Sovereigns and Selves
Key Passage: Colossians 1:17
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: subject, king, citizen, democracy
November 24, 2019 + Parish of Christ the King, Frankfurt, Germany
I have nothing to teach a parish named for this feast day about the peculiar history of this observance. You already know that this feast is one of the most recent additions to the calendar of Holy Mother Church, having come about by the invention of Pope Pius XI in 1925. You do not need me to teach you how the pope’s creativity was spurred on by what had for half a century been known as the “Roman Question.”
And you surely don’t need me to recall for you how the idea of this day, the theme that subtends this feast, was quickly fastened on to by churches of the Protestant tradition, especially those that—like the church in Rome—were in some way implicated in the power of the state. The Anglican church and the Lutheran church, both state churches in the places in which they first emerged, quickly adopted the observance of this day—perhaps the most recent expression of Christian unity in the Western church, and certainly the most quickly achieved.
Europe has a deeper sense of history than the United States, so there is nothing original in the observation that the emergence of this idea in the early twentieth century is a sort of irony, in that it marked the final break between the claims of the church to govern worldly matters and the power of the nation-state.
So in a way, your patronal feast—which is not even a hundred years old—was a little like raising the flag of the faith on a field we were leaving. It was a reminder to a secularizing world that the Christian vision of God’s sovereignty is not confined to the walls of the church or the lives of the baptized.
This is the day of all days that our faith should take us directly into the world of secular power; not the lovely charm of Christmas Markets, not the grocery-store reminder of Easter, but a march into the halls of political and economic power to restate each year the vision of the faith for a world governed by love and guided by the idea that every human has equal dignity.
I have no doubt that in many pulpits today, both in Europe and in the United States, the sermon that will be preached, or perhaps inflicted, will take on a comparison between the vision of sovereign leadership offered by the example of the risen Christ and the quality of leadership now on offer in our national capitals. I dare say Germany would come out considerably better in that examination than either the United States or the United Kingdom.
But as a preacher, I have to say I think that theme is almost too easy. If you spend your time in the pulpit simply articulating a widely held grudge, you are probably not using the time for a good purpose.
So instead I want to risk talking about something much less likely to win easy agreement or even to be a word of comfort. I want to ask what it would really mean for us—for the Convocation, for this parish, for you—to live as though Christ really were the sovereign to whom we owe our first loyalty.
Many of you have already heard me make my case for why I think the Episcopal Church—not the Anglican tradition, but specifically the Episcopal Church—is uniquely suited to offer a Christian witness in Europe today. I say that this is true because we are uniquely three things at once: We are liturgical; we are progressive; and we are democratic in our governance.
These things are not accidental; they are the product of long history and deep intention. Anglicans have always understood themselves to be a continuation of, not a departure from, catholic tradition.
We have appealed to both scripture and reason as we adapted new forms of governance for the church; and in the American form of Anglicanism, of which we here are an expression, that has meant a clear privileging of the voice of the people in shaping the sensus fidelium, the mind of the faith.
Here in Europe, and especially in eastern Europe, these three things together make a compelling case for us. Our liturgical traditions make us recognizably a Christian church. Our progressive understanding of Christian theology is connected to our commitment to democratic governance. And our commitment to democratic governance is deeply meaningful, and magnetic, to communities of faithful people long denied the possibility of a voice in their own governance, in any realm.
But among us, among my own sisters and brothers in the faith, let me acknowledge the danger of our distinctions. The Episcopal Church is indeed a wonderful, messy, cantankerous, democratic church.
We are a people blessed by the idea of democratic governance, both in our lives as citizens of the state and as members of this church. We know that there is a direct line throughout history between Christianity’s radical claim of the equality of all people in the sight of God, and the emergence of democratic order as the fundamental principal of political order.
There is a reason why democracy has set down its deepest roots in cultures shaped by the long history of the Christian message. That is not a claim about Christian institutions, which are as prone to error as any human institutions.
But it is a claim about the connection between the ideas central to the truths we hold as Christians and the principles that have guided the formation of political order in the west.
The problem is, we quite naturally fall into the trap of thinking that God’s realm must be ordered like our realm, if only because our ideas have been—or at least used to be—so significant in shaping this realm. And to see things that way is to look at it through the wrong end of the telescope.
You see, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a democracy. We proclaim Christ as our king, not as our chancellor, and not as our president. Christ reigns, not by our consent, but because of God’s righteousness. We get a choice of whether to live our lives in accordance with God’s covenant; we don’t get a vote on changing its terms.
We are citizens of republics. But if we proclaim Christ as our King, then we proclaim as well that we are willingly subjects in that kingdom. And that is a very different thing.
Are you really prepared for what that would mean? Are you really willing to do what Christ asks of us—to live by the rule of love, love others as we love ourselves, to share what we have, to live in hope and not in fear, to place generosity before prudence?
Are we really willing to take on fully the idea that we are not in a business relationship with God; we are utterly dependent on God, that all things—including all that we are, and all that we have—belongs to God, and not to us? Our gifts, our talents, our hopes, our skills, our money, our buildings, our church?
Are we really willing to live as though we took seriously the terms of our baptismal covenant—to proclaim the good news of God in Christ?
Do we really think it’s good news, if it means accepting the discipline of respecting the dignity of every human being? Never objectifying them, never exploiting them, never seeking our own advantage over others?
If we dare to take it fully on board, this day—the day we willingly acknowledge that God is god, and we are not—demands more of us than any other day in the Christian year.
Because today is the day we are reminded, not of the happy expectation of the Messiah, not of the sweet story of the baby in the manger, not of the exciting escape of the refugee family to Egypt or the story of the precocious Jesus teaching his elders in the temple, not of the healings or the miracles or the teaching, not of the passion and crucifixion and resurrection—not of any of that, but of the terms of the deal that comes from all of that.
Christian life is not a bonus added on to what we already have; it is a covenant that demands something of us. It requires that we take full responsibility for the gift we have received of this free will of ours, and recognize that no matter who we are we do not use it for God’s intended purposes unless we take on some pretty serious self-examination—and accept the necessity of realizing that we are not, in fact, always right, not ever. In the kingdom of heaven, that is God’s role, not ours.
So today is the day that prepares us to run when we see the star, knowing that it will lead us to the cradle that holds the God of all heaven and earth. Today is the day that prepares us to stand unafraid at the foot of the cross, knowing that our own death will be overcome by the victory of the empty tomb.
And today is the day when we receive perhaps the greatest gift God gives us in our walk of faith, other than and alongside the gift of faith itself—the gentle reminder that the first virtue to be sought by those of us who gladly claim ourselves subjects of Christ the King is the virtue of a quiet and prayerful humility. This is our day to remember that the idea of submission to God—which is the literal meaning of the Arabic word islam—is the posture of Christian disciples, too.
Because only from there can we understand our true place in the plan of salvation; only from there can we grasp the depth of our need, or the breadth of God’s love on our behalf.
I wonder who comes to mind when you think of people who have lived as though Christ really was their sovereign, who really did live their lives—at cost—consciously seeking to align their lives with the law of love. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Dorothy Day, or Jean Vanier, or—for those of you who grew up in the U.S.—Fred Rogers. They were people who confounded the systems of power we create by being absolutely, firmly, calmly clear in their commitment to a higher purpose, and unwavering in giving their whole selves over to a higher claim.
And not in spite of that, but because of it, each in their own way changed the world through the power of love.
Christ reigns in glory at the right hand of God. He will come again to restore and reconcile the world to the very heart of God.
The question is not whether we are willing to consent to that; our consent is neither necessary nor required.
The question is whether we will accept this as our rule of life, and live our lives—change our lives—in ways that make clear to the world around is God’s claim on us.
As one year of grace ends and a new one begins, may God give each of us grace to be willing subjects in, ready witnesses to, and eager builders of, that kingdom. Amen.