Christ the King November 21, 2010

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Colossians 1:11-20

Luke 23:33-43

One of the most valuable spiritual gifts, it seems to me, is a sense of irony. Irony is defined as “a state of affairs or events that is the reverse of what was to be expected”; it’s when someone says one thing but then does something that contradicts their words. You won’t find irony among the classic lists of virtues. It’s kind of an outlier, a bastard virtue, if you will. Having a sense of irony protects us from taking others – or ourselves – too seriously. It punctures our tendency to create idols. It brings us back to earth, where we belong. And yet, even as it does so, it can raise up for us new and more genuine hope.

Our celebration of Christ the King on this last Sunday of the Church Year is a perfect example of irony. The Bible is very skeptical about kingship. In the Hebrew Bible the Israelites wanted a king so they could be important and powerful like other nations – forgetting that it was a king, Pharaoh, who had enslaved them in Egypt. So the Lord gives them a king, but he says, “you’ll be sorry.” (God in the Bible has a nice sense of irony.) King David is remembered as the great king of Israel, but he was deeply flawed; his very human sins had consequences that destroyed the kingdom over which he ruled. And yet, his flaws and failure gave rise to the great hope for a Messiah, a future deliverer who would bring a reign of true justice and peace to the earth.

The New Testament is built around the belief that Jesus is this long-awaited Messiah. He is the true King whom the Three Kings of the Orient come to worship and Herod the false king seeks to destroy. But again and again, with repeated irony, Jesus punctures people’s traditional notions of kingship. After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus sensed that the people were coming to make him king, he ran away from them. He told people to “call no one father,” let alone king. He insisted that the only authority, the only king, is God; that putting your faith in any lesser authorities is, in effect, idolatry.

At the end of his life the words “King of the Jews” were hung on the cross. (It was the custom to put a sign on the cross explaining why the person was being crucified.) And yet, again, here is irony: this is a king, if a king, who cannot save himself, who has not established the reign of God on earth, who is not the new King David – and yet, who is more than all this. Irony, ambiguity, mystery: this celebration of Christ the King at once mocks our human pretensions, our religious idolatry, and at the same time points to a higher and more mysterious truth, beckons us to go deeper in our quest for understanding.

The whole idea of celebrating something called Christ the King is, as the bulletin this morning explains, a relative novelty. It was contrived by the Pope in the 1920s in a ploy to adopt for the Roman Church the social gospel concerns of Protestants. But, in the wonderful way that irony has, today it is the monarchical trappings of the papacy – the hierarchical structures, the concentration of authority in one elderly male and his court, the tendency to look at life in terms of absolutes, the excessive pageantry – that is causing so many Catholics to withdraw from their Church.

Nor is it just Catholics. We Episcopalians stagger around with structures and pretensions which, if they were ever appropriate, seem to me grossly out of proportion to who we really are and what we’re called to be in the world today. Bishops with low number license plates and high number salaries, a diocesan office in a mansion in Concord, our conventions and conferences and self-importance – what an ironic contradiction for a denomination that represents two percent of the population and likes to talk about concern for the poor and marginalized. I hope that as we begin to process leading to the election of a new bishop, we can begin to imagine alternative models of episcopacy and diocesan structure.

And I hope that you as you begin the process leading to the call of a new vicar, can build on the blessings of being a small church rather than try to mimic larger, richer congregations. It’s a blessing that your priest has to have additional sources of income, has to work and interact with the world like everyone else. It’s a blessing that we have to hustle just to stay even, let alone grow. It keeps us trying new things, being humble and honest about ourselves. It’s a blessing that we live in a time of change and challenge for religion; it’s out of such times that the great break-throughs of Christianity have come in the past.

Let us keep this Feast of Christ the King, then, as a celebration of the gift of irony. Jesus both brings down our pretensions and renews and raises up our hopes and vision. We see this right there in the scene of the Crucifixion. On the one hand is the collapse of all the false idols of kingship, in the worldy failure of Jesus, his end on the Cross. But on the other hand, notice the two things Jesus actually does in this account: He forgives the people – the world – which is crucifying him. And he assures the thief who turns to him that he will join him in Paradise. In other words, out of the ruin of one kind of kingship, Jesus opens our gaze to another, higher and truer one. What could be more ironic? What could be more wonderful?

Let us embrace that irony as our hope and guide today.

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