A Homily for the Feast of Christ the King
Texts: Colossians 1:11-20; St. Luke 23:33-43
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus the Lord, our King who hung upon the tree of the cross. Amen.
This is not what we expect from our king.
We turn to our rulers looking for certain things: elegance, a sense of power, safety, a show of force. We expect them to do mighty works. We want them to be great and to make us great.
How odd it is, then, that as we celebrate the reign of Christ our King, we don’t read about his miracles. Or the Transfiguration. Today, there is no holy dove descending from heaven, no voice of God proclaiming:
This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
Gone are the crowds that greeted Christ on the streets of Jerusalem with palm branches and shouts of:
Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!
In other years, we mark this feast with Matthew’s depiction of the Son of Man enthroned in glory, judging the nations, or John’s scene of Jesus standing boldly before Pontius Pilate, testifying to the Truth and proclaiming the coming Kingdom.
Instead, today, at the end of the Church year, we hear of a criminal, executed by the brutally heavy hand of the Roman Empire. The person on display today is less a king than a failed insurgent.
The Isenheim Altarpiece — Matthias Grünewald
Why? Why is this the image we use for the Reign of Christ?
If we mean what we say about who Christ is, if Jesus of Nazareth really is the Son of God, then isn’t this the worst thing that can possibly happen? If Christ died on the cross, then aren’t the atheists right? Isn’t God dead?
Let this sink in for a moment. Feel the full weight of this tragedy, the unbearable burden the disciples must have felt standing on Calvary that day.
In the light of the cross, can we really claim to worship a great God?
Where is the glory of a king who has been lynched by an oppressive regime?
For too long, the powers and principalities of this world have co-opted Christ’s passion, have used it to claim that to suffer is to be like Christ and to earn God’s favor. The Crucifixion has been turned into a cage to trap women in abusive marriages, to keep enslaved Africans in shackles, to excuse oppression while letting the oppressor carry on their brutal work.
And for too long, the Church has stood silently by, letting our Lord’s death be turned into a chain rather than the liberating embodiment of God’s all-encompassing grace.
Between the end of the Civil War and 1950, as the Confederate Flag – that idol to white supremacy – flew in defiance of history, some 4,400 black men and women were lynched in the United States during a campaign of racial terror – including seven right here in Bibb County. Local officials often pleaded ignorance, and news reports said the attacks were perpetrated “by persons unknown,” even though the papers had sufficient knowledge to announce the attacks ahead of time and send photographers. In 1939, Billie Holiday paid homage to the victims and survivors as she sang this lament: “Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” And as our sisters and brothers were tortured, white Christians perpetrated these heinous acts.
The Crucifixion is an odd text for Christ the King Sunday, but it is essential to understanding what type of king Jesus is. The late great theologian James Cone wrote in his magnum opus The Cross and the Lynching Tree that, “The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.”
Today, then, we see our King entirely broken, a king who is resides not in palaces but amongst the impoverished and the oppressed, who sides with the lynched. We see the Lord, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” the one in whom “all things in heaven and on earth were created,” the one who “is before all things” and by whom “all things are held together,” given over to the powers of sin and death. Here our God has become Incarnate, taken on flesh and bone, living and dying with those whom the world has despised. Instead of using his miraculous might to secure the world as his footstool, he proclaimed release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind. Today’s text is a declaration of God’s favor to those who suffer at the hands of the powerful, for they shall be with Christ in the Kingdom. And today’s text is a call to those of us in positions of power to side with the oppressed.
This is why Saint Paul called the cross foolishness and a stumbling block: human kings do not side with the oppressed, do not identify with the “least of these,” but our King showed us what true greatness looks like when he emptied himself out.
Even in other years, during other celebrations of Christ the King, Jesus does not make claims to human greatness. In John’s Gospel, our Lord tells Pilate that his is not an earthly empire defended by military might and brutal violence but a peaceable kingdom not of this world. In Matthew, when Christ sits enthroned in glory to judge the nations, he identifies not with the wealthy and the rulers but with the hungry, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, with those murdered at the hands of an indifferent and violent world. Christ our King hangs today, reminding us that our Lord looks like Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and Troy Davis.
But even this remains bad news if it ends with a bullet, with a noose, with the cross. Today is good news and Jesus is King because the bloody cross is now empty. In dying, Christ destroyed death. In entering the tomb, he shattered the grave. In rising again, he has promised life eternal. The bonds of death are breaking even now, and because of that we are free. Our Crucified King is calling us to follow him to the margins of society, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and the lynched. Because the tomb is empty, we are free to forsake our own sense of greatness and to place ourselves amongst the “least of these.”
Faithful obedience to our Crucified King looks like this: following in the footsteps of great but little known prophets like Father Maurice Ouellet, a white Catholic priest from Vermont who served a segregated black parish in 1965 Selma, Alabama. As the Civil Rights Movement came to its bloodiest peak, Father Maurice took notice. He was involved in organizing various aspects of the movement. Rather than telling his black parishioners that their suffering was good for them, Father Maurice decided to stand with them and risk everything. He was investigated by a grand jury; he put his career and even life on the line. Other white clergy gave in to cowardly silence and urged the civil rights workers to give up their struggle in the name of moderation, but pastors like Hosea Williams and Father Maurice persisted. When the Archbishop forbade Father Maurice from joining in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, the priest found other ways to stand in solidarity. On Bloody Sunday, when Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and the other marchers were beaten to near-death by white police officers, Father Maurice joined the nurses at the local Catholic hospital – the only hospital that would treat black patients – and ministered to those who had been brutalized by the state troopers. Abandoned by many of the white doctors who refused to treat the protesters, the nuns and priests at the hospital worked hard and long to tend the wounded.
As a result of his saintly actions that day, Father Maurice was removed from his parish. Departing his pulpit one last time, this modern-day prophet said, “All that we do, we must do with love. As a person and individual, I matter very little. However, the church matters and matters a great deal.”
God has graciously called us to take part of this Kingdom, to be a Church that matters, that has good news for a broken and violent world. In these trying times, as nationalism rears its ugly head again, when churches are defaced with swastikas, and the Ku Klux Klan is finding a new voice, and overt racism has wormed its way off of internet message boards and back into Congress and the White House, when gunmen open fire on mosques, synagogues, and shopping centers targeting victims for their religion and ethnicity, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment. Now is the time to pledge our allegiance to the Kingdom of God over any earthly nation or ruler. Now is the time to remember the example set by our God and King: to willingly take up our cross as we stand in solidarity with the oppressed, the lynched, the beaten, the caged. To give our voice, our hands, our money, and yes, even our votes to the mission of the Church. To show that the coming Kingdom matters to a world so desperately in need.
And when suffering is visited upon us, when the mobs come for us as they have for saints throughout the ages, we will endure by the grace of God, knowing that the King who hung from a cross and was placed in the tomb has shattered the grave and reigns triumphant. Amen.