The Upside-Down Kingdom
Trinitarian Congregational Church Last Sunday after Pentecost
Anthony S. Kill November 26, 2017
Texts: Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
Reign of Christ Sunday
This is the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of the church year.
Next week is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new liturgical year for the churches.
For the past several decades, this last Sunday after Pentecost has been celebrated as “Christ the King Sunday” – or “Reign of Christ Sunday”
It is actually a fairly ‘new’ feast on the liturgical calendar.
It was initiated in the 1920’s in the Roman Catholic Church, then taken on by the mainstream Protestant denominations with the adoption of the common lectionary of Scripture readings for the Sundays of the church year in the 1960’s.
Now I have a confession to make: While I have no problem claiming Jesus Christ as the Lord of my heart and of my life, I do have some problem with celebrating Christ the King Sunday – or even Reign of Christ Sunday. No matter how much I try to work around it, or talk myself out of it, it sticks in my craw.
I think the problem is that, for me, the language of Christ the King is just too loaded with the triumphalism that has plagued the Christian Church for centuries.
It reminds me of all the times and ways that civil, political power and religious, spiritual authority have gotten all mixed up together, when Popes could dictate policy to kings and presidents, and the Vatican had its own army, and Crusaders had the church’s blessing to slaughter Jews and infidel Muslims, and the clerics of the inquisition could justify torturing and even killing non-Christians in order to get them to convert or to “save their souls”.
All this was justified by the understanding that since Christ is King of the universe, the Christian Church and Christian leaders have a divinely ordained mandate to make their values and their rules the law of the land in every land and the Church had privileged status over every civil authority.
And in our own time, particularly in the past 40 years or so, American politics has been tainted with a similar Christian triumphalism, now in the form of political movements that insist that America was founded to be a Christian Nation and that therefore certain Christian churches with their so-called “Christian values” had the right to dictate public policy – whether it be health policy around beginning of life issues like birth control, and abortion or end-of life issues like the right to die with dignity, or civil rights policy like whose life-partners and which families have the right to recognized and valued in our nation, or foreign policy, like which foreign aid agencies and programs get federal funding and which do not.
I suppose, to be fair, the same temptation could plague liberal theologies and ideologues as conservative ones.
But there is a long history of wanting to enthrone some interpretation of Christian values as the law of the land in an imperious, dictatorial manner. And the language of the Reign of Christ over the world smacks of that to me. So I don’t much like the idea of a festival of Christ the King. And mercifully, most years I have an easy excuse to avoid it altogether.
Most years, the last Sunday after Pentecost is also the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and it’s the tradition of many of our churches to celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday. But occasionally, like this year, there is an extra Sunday between Thanksgiving and the First Sunday of Advent so here it is, Christ the King Sunday.
Now as it happens, I don’t think I’m the only one who is uncomfortable with the image of Christ the King. As a matter of fact, I think I’m in pretty good company.
The Bible suggests that Jesus of Nazareth was pretty uncomfortable with any suggestion that he was a King, too.
In the Gospels, the only people who think that Jesus might be a King were the Jewish and Roman rulers at the time – King Herod in the birth stories of Matthew and Luke, and Pontius Pilate and another Herod at the time of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.
They fear that this powerful prophet and healer may have aspirations to temporal political power, and that’s a threat to them.
In fact, that’s the way the high priests of the Jerusalem temple get Pilate to condemn Jesus to death: by telling Pilate that Jesus claims to be King – a claim which Jesus himself never makes.
The Gospel of John tells us that the one time the crowd tries to make him a King, after he has multiplied the loaves of bread to feed a multitude, Jesus escapes the crowd and slips away. John 6:15 says “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” So Jesus wasn’t at all interested in being anybody’s King, and resisted any suggestion of it.
Yet he spent a whole lot of time talking about a Kingdom, didn’t he? And whose Kingdom was that? Not his Kingdom, but God’s Kingdom. “The Kingdom of God is at hand” “The Kingdom of God has come hear” “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”
The Gospels tell us repeatedly that Jesus “went about proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.”
Matthew’s Gospel preferred not to use the name of God so much, so that book used the term “Kingdom of Heaven” but it’s talking about the same thing. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, that grows into a mighty bush. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a dab of yeast, that makes a whole batch of flour rise. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a great treasure hidden in a field. “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.”
Perhaps the first thing to be said about the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus talks about is that it’s not something that happens in the clouds of the afterlife, some kind of ‘pie in the sky when you die kingdom.’
When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, he teaches them to pray for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. So clearly, while this kingdom may not be “from this world” it is a truth and a reality to be embodied and experienced in this world.
So there was a reason why the political powers of the day – symbolized by Herod and Pilate – consider Jesus’ person and his message to be a threat to their temporal authority – or at least a challenge to the power structure they represented. He kept talking about this coming Kingdom!
Many contemporary theologians point out that Jesus was viewed as an enemy of the state and the status quo because he was in fact challenging the political system of his day, which was the Roman Empire. One of those theologians, Marcus Borg, summarizes it this way: “The people to whom Jesus spoke lived in a world in which there were real kingdoms.
“Kingdom referred to the political system under which they lived: the ancient domination system ruled by powerful and wealthy elites.”
What was this ancient domination system? It was the most widespread form of society in the pre-modern world. It wasn’t just about the Roman empire. The ancient empires of Egypt and Babylon and Assyria all followed this same form. In these political systems, there wasn’t just an emperor or a king, benevolent or tyrannical. Powerful and wealthy aristocrats were clustered around the monarchy and they structured the political and economic systems in their own self-interest.
According to Borg and others, three primary features characterized these pre-modern domination systems:
1.) They were politically oppressive. Ordinary people had no voice in the structuring of society. Rather they were ruled by the monarchy and by powerful, wealthy elites around the monarchy. The wealthy made the laws and set the tax codes with no input from the lower classes, and little regard for them except to exploit them.
2.) The domination systems were economically exploitative. The powerful and wealthy structured the economic system so that approximately one-half to two-thirds of the annual production of wealth ended up in the hands of the wealthiest 1% to 5% of the population. The consequences for the lives of the peasants (who were roughly 90% of the population and the primary producers of wealth in these pre-industrial societies) were severe: poverty and subsistence living, malnourishment and disease, vulnerability. The quality of life and life expectancy for the peasant class were drastically lower than for the elite classes.
3.) The domination systems were given legitimacy by the clergy and religious leaders. The social structure was affirmed as reflecting the will of God or of the gods. Kings and emperors ruled by Divine Right, and the powers that be were ordained by God. So, often, temple priesthoods and temporal powers were hand-in-glove. In fact, the Roman Emperor was considered to be a god, and was to be worshiped as a god in the Roman temples.
So when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, his hearers would have heard an immediate contrast.
They lived under other kingdoms, the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Caesar.
They knew what those kingdoms and life in them were like and here was Jesus speaking of the Kingdom of God coming to earth.
“Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
What must that plea have felt like, sounded like, when it was prayed by a penniless peasant under the rule of Rome?
“Give us this day our daily bread”
What would that mean to the beggar who didn’t know where his next morsel of bread was coming from?
And for the perpetually indebted tenant farmer, what about the phrase “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors”?
Thus the best known prayer of Jesus asks for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth and addresses two central concerns of the poor in Jesus time: daily bread and debt forgiveness.
There are actually two versions of the beatitudes in the Gospels, one in Matthew and one in Luke. Let me quote the first three beatitudes from Luke’s account: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
These beatitudes would have been heard by the peasants as an affirmation that the coming of God’s Kingdom would mean blessing and happiness and consolation for the poor. It would mean food for the hungry: they will be filled.
And that is followed by “Blessed are you who weep now for you will laugh.”
The lives of impoverished peasants were marked by daily and desperate sorrow: the suffering of children, worry about food and money, illness with none to help, no way out, hopelessness.
But when the Kingdom comes, the poor will be blessed, the hungry will be filled, and those who sorrow will laugh.
Thus ‘the Kingdom of God’ is what life would be like on earth if God were King.
It is God’s dream for creation as dreamed by the great figures of the Jewish tradition: Moses, the prophets, and Jesus. It is a dream for the earth.
I don’t think Jesus ever aspired to be King, nor would he be pleased to be one.
Rather, I think Jesus saw himself as a messenger, a herald who came to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and to draw others into his vision of what could be, what might be, when the principalities and powers of wealth and greed and exclusivism were turned upside down, when the last would be first, the humble exalted, and the greatest of all became servant of all.
And then he showed us how to do it.
He emptied himself, gave himself completely for love and liberation and forgiveness.
Therefore, God has exalted him, and given him a name that is above every name.
But that name is not King.
For me as a Christian, that name is Messiah, Savior, Lord.
That name is Servant of the poor, and Lover of the outcast, and Forgiver of the sinner, and Prince of peace.
And at the name of that Jesus, that servant and savior of the world, every knee might bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.