24 November 2013
The Reign of Christ
Proper 29C (RCL)
This Sunday is the last of the liturgical year on which we celebrate the reign of Christ toward which all of creation points and for which it longs. Next Sunday will be the first of Advent, when we begin to prepare for Christ’s first and second arrivals. Through our liturgy, we structure not just annual time, but historical time as well: we acknowledge that history has a beginning and a goal, and both of those relate to God, and to Christ’s activity.
The Jeremiah passage for this Sunday points at the restoration of the Kingdom in Jerusalem. The new shepherds will not be power hungry like the old shepherds, but instead guard the interest of the sheep. And not just Judah, but Israel also, will be gathered back into the land of promise, and restored to the purposes God intends. Justice will prevail, and the new king, the branch of David, will reign in peace.
It seems a bit odd to be reading an account of the crucifixion on the Feast of the Reign of Christ — we might expect something a bit more triumphant. But for all of the Gospel writers, the passion of Christ is presented as an enthronement — this is where the sovereignty of Christ is revealed to the world. In Mark’s Gospel, the centurion, looking at Jesus on the cross, proclaims “Sure this man was divi filius!” using one of the titles for Caesar. In Luke, it is the thief who recognizes Jesus as King.
The thief prays, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is a prayer often used by Eastern Orthodox monks during Lent. Given that Jesus reigns from the cross, it seems an odd prayer — do we really want to be remembered in such a kingdom? James and John had asked Jesus for the right to sit at his right hand and his left in his kingdom. He replied that it was for those for whom it had been reserved to take those seats. They weren’t aware what they were asking — here, the two thieves are sitting at Jesus’ right and left hand in his kingdom.
Colossians paints a glorious picture of what the restoration of all things looks like. We have been transferred from the authority of darkness into the kingdom of God’s son, with a share of the glorious inheritance of the saints in light. God is at work in Christ reconciling all things to Christ, through the blood of his cross. And the church is the instrument for this reconciliation.
Our understanding of sovereignty doesn’t allow us to see God’s sovereignty in Jesus on the cross. We fear loss of sovereignty more than anything else (it underlies the fear of death). The motto of our nation at its founding, and it seems of most of us now, was “Don’t tread on me.” We will preserve individual liberty and sovereignty at all costs. There is a billboard near my home for a gun shop called “Sovereign Arms.” It shows a picture of several men in combat gear with combat weapons. Sovereignty is my ability to enforce my views on others and to repel the same attempt by others to get me to see things their way.
It is interesting that in the Colossians reading, God has transferred us into the kingdom of his son through the forgiveness of sin. On the cross, Jesus prays for the forgiveness of his tormentors. The power which the author of the letter prays may be ours is the power of setting aside differences and being reconciled through the blood of the cross (there is power in the blood). No wonder he also prays for endurance and patience! Power spent lifting up others, forgiving wrongs, power given away to others (not as power over, but power for) in the long run leads to the fullness of God dwelling in us. Protecting my power at all costs in the long run leads to isolation. It is the difference between fear and faith, the difference between a zero-sum game and an open-sum game. The kingdom of Christ is as open a sum game as there can be, so open that God will give away the entire divine self, because the gift will redound with all the gifts of thanks we can return, until the time when Christ is all in all. We need to pray every day, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and here his response, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”