Series: Sermons for the Broader Church
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: christ, king, kingship, obey, consent
November 21, 2021 • Christ the King
The Church of the Holy Communion, Memphis, Tennessee
Text: Revelation 1:5a: “... and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness,
the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
It would be hard for you to miss that the theme today is kings, and kingship, and especially the sovereignty of Christ. Today, on this last Sunday of the church year, we proclaim Christ the King; the story that begins in anticipation next Sunday, with the first Sunday in Advent, ends with this bold proclamation, one that we not only make but are supposed to live by.
It is easy for us to be lulled a little by the images of kings we get in church. If you are as old as I am, and from the looks of it at least some of you are, you may have grown up in the church in the days that the principal service on Sunday morning was the office of Morning Prayer. (I found myself wondering as I prepared to accept the rector’s gracious invitation to this pulpit this morning whether a church dedicated to the Holy Communion was a place like that back in the days of the 1928 prayer book.)
If that was the sort of church you grew up in, then the words of the Venite are imprinted on your heart and come easily to your tongue: “For the Lord is a great God, and a great king above all Gods; in his hands are the caverns of the earth, and the heights of the his are his also.” Remember that?
Then there are those wonderful words from Handel’s Messiah, a quote of both the first Epistle to Timothy and the Revelation of John, that passage when voices in unison, first the men and then the women, proclaim: “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.” The king we proclaim is a musical king. A king with great theme music.
So sisters and brothers, my question for us this morning is a very simple one, and perhaps one that seems a little beneath such a sophisticated congregation as this. But I am just wondering: In what sense is Christ your king?
Let’s face it—we have a kind of vexed relationship with kings in our country. Our whole story sort of begins with deciding we can do better than being ruled by kings. Oh, we might like the imagery, and the music, and we might love the hymn lyrics; but kings? Ruled by a person who claims authority over us without having been, you know, elected? Especially in New England, where I come from, that’s not exactly, if you’ll pardon my saying so, our cup of tea.
These days I live in a place with a long and rich history of kings. Believe it or not I am the bishop of Episcopal congregations that exist in places that are still kingdoms. One of the stranger invitations I’ve received in my short time as the bishop of our church in Europe was to a service of thanksgiving on the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the recognition of the Anglican church by the kingdom of Belgium—and I was made to understand that I definitely should come dressed approriately, because the king would be present. I don’t mind telling you I had no idea what that meant.
Of course, the King of the Belgians is a constitutional monarch. Sort of like Queen Elizabeth the Second. I guess that makes it go down a little bit more easily for my Yankee soul. Monarchs are a little bit more digestible if their powers are constitutionally governed.
But you know, Christ is not a constitutional monarch. The king we proclaim today is an absolute sovereign. The king of heaven rules by divine right. Because, after all, we are talking about God. Christ the King—Christ our king—does not rule by consent. We don’t get a vote.
So here is my gentle question again: In what sense is that king your king?
There is freedom for us here, but not freedom in the very limited sense we’ve grown up being taught to think about it. It is not the freedom that seems to mean a right to act without limits.
The freedom we have, or at least that we are offered, if we accept the terms of being subjects of Christ the King is not a freedom to, but a freedom from. It is a freedom from a sickness that affects every human being—not a virus, not a physical malady, but a spiritual sickness.
For that to mean anything to you, you have to first accept the idea that your soul is something God created, and that it has eternal signficance—something surpassing in significance anything in this world, surpassing your wealth, or your comfort, or your credentials, or your accomplishments, or even your reputation.
If that doesn’t make any sense to you, if that’s not the thing of most urgent importance in the life you lead and the choices you make, if it’s not the thing that most shapes the way you treat others and restrains your will, then, well, not a lot of what we do here is going to have a lot of effect on you. You may like the familiar comfort of the ritual, or the beauty of the liturgy—but giving those things to us wasn’t the purpose of the cross.
Your eternal soul is actually the thing that matters most about you; it is the place God dwells in you, in the same way God caused his name to dwell among his chosen people in the Temple of Jerusalem, the holiest place of all. Now it isn’t Jerusalem anymore; now it’s you, it’s us, each of us. We are the holy ground.
And that thing about us, that is what can get in trouble—serious trouble. It can be hurt, it can be damaged, it can be torn. And what is worse, much of the damage that it can be subjected to can be self-inflicted.
Christ the King has authority over all of that. Christ the King is the sovereign who can set us apart from the harm that gets done to our souls, and set us free from any degredation that happens to us, whether caused by someone else or by ourselves.
Now, that is freedom. It is a freedom that we could not possibly achieve for ourselves. But to have that freedom, well, there is a price. And it is not a price that comes easily to us, we who are raised in this culture.
Because it isn’t just about agreeing to proclaim this king that we proclaim today. It is about agreeing to be subject to that sovereign. It isn’t about consensus. It’s about obedience.
When the rector during the Eucharist prays that God will “in the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ,” that’s not talking about everyone and everything other than us; that’s talking about us.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther famously wrote an essay called “On the Freedom of a Christian,” in which he spelled out the implications of this for us in stark terms: “A Christian... is the most free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian...is most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”
That is what we get for becoming subjects of Christ the King; absolute dignity in the sanctity of our souls, and absolute obligation to serve that same Christ who has saved us and given us this freedom in all other people, those we like and those we do not, those we trust and those we do not, those we love and those we do not.
The feast we celebrate today is not so much a celebration as it is a choice. And today we, each one of us, face that choice. Are you prepared to accept this sovereign as your king, to live by the rules of a law you don’t get to choose—the law of love? To accept the parts of the deal you like, and the parts you don’t like—or may not even agree with—because that is the duty of a subject?
In what sense, my sisters and brothers, is Christ our King?
Gracious God, you have called us to be citizens of heaven; grant us grace to claim that citizenship by obeying you as king all our days; that walking in the ways of the Kingdom of God here below, we may fix our hearts on things that are above, where our treasure is, and where our eternal future lies with you. Amen.