Today We Will Be With Christ in Paradise

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma Washington on November 24th, 2013
Feast of Christ the King (Proper 29) Year C

The first time I ever prayed “Thy kingdom come” and really meant it was after 9-11. Before that, I knew the world wasn’t perfect but it was good enough. Finally, I realized our only hope was divine help.

I had a similar feeling this week as I watched all the news coverage and television specials about President Kennedy; honoring the man on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. I was too young to feel that way at the time; I was only in kindergarten. And then when his brother Bobbie and Martin Luther King were assassinated a few years later, I was in fourth grade.

Those were formative years in my life. Through those three events, I formed an image of America as a place where political assassinations were not uncommon – it was part of who we were as a nation. If I had actually understood the import of that image, it would certainly be reason to cry out, “Thy kingdom come.” But I didn’t, I just accepted it as the way the world works.

Today, we celebrate the feast of the Reign of Christ, also known as Christ the King. As we celebrate, I suggest we ask what kind of king is Christ? And what is the Reign of Christ like?

It’s worth noting that the Anglican church, our church, was born out of empire. In fact it is the result of two of the strongest empires in the world at that time, battling it out for power – the British Empire under King Henry VIII and the Vatican.

The Prayer Book and much of our hymnody is also the product of empire, with roots in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. We find there an emphasis in the language, metaphor, and imagery on the portrayal of God as that kind of king – majestic, powerful, removed. In our prayers. God is often attributed with many characteristics of human kings.

Christ was born into empire, too, but on the underside of empire. And there we have our first clue about the kind of king Christ is. His family was relatively poor and his people lived under occupation of a foreign, imperial power – Rome. And as long as they behaved, so to speak, life would be at least tolerable. But if not, Rome could and would crush them.

Last February, Wes and I visited New Zealand and we went to the Anglican church on Sunday. Their prayer book used the phrase, the commonwealth of God. Well, that made me stop and think. To me, commonwealth conveys a sense of God with us, of working together for the common well-being of all; all of humanity, all the earth, all of creation. It’s an image that resonates with my soul. What images or metaphors of Christ and Christ’s reign resonate with you?

Let’s take a look at some of the images from our readings today, because this is not only a day to praise and celebrate Christ as King, but, as I said, to reflect on what kind of king is Christ? What would the reign of Christ be like if it were fully manifest in our world right now?

Throughout much of Israel’s history, they had lived under the threat from or actual occupation or rule of foreign superpowers: Powers such as Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. At the time of Jeremiah, the northern kingdom has already fallen to Assyria and the people scattered throughout the empire. Now, Babylon is threatening the southern kingdom and Jeremiah is prophesying to his people – the nation he loves.

The shepherds in this prophecy represent the kings – those who have been entrusted with the care of God’s people. They have not only failed to care for the flock, they have scattered it. God promises them a new king – one that will be a good shepherd; who will properly care for the flock, the people. Many of us understand this to be a prophecy of the coming of Jesus. This image, however, is a far cry from a majestic, judging, powerful, and distant ruler.

Moving on to the reading from Colossians, Paul begins, praying that they be strengthened by Christ’s glorious power and our minds may conjure up a picture of the splendor of a Roman Emperor. But a few verses later, he reminds us that it is in the man, Jesus – whom we have seen as an itinerant prophet, teacher, and healer; it is in him that the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through whom all things are reconciled to God. Not splendor but poverty; a man who hung out with all sorts but especially with folks that much of society dismissed, disdained, or even discarded.

Then the lectionary drives home the point in the gospel lesson. Christ is the King who stays and is humiliated and crucified rather than saving his own skin and abandoning us. A king who forgives those who torture him. A king who assures a thief that he is welcome in Paradise.

The reign of Christ is not one where might makes right; one in which power overpowers and conquers. Rather it is where power is given up and compassion abounds. The king is a shepherd, living with and caring for the people. It is a reign that may seem more like commonwealth than empire.

This is what we celebrate today – not as a promise for some distant future, but as a reality today. We talk about the reign of Christ as already but not yet. It is already here; it is at hand, but it is not yet fully manifest.

A few weeks ago Bishop Sandy was here and he, too, talked about the kingdom of God. And he focused on the Beatitudes; about taking them to heart and living them as a way of life a way of living in the kingdom. I won’t try to repeat it all here, but I’ll remind you, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – those who recognize their dependence on God. “Blessed are those who mourn;” Those who truly mourn the brokenness of the world, and mourn with those who grieve or suffer. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” – who seek and work toward right relationships with God, with each other, and with all of creation. “Blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers” and so forth.

When we live as if the reign of Christ were already fully manifest, the reign of Christ is revealed to the world and it grows and it becomes just a little bit more fully realized.

There is much in our world that may cause us to cry out in desperation, “Thy kingdom come, O Lord!” The Good News – the Gospel – is that the Reign of Christ has begun. The Commonwealth of God is at hand. Today, even if only for a moment, today we will be with Christ in Paradise.