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Proper 29/Christ the King (Reign of Christ)
November 21, 2004
Luke 1:68-79 and Luke 23:33-43
The final Sunday of the liturgical year is traditionally recognized as the feast of Christ the King, or, more inclusively, the feast of the Reign of Christ. The lessons appointed for the day all reflect this theme. But the notion of the Reign of Christ can present the contemporary interpreter with significant challenges, especially as we wrestle with the religious dimensions and ethical consequences of the emerging American Empire. The whole imagery of “king,” “kingship,” and “reign” is tied to hierarchical, patriarchal, and political domination systems which are highly problematic for us, and which grieve us as we see them acted out in our nation’s role in international relations. As Process & Faith’s Christian Proclamation against American Empire puts it, the earliest and enduring Christian witness is “all in antithesis to Empire: the coercive power it employs, the religion it exploits, and the idolatrous loyalty it demands in the name of patriotism.” The readings appointed for the Feast of the Reign of Christ in Year C draw our attention to a different notion of “reign,” one which rejects the ideology of empire in favor of a vision of persuasive power and interrelated good.
Jeremiah speaks a word of woe and warning to “the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture,” that is, to the kings of Judah who have attempted to play power politics in the imperial gamesmanship of Jeremiah’s day. As the Assyrian Empire broke up, the kings of Judah pursued various alliances with other small states, and with the imperial ambitions of Egypt, to try to resist the growing power of the Neo-Babylonians. Throughout these political machinations, the state-sponsored Temple prophets proclaimed that Judah could not fail and Jerusalem could not fall, because the presence of the Temple assured that God would fight for the city and never let it be overthrown. In the meantime, the kings pursued policies that focused on military ambitions, rather than justice and peace for the people. Jeremiah warned that such ambitions would destroy the kingdom and scatter the people, sending them into exile under the power of the Babylonian Empire. In the midst of such warning, however, this passage also speaks a word of hope: after the shepherds who scatter the sheep, God will raise up a new shepherd, a new kind of leader, who shall “deal wisely” and “execute justice and righteousness in the land” for the good of the people rather than the pursuit of political power. As Christians, we see that promise of persuasive power for mutual good made manifest in Jesus, and we are called to work for that kind of power in the midst of the imperial gamesmanship of our own day.
This selection from Luke, sometimes called “The Song of Zechariah,” is the passionate outburst of Zechariah when his voice is restored to him at the birth of his son, John the Baptist. In this child Zechariah sees the future “prophet of the Most High” who will prepare the way for the Messiah by giving the people “knowledge of salvation” in “the forgiveness of their sins.” John will prepare the way for a reign in which the people will be rescued from the hands of their enemies, and will serve God in holiness and righteousness without fear. It is an image of a peaceable kingdom, set free from the ambitions and machinations of imperial contenders, for whom enmity and fear and the threat of the shadow of death are means of power. This passage should be read along with the Song of Mary, twenty verses earlier in Luke’s chapter 1, as companion pieces predicting the great reversal of earthly power that will come through the mission of the Christ. In the context of this Sunday, the song echoes the promise of a kind of leadership in community that is fundamentally different from the coercive power of emperors and kings.
The central image in this passage is the transfer of citizenship of the faithful, from “the power of darkness” to “the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.” Whereas before Christ we were held in the coercive power of forces of domination and corruption, in Christ those power structures are replaced by “redemption” and “the forgiveness of sins,” which enable new relationships of mutuality and shared creative power. Moreover, these new relationships extend beyond the human community to embrace the cosmological community as well: Jesus is “the image of the invisible God,” and “the firstborn of all creation,” so that “ in him all things in heaven and on earth were created” and “in him all things hold together” and in him all things find their ultimate fulfillment. Therefore the new order of relationships in Christ goes beyond the human plane to bring the promise of reconciliation to all created beings. The new Way in Jesus undercuts the human hegemony over nature, the political power of empire, the economic injustice of runaway wealth—all forms of “power over” that refuse “power with.” As citizens of this new kind of reign, Christians are called to be agents and ministers of reconciliation in the concrete circumstances of their actual worlds as well.
This passage from Luke’s Passion story gives us the paradoxical picture of Jesus who reigns as a king from a cross. There is no pomp or finery or trappings of power in this picture: Jesus is stripped, crucified, in physical pain, with no one to defend him, mocked by the soldiers and bystanders and one of the thieves condemned to die with him. Yet at the same time Luke shows Jesus acting with the authority of a true ruler: pardoning the soldiers who crucify him, granting admittance to paradise to the thief who repents. Although Jesus is powerless by the world’s standards—standards that measure power in terms of coercion and domination—he is powerful in grace, powerful in forgiveness and transformed relationships that reveal new possibilities for creativity and life. Jesus enthroned on the Cross rejects all coercive power for the persuasive power of divine love. In doing so, and in being raised again in the power of divine love, Jesus shows us and invites us into a practice of power that strives above all to create right relationships of mutual well-being for ourselves and for all. That is the meaning of Christ as king, and that is the power we celebrate and serve on this Feast of the Reign of Christ.
Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership. He is a co-author of the book, The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in the Contemporary World. and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.