A Homily for the Feast of Christ the King
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, our coming King. Amen.
It’s a bold claim, isn’t it? To stand, bound and on trial, before the imperial governor, the embodied representative of the Roman Empire, and to claim kingship? The Romans had conquered the entire Mediterranean world, from Spain to Turkey, from Tripoli in North Africa up to the limes in Germany, from southern Egypt to as far away as Britain. The Romans had vanquished the fractured Greek rulers and kept the Parthian Empire at bay in Iran. Rome made and broke kings. They commanded entire legions to keep rebellious territories in line. The Romans knew how to shatter the spirit and will of defiant kings and mutinous militias: through the strength of arms and torture. Lay waste to the city, crucify the leaders. Roman authority was rooted in a mighty brutality.
In Judaea, that oft-conquered land, many hoped for a messiah, God’s anointed, who would arrive in majesty, cast out the invaders, and establish a restored Kingdom. As Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and the Greeks rose and fell over the centuries, as empires came, conquered, and were conquered, the children of Abraham held out hope for a new Jewish king.
Written under the reign of a Greek tyrant and set during the Babylonian Exile, Daniel’s apocalyptic dream depicts the Ancient One, the almighty and ever-living God, enthroned in glory. A being who looks human – one like a Son of Man – rides into the heavenly court on the clouds. This Son of Humanity is given dominion over the entire earth, an unending kingship over all creation.
For many Jews living in the first century, this meant a political upheaval: a new Son of David would overthrow the Romans and cast them out from the Land of Promise, who would gather the people from the Diaspora and found up a new Israel, centered in Jerusalem. This new and unending nation-state would fulfill God’s covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.
Over the past two months or so, our Gospel readings have been building up to this moment: we’ve seen Jesus and his disciples on the move, drawing closer and closer to Jerusalem; the closer they get to that holy city, the more people call out to Jesus as the “Son of David,” the heir to the throne. Saint Peter declared that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed. The disciples started competing for positions of power in the new administration: James and John boldly asked to sit at Christ’s left and right hand, seats of honor in the court, as the other disciples looked on in jealousy.
Then came the Triumphal Entry – we skipped over it during this read-through, but surely it is a familiar story, one we re-enact every year on Palm Sunday: waving palm branches, roaring crowds, royal imagery, and the shouts of, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
And for the last two or three weeks, we’ve been following Jesus in Jerusalem as the disciples have stared, awe-struck, at the large buildings. “Any moment now,” they thought. “Soon the Son of David will drive out the Romans, set us free from our imperial overlords, and re-establish the Kingdom of our ancestors. Soon and very soon.”
But we know what comes next: the betrayal after dinner, the desperate prayer in the garden, the arrest, and now Jesus stands before the Roman governor, a blood-thirsty man quick flog criminals and to publicly nail insurrectionists to crosses.
Here, the one who was greeted as the Son of David stands before Caesar’s representative.
“So you’re a king,” Pilate asks, somewhere between annoyed that he’s been called out so late and furious that there’s yet another Jewish rebel to deal with. “You, who would be the King of the Jews, have been handed over by your own priests and scribes. You seem to have a habit of making everyone mad. Now get ready to see what real authority is.”
And we know what the Romans do to those who would make themselves kings: the beatings, the nails, the cross, the spear.
This is what Saint Paul calls the foolishness of the cross: who would worship a convicted and executed criminal? What kind of king submits to such brutal torture without fighting back? How is it that the one like a Son of Man, the storm-rider, the one given glory and ever-lasting dominion, could be crucified by a human governor?
Pilate didn’t understand. Peter, James, and John didn’t understand.
This is not the way of earthly kings, of human greatness, of worldly power.
But human greatness is not like God’s greatness; our weakness is God’s strength. Death may have taken its toll, and the grave may have swallowed Christ, but our Lord is risen. The grave is shattered and Death is banished. Rome and Pilate and the Caesars have fallen, but Christ has risen.
The one who was questioned by Pilate, who was pierced by nail and spear, is the new Son of Adam, who comes riding on the clouds. Here is divine greatness – the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Final, the First Born from Among the Dead. Here is the Christ, the one who was slain but has risen victorious. Here is the one who has conquered the powers and the principalities of this world. Here is the One who has the authority to forgive sins and vanquish Death, who commands the wind to be still, the grave to open, and the sea to give up its dead.
His Kingdom is not of this world.
But, beloved, it is breaking in all around us.
We’ve seen it erupting forth as Jesus has healed the sick, fed the multitudes, and cast out demons. We’ve seen it when we gathered on December evening to welcome the light of Christ into the winter darkness and when we gathered on that Holy Saturday to greet that light’s return from the grave.
We saw it last week at this font, and we’ll see it there again in just a few moments as God lays claim to children made in the divine image. And even as we mourn the death of our brother Bill, we remember that in these waters, the Risen Christ claimed Bill too, and he shall rise with us and Christ on that day when the Kingdom comes.
We see the Kingdom breaking into this world every single Sunday when Christ our King welcomes us to the heavenly banquet and fees us with his Body and sates our thirst with his precious blood.
We’ve seen the Kingdom of God bursting forth as our food pantry has welcomed and fed our neighbors in Christ’s name. We saw it this week as many of you showed up on Monday and Thursday morning to provide an earthly feast, even for the impoverished and homebound, and in the process showed them divine love.
At this, the end of our liturgical year, we know that we have seen the Kingdom, that glorious Creation yet-to-come already breaking in around us.
Next week, as we enter Advent and a new liturgical year, as we hang living greens in the dead of winter, a sign of Christ’s Kingdom bursting forth in our world, we will continue to joyfully prepare for our Lord’s coming again in glory.
And on that last day, we shall enter that undying new creation with all the saints, singing praises with choirs of angels, and live together in the everlasting Kingdom of our almighty and all-loving God.