24 November 2019; The Feast of Christ the King; Last Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 29C (RCL); Jeremiah 23:1-6; Canticle 16; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43.
The Feast of Christ the King was only added to the liturgical calendar in 1925, in response to increasing secularism and rising nationalism, and perhaps as a way of the pope reasserting the idea of his own kingship over the papal lands. On at least the first two points, the feast is as relevant as ever, even if we don’t particularly like the idea of kingship, as being too masculine and too rooted in domination.
The Jeremiah reading suggests that at least from the divine perspective, kingship has more to do with pastoral care than with domination. In fact, the kings who pursued their own interests, rather than the interests of the people, were precisely the problem. Of course, the keeping of sheep is ultimately in the interest of the shepherd. The owner of the flock benefits from the wool, the milk, and ultimately the meat of the sheep. So, using the shepherd and sheep as an image for kingly care requires a turn-around to view the flock of sheep as an end in itself. The shepherd benefits when the sheep benefit. How different from the politics of the day, whether Jeremiah’s day or our own.
Interestingly, the Collect, the Canticle, the Epistle, and the Gospel reading all mention sin and/or its forgiveness as an element of the salvation that characterizes the kingdom and kingship of Jesus. We tend to think of sin as those discrete bad acts that we commit as individuals, or even corporately. The collect seems to envision sin more as enmity with one another, or suspicion of one another, or as a limited perspective. We are divided and enslaved by sin, whatever it is.
The canticle sees sin as the impediment to freedom and salvation, whatever gets in the way of our knowledge of God’s desires for us. The passage from Colossians views it much the same way – the forgiveness of sin is what has to happen prior to our transfer into the kingdom of the beloved Son. On the cross, Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those who have crucified him (though this sentence does not appear in the best manuscript witnesses of Luke’s Gospel and was probably added later). When the penitent thief asks Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, Jesus promises that he will be with him in Paradise.
Jesus is creating community even as his identity is being obliterated (his family can not even have his clothes after his death) by the brutal machine of the Roman Empire. The remedy to the loss of identity wrought by the powers that be is to create sustaining community by the overcoming of difference. And vulnerability is the only way to enter such community. This is a completely up-side-down understanding of kingship. Authenticity rather than mendacity. Hospitality rather than prosperity. A king who dies for the kingdom.
In the eucharist, the cup is associated with the forgiveness of sin. Despite the fraction anthem which says, “We break this bread to share in the Body of Christ,” most of us receive an individual piece of bread at the communion. But we all share one cup. This models and signifies the kind of vulnerability necessary to live in community, and signifies the overcoming of difference that is the forgiveness of sin.