LET US PRAY: O Lord, King of the Universe: Speak to our hearts and fill us with the breath of your Spirit, that we may live and move in your ways, all the days of our life. AMEN
Please forgive me for beginning this sermon with some bleak and heavy history— but I think it will be helpful to us as we consider the message at the heart of our celebration today of Christ the King.
A little more than 100 years ago the world was embroiled in what was called, “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars,” World War One. In 1914, one man with a pistol had assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.
Most of the world took little notice at first, but the event triggered a series of events that quickly escalated into the greatest war the world had known. By the time the war ended 4 years later with the armistice on November 11, 1918, the great powers of the world were devastated.
Of the 65 million troops that went to war, more than 8.5 million were killed (1 in 7). Over 7 million were permanently disabled (1 in 9) and 15 million were wounded (1 in 4). Altogether, a soldier’s odds of returning home in good health were less than 1 in 2 (47%).
The civilian numbers were nearly as high with over 7 million people killed and unknown scores injured.
During and after the war, the empires of Germany, the Ottomans, Russians and Austro-Hungarians crumbled and in the vacuum rose nationalist movements, fascism, nazism, and communism.
As of last night, the worldwide death toll for Covid-19 was 6.6 million. That is terrible— no doubt about it. But in 1918, Soldiers returning home from the war are widely believed to have carried the flu virus that became the Spanish flu pandemic that infected 500 million people worldwide, killing between 50 and 100 million people— as much as 5% of the world’s population wiped out in a matter of months.
In 1921— the Russian population devastated and impoverished first by the world war and then by its civil war suffered a famine in which 5-10 million people starved to death. By 1922 it was estimated that there were as many as 7 million homeless children in Russia.
And in 1925, in Italy, nationalists who had seized the papal territories decades earlier, gained momentum and pressed in upon the Roman Catholic center of Rome where Pope Pius XI clung thinly to political sovereignty.
I think about him. Imagine you are there with him. Imagine him looking out his window at the sky and thinking that these must certainly be the darkest days of history. The world was falling apart. Everything good was in peril. The suffering just seemed to go on and on and the forces of destruction seemed to be growing stronger and stronger. “Hopeless” is how I can imagine anyone in those days feeling.
But it was in those days— in the fall of 1925 that Pope Pius XI sent a letter to the Christians of the world proclaiming a new celebration of the church. A festival affirming and celebrating the eternal sovereignty of our Lord, Christ the King.
And here we are today. It is Christ the King Sunday. I’ve been thinking about it because— well, I have to preach today. But I’m willing to guess that most of you haven’t given it much thought until you saw it printed on your bulletin.
“Oh, look— the paraments are white today.”
It seems to me that the festival has more to offer us than this— especially in these days.
Our world has had a rough go of it lately. Covid-19 was no Spanish Flu, but the world economy of 1918 was nothing near what it is like today. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on economies and supply chains around the world. A century after the nationalist movements of the early 20th century and we are living through similar upheavals — in countries in Europe— and in our own country with the events of January 6. The war in Ukraine raising tensions around the world— increasing hunger and heating fuel shortages. And of course the effects and increasing dangers of our tragically warming planet. And I could go on and on and on.
Today we celebrate that the kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world. In our experience— like the experience of 100 years ago and of every age— good is always in peril of being swallowed up in evil. By the standards of the world, kindness and mercy can seem laughably weak in the face of armies and hatred and corporate greed. Naive. Idealistic. Foolish. Hopeless.
On Christ the King Sunday, it is a shock to hear the first sentence of our Gospel text:
“ When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals….”
We don’t have a text that depicts a beautiful, powerful Jesus, with a crown on his head and enemies under his feet. We see instead, Jesus at his most tragic depth of defeat. Crucified— naked and nailed to a cross— is as hopeless and final as it gets.
The hearts of the people who mocked Jesus are no different from our own. By the measures of the world— then AND now— Jesus is the very epitome of failure. Especially as kings go, he is ridiculous.
In this world of anger and selfishness and survival of the fittest, kings rise and fall by control. If they can dominate, they rise; if they cannot, they fall. It’s a world that pits people against one-another as competitors in a struggle for survival. A battlefield of winners and losers.
On Christ the King Sunday, we remember that although Jesus is IN the world, he is not OF the world.
At his lowest moment of powerlessness and suffering— at the moment when he should just give up and fade away in defeat, he speaks.
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus taught us that the power to create is greater than the power to destroy.
He taught us that the effects of love are more powerful than hate.
He taught us to return kindness for evil
to welcome the stranger and the outcaste
to feed the hungry and clothe the naked
He taught us that to give and to serve and to love is the essence of life.
Jesus taught us to worship God because God loves us already. This is what he taught us, because it is the way of a full and rich life– an abundant life. That’s what Jesus taught us, with more than words. He lived it. He IS it.
Jesus IS gracious and forgiving and meek and generous, because Jesus IS love– and the cross didn’t change that. The cross only shows how thoroughly true it is: Jesus loves, purely and fully, even to his last, dying breath. And because of that, love wins.
Jesus says, “no” to a world as imagined by those who crucified and mocked him.
Jesus is victorious because suffering and hate and rejection do not change him into a different kind of God. They don’t change him into a God that crushes and hates. They don’t change him into a God that quits. They don’t change him into a God that stops caring and walks away. Jesus loves.
That is great news for the world. It is great news for you, too. Set all of the worries of the world out of your mind for a moment and think about the challenges you are facing. Health. Career. Finances. Relationships. Grief and loneliness. Your inner most insecurities.
The power of Jesus’ love that overcomes the brokenness of the world overcomes the brokenness in your life, too. He will hold you safe and carry you through every trouble and loss.
But more even than this— The Lordship of Jesus not only carries you through. The power of his Lordship transforms us and the way we respond to the world’s brokenness. To celebrate the Lordship of Jesus and follow him as your king is to say that you choose the way of Jesus over the way of the world; it means that you choose a path in your life of grace, kindness and forgiveness over selfishness, greed and hate— even when those forces challenge and oppress you. To follow Jesus means to seek to be IN the world but not OF the world, just as was he. To follow Jesus as King is to believe he is IN this world still— in us and through us the power of his love continues to transcend and overcome the worst that this world can do.
A century ago, at a time when the world was crumbling to pieces, Pope Pius XI invited the Christians of the world to take courage, find comfort, and fix their eyes upon Jesus, who rises above this broken world— unchanged in his nature.
Much has changed in the century that has passed since then— and yet not much has changed. The world is still a deadly and dangerous place. But just as a century ago, you and I are invited to look beyond all of that.
Whether young or old, happy or angry or sad— in control of our lives or spiraling out of control— all of us have this one thing in common: When this world has expended all of its might and worn itself out in rage and anger— when the worst that can happen has happened— when everything else is said and done there is only one truth that remains: Jesus. Our sure and certain hope is in the love of Jesus, whose authority stands above all, and whose kingdom will never end.
Sermon on Christ the King Sunday by the Rev. Philip Stringer