Series: Sermons for the Broader Church
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: subject, king, follow, citizen, obey, consent
November 21, 2021 • Last Sunday after Pentecost • Christ the King
The Church of the Holy Communion • Memphis, Tennessee
Text: John 18:37b: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Friends, I begin with the happy obligation of bringing you greetings from your sisters and brothers in the twenty-one congregations of the Episcopal Church in Europe. It may surprise you to know that they are there, and that you have a church in Europe; in fact our church is present in some eighteen countries around the world, of which seven are countries in the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. So know that they greet you, and that they have already been to church today, and are sitting down to Sunday dinner as we gather on this last Sunday after Pentecost.
We have arrived today at a peculiar fixture on our calendar, the last Sunday of the church year, a day we have come to know as the Feast of Christ the King. It is a recent invention, this feast, and a particularly European invention at that, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the rector has arranged for you to hear from a European bishop this morning.
Today’s feast traces its history to fewer than a hundred years ago; it was first celebrated in 1926, and then only in the Catholic Church. Pope Pius XI instituted the feast after the catastrophe of World War I, and the profound loss of belief in the church and in the idea of faith that swept across Europe in the years after that calamitous war.
The way the church saw it, the disaster of world war had been brought about because for the previous five hundred years the church had been gradually pushed out of the affairs of state. There had been a time that secular power depended on spiritual authority; but that time had ended. Here’s how the pope described the result:
“...manifold evils in the world [are] due to the fact that the majority of [people] had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place either in private affairs or in politics: and... that as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there [will] be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.”
We may have our own views on the words of a Catholic pope writing nearly a century ago; but as Christian people it is hard to argue with his logic.
So the purpose of this day was intended to hold out a reminder that Jesus Christ is not just our savior, but our sovereign. At the very moment the church was being pushed out of the last vestiges of its influence over affairs of state, we put this day on the calendar to remind the world, and ourselves, of the Christian claim that Christ—the love of Christ, the challenge of Christ, the ideas of Christ—is the ruler, not just of heaven, but of all the earth.
That was probably why, in the church I grew up in in Michigan, built in the cinder-block 1950s, there was no crucifix over the altar; instead, there was a Christus Rex, a figure of Christ the King, dressed as a celebrant at the Eucharist, and wearing a crown.
The idea of Christ as sovereign is sort of assuring, and sort of not assuring. We live in times when old certainties are being called into question, old norms are being broken, old assumptions revealed as no longer true. The foundations seem to be shaking under our feet.
There is some comfort for us in the knowledge that the lordship of Christ stands above all of that, unchanging.
But then there is the reality of what that means. We are hypervigilant about the line separating the church from politics. We want there to be a big, bright line that holds one apart from the other.
And then comes this very last Sunday of the church year, when the church—on theological grounds—makes a claim that violates that boundary completely. Because this day says there is no separation. Christ is the final sovereign, not just over the kingdom of heaven, but of all the powers and principalities of earth, too.
And that means that baptized Christians, you and me, hold two passports: As citizens, yes, but also as subjects, subjects of the kingdom of God.
As citizens, we are deeply shaped by the idea that the rules that govern society, and the people who make and enforce those rules, all have our consent, to some degree or other.
But as subjects—oh, dear. That is a different thing entirely. The kingdom of God, that place Jesus speaks about so often to teach us how we should live and order our common life together, the kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom—it’s not a democracy. And in that kingdom, the operative word isn’t consent. It is obedience—not a word that goes down easy for Americans.
So what does this mean for us? How do we live as citizens of one realm, and subjects of the other—at least, how do we do it with integrity, not as people with split loyalties?
Richard Hooker, the first great theologian of the Anglican tradition, charted out a vision for how Anglicans would understand the relationship between the spiritual and the political.
That was no small matter in Hooker’s day; in the late sixteenth century, every time a new ruler came to power, those who had been associated with the previous regime—including clergy—had a bad habit of getting executed.
Hooker’s basic insight was that God has created us with a spiritual, a social, and a political nature; and that God intends us to live with integrity, to live in such a way that these natures in us are coherent and harmonious.
You could separate the institution of the church from the state, yes, but you could not—you must not—construct the state in such a way that it divides the spiritual from the political in the people government is meant to serve. Our souls, with Christ as their sovereign, are meant to be the captains of our political ships—not the other way around.
Three hundred and fifty years later, another saint close to the spiritual heart of the church I serve wrote substantially the same idea, not from a priest’s study but from a Gestapo prison.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a Christian martyr who suffered imprisonment and death at the hands of a government that had taken the separation between God and govenment to its logical end, creating a government organized around the worship of death.
And perhaps exactly because of that, Bonhoeffer argued that governments on earth must always be seen as part of the work of God—and must always be answerable to the simple, fundamental fact that God has reconciled each human being to himself in love through the cross, and that government, to be legitimate, must follow that lead. He sees government as a divine mandate, and says this about it:
“...it was precisely through the cross that Jesus won back his dominion over government...and, at the end of all things, ‘all dominion and government and power’ will be both abolished and preserved through him.”
So how are Christians supposed to navigate in a world that is increasingly brittle, increasingly polarized, increasingly harsh? God made us, and God knows us; and so God knows we are hard-wired as human beings to organize ourselves into societies and look for leaders to follow. You might even say, together with Bonhoeffer, that we were made that way to prepare us for life in God’s kingdom, where all of us are followers. How will we know what ideas, what leaders, to follow?
Well, I don’t think we get a checklist. There’s not a how-to video on YouTube, at least not one worth your time. I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that question.
But there are some important clues that the church gives us today, ideas that are meant to help us be shaped by the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being—all of our being, private and public.
The first clue is tucked into the collect for today, and especially in this description of the human condition: “divided and enslaved by sin.” Maybe we used to think that line was talking about other people. But it was always talking about us. It was always talking about all of us.
And we sure feel divided these days.
Now, just because so much seem to be thrown into question these days, let’s say this plain: Seen from the perspective of Christ on the cross, when people are divided between themselves, divided in their communities, divided in the nations they build, divided as a common humanity, that is a bad thing.
When the culture we create seduces us at every turn in ways that make us servants of something other than our souls, followers of influencers rather than the God carnate, that makes us slaves to sin—that is a bad thing.
So here’s the first clue: when we are divided among ourselves, when anyone is being misled or kept down or held back from developing their full human potential, whenever one group of people is being set against another, that is not something faithful people are meant to follow. Those are signs of soul sickness, and as Christians we are called to resist that path, and those who want to lead us along it.
The second clue we get is in the Bible’s account of the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate, the ground on which our whole argument stands about Christ’s sovereignty over the powers of this world.
And it is from the brief excerpt of it that we just heard read that I take my text this morning, these words of Jesus in reply to the man who thinks he has power: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
And these days we ask, along with jesting Pilate: “What is truth?”
I have recently joined a group of bishops who have gathered themselves around what we sense is a need for the church to speak on theological grounds about truth—about the threats to truth that have arisen in our social-media age, about the call of the church to be clear about what is, and what is not, truthful, not only as a statement of fact but as a statement of Christian belief.
After all, we are Anglicans; we have built a church on the three pillars of scripture, tradition, and reason. That means we begin from the position that human reason is given as a gift from God to reveal the truth—the truth about the universe, the truth about science, the truth about human nature—and the truth about God. That is reason’s purpose, and when we fail to apply it as intended, we are falling into the devil’s trap.
So what is the truth we are meant to follow? There is nothing mysterious about it, really; just open the prayer book to page >TK< and read the covenant we signed up to in our baptism.
The truth is that God created everything, including us, out of love. The truth is that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, and the truth of what Jesus teaches by the lesson of his life, the example of his death, and the power of his resurrection is we are meant to love all people for God’s sake—not just the ones we like.
The truth is that all people are radically equal in the sight of God, a claim that lies at the very core of our own nation’s founding idea. That’s our idea, not Jefferson’s. And the truth is we, each one of us, fail to live up to that idea in the way we treat others.
The truth is that we are all fallen, we are all frail, we all fall short of God’s hope for us. We are all less wise and less righteous than we imagine we are. We all stand in need of God’s forgiveness. And thank God, not one of us stands outside the reach of God’s love, not one.
So if we are both citizens and subjects, if we are not just passive observers but faithful followers, what is expected of us is that we stand for those things. We stand for equality, even when it means we must recognize when we have benefited unequally—and do something about it. We stand for love, even when the people we called to love we can’t really stand.
And maybe most outrageous of all these days, we stand for the possibility that God enters right into the frame of our own lives still today—not just in church. That there are still moments in the lives of all people in this fallen world that are sacred. And that there is something about every human being that has value—not just in the terms of this world, but eternally—because it is holy. Something that we are called to defend and help to foster in every person in our little time here.
That is the truth we are meant to seek. That is the path we are meant to follow. Whether as citizens of a republic of subjects of the kingdom, we are always children of God. So don’t be discouraged. Yes, these are challenging times, but we were baptized for challenging times. Don’t be downcast. Lift up your eyes and see! The King of Glory comes in. Amen.