after Pentecost: The Reign of Christ (21 November 2010)

Today we come to the last Sunday of the Christian Year, the Last Sunday after Pentecost. All that we have heard from Scripture and experienced in our worship and in our lives as disciples in this long season is to be summed up now under the theme of the reign of Christ. We are invited to see that at the very centre of the Church and of all history and of the entire realm of creation Jesus Christ reigns. So today in our praising and praying, our proclamation and service, we hail Jesus, God’s messiah, as King of kings and Lord of lords. We are invited to greet this feast with joy and to take from it a sense of abiding comfort that history is not careening out of control but is, together with all things, under the gracious reign of the good Lord Jesus.

This is all true and good and beautiful and it will do us all good to reflect on this theme of Christ’s reign, his kingship, which is placed before us now. But there is something also perplexing about the matter. The feast has had a short history in the life of the Church. It was instituted among Roman Catholics in 1925 and has been taken up by Anglicans only in the renewal of our liturgy which gave us the Book of Alternative Services. You will not find the feast in the Book of Common Prayer. So why, we ought to ask, did Pope Pius XI determine in 1925 that such a feast was needed in the Church’s calendar? Well, it was primarily because of his sense that peoples and nations had turned away from Christ and his gospel and plunged the world into the darkness of violence and warfare. Nations hankered after a more sinister kind of power, power over others, power that served particular interests, power that had proved immensely destructive. Pius XI directed the Church’s attention to another kind of power, God’s power revealed in Christ which he identified as the only hope of the nations. He hoped that the Church’s worship, a great worldwide feast acknowledging Christ’s reign, might direct the peoples and nations of the world into God’s way of justice and peace. There is a sense, however, that the Pope himself hankers after a kind of power, a power for the Church itself, in its relationship with the governments of the peoples. And that, perhaps, is the shadow side of his otherwise quite laudable desire to point us all towards the reign of Jesus.

It is Jeremiah in our first reading who puts before us the notion that God will one day raise up a king for the safety and salvation of his people. The prophet speaks of ‘a righteous Branch’ whom God will raise up for David. It is this one who will reign as king, as a wise king who executes justice and righteousness. In fact righteousness is his name. He’s a king who will promote right relationship between God and the people and among the people themselves. And the result will be their safety – Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. So this is a good king, a wise king, a king who rules for the benefit of his people. And that is good news when you had more than your share of bad kings, rulers whose reign has been marked by folly and who seem only out for themselves. So we hear a similar theme in the canticle from Luke, the Benedictus, where Zechariah sings of that great light which will dawn by God’s tender mercy in the one who gives light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and who comes to guide our feet into the way of peace. God’s king, God’s messiah, comes to lead the people of God into lives ordered by God’s justice and God’s peace. The reign of this king is from first to last shalom.

Now our epistle text makes it clear that this king is Christ and that he is a powerful king. All of that glorious power that belongs to God, the power to rescue and to redeem, belongs to that dear Son of God who has a kingdom, who is a king. In this very one, we gaze upon the icon of the invisible God who is the creator of all things – the one through whom and for whom and in whom all things are made and hold together. In him, says Paul, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And through him God was pleased to reconcile all things by making peace through the blood of his cross. As we hear this text two things stand out. First, Christ is the object and subject of God’s good pleasure. That is, God has been pleased to be revealed to us in him, to have made everything through and for him, to have accomplished redemption in him. Second, the images are almost all of glory, of power, of all that is exalted and full of God’s light. We are meant to understand that in the kingdom of Christ God himself reigns in and through and as his own dear Son. Where Jesus Christ reigns, there God reigns – God in all his glorious majesty and might; God in all his grace and mercy. It is a picture which elicits our humble worship and joyful thanksgiving.

Now I said a moment ago that almost all the images are of glory and power. But there is here also a mention of the way in which the king makes peace through the blood of the cross. His cross, that is, the one he was nailed to is the instrument by which he makes peace. And this rightly gives us pause. To shed one’s blood on a cross is not a kingly act at all, at least as we understand kingly acts. Kings do have a long and violent history of subjecting others to cruelty, torture and death but they are not the ones who usually end up on crosses. Such deaths are reserved for the slaves, the riff raff, people of no account. So how is it that we gaze on the image of the invisible God, the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, bathed in the blood of his cross? Surely here is a hint about kingly power, God’s kingly power as it is displayed in Jesus.

And so in the culmination of the proclamation of scripture this morning it is right and fitting that we listen to Luke, to his passion narrative. He takes us to the place of the Skull, the site of a state-sponsored execution. Here we can learn something of the kingship of Jesus. In the agony of his dying Jesus turns to the Father and prays for forgiveness for those who are publicly torturing him to death. ‘Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’. Then his humiliation continues. He is mocked by religious power which dares him to prove that he is messiah by saving himself from death. (Hadn’t Satan once dared this Jesus to save himself in the wilderness temptations? So now the religious authorities take up this theme. How, we might wonder, did the devil’s words end up in the mouth of churchly authorities?) And military power joins in – the soldiers offer him sour wine and mock his kingship – ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ And so too does the one who has no power at all, the criminal who also is crucified with Jesus He too harangues Jesus to save himself, if he is the Messiah. But to the other criminal crucified with him Jesus offers mercy and pardon – ‘today you will be with me in Paradise.’ Over all this scene, Luke reminds us, stands the authoritative inscription: ‘This is the King of the Jews’. Do not look away from this scene, Luke implores us, if you want to understand the kingship of Jesus. Gaze upon this event if you want to know anything at all about the kingship of God.

Now I know just how bizarre that sounds. Do we not speak of God as being all-powerful, not subject to any limit or constraint whatsoever? Isn’t that just what it means to be God, to be entirely immune from suffering and loss, to rule serenely over and untouched by the changes and chances of life? Isn’t that just who God is? Yes, but there is something more, something that can only be seen by looking at the one who is the image of the invisible God, the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and who yet hangs on a bloody cross in the place of The Skull. This too is God – beaten, bloody, vulnerable, dying so that all might be forgiven and delivered from perishing. There, on that cross, is the express image of the God who makes peace with justice. So holy mother Church teaches us to see Christ the king reigning not upon a throne but upon a cross or to see that his throne is the cross, his cross the throne. So Christ’s kingly rule is the rule of love, of a love which freely expends itself so that others can live. Christ’s kingly reign is the reign of a love which stoops to serve and serves even in dying. Christ’s kingly reign is sheer self-giving without limit. This is the power of God in creation and redemption revealed in the reign of Christ.

So what are we to make of this? When we in the church speak of power and of kingly rule our thinking becomes so easily infected with the ways in which the world speaks of power and kingly rule. We are tempted to think of power as ‘power over’ others rather than as ‘power with and for’ them. We Christians begin to lust for a more powerful profile in our society. We want others to see that we in the church are still a force to be reckoned with after all. We despise powerlessness. We want to be ranged with the victors and not the victims. Jesus’ kingly rule turns all that on its head, crucifies that, nails it to a cross. The kingly but bloody Jesus invites us to ponder that God didn’t have a bad day one Friday twenty centuries ago but that what greets us then and there on the cross of Jesus is the surest way to understand the nature and character of God that we have. God’s rule is revealed in God’s self-giving sacrifice so that we might have life. And to have life is simply to know that one has been placed under that gracious rule, that one has been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his dear Son. That rescue and that transfer will have their own visible forms. The image of the visible God, Jesus Christ himself, will form in us the shape of his reign.

What is that shape? (Here let me show myself entirely willing to be schooled by Pope Pius’ encyclical.) As Christ comes to reign in our minds and imaginations we will be formed in the truth of who he is and what he has done for us. As Christ reigns in our hearts we will come to obey his will for our lives. As Christ rules graciously in our bodies we will offer them in service to him, going where he sends us, doing what he asks of us, giving what he requires of us. In these ways we will make his reign visible and his love available. Under that reign of Christ we will be saved and all of God’s people will live in safety. May our prayer on this feast be: Come, Lord Jesus, form your kingly reign in us today!