The celebration of Christ the King Sunday arose when Pope Pius XI found the increasing secularism of modern society eroding people’s faith. This was in 1925, and the Fascists under Mussolini were making their presence felt in Italy. Pius thought it was necessary to remind the faithful that whatever political powers might hold sway, ultimately, it is Christ who is “King of kings and Lord of lords.”
It seems we keep having this conversation. The very first statement of Christian identity, the first creed, if you will, was “Jesus is Lord.” In the first century, the part that no one said aloud was: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
We are faced with a few issues in claiming that “Christ is King.” First, there is the fact that the original subversive nature of Christianity was subsumed into the Holy Roman Empire and made into a part of the power of the emperor, a fact that has colored organized Christianity ever since. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, it seemed perfectly reasonable that Europe should be divided among the Protestants and the Catholics, depending on the faith of the heads of state. The church has not always behaved as agents of the One on the throne in today’s gospel, who judges people by how they have treated the least among us; all too frequently, the church has participated in the political games that create winners and losers, groups with power and groups without. So as Christians, we are called to be aware of our own past and renounce the church’s interest in worldly power.
The second issue we confront is that the world has turned, and there are few kings anywhere. For the Western world, the monarchs who remain have nothing like the power of an emperor; they are figureheads who work cooperatively within constitutional monarchies. In the United States, furthermore, we had a revolution in order to separate ourselves from a despotic monarch, and our self-understanding as a nation includes a proud independence from the notion of monarchy.
So what do we mean when we affirm that Christ is King? What are we celebrating? How is this monarchy part of the Good News?
A quick peek at the headlines would raise some questions: if Christ is King, why is there so much violence and unrest in the world? If Christ is King, why are there children dying of malnutrition in refugee camps? If Christ is King, what are we to make of the world’s current crop of dictators and despots? If Christ is King, why are humans continuing to make choices that endanger and even eradicate other species who share with us “this fragile earth, our island home”?
Either Christ is not king, or he’s a neglectful king; or we’re talking about a reality that is hidden behind the everyday reality we read about in the news.
Today’s gospel suggests that there is a hidden quality we don’t see. Look at the surprise of those who meet the one seated on the throne: “When was it, Lord, that we saw you hungry and did not feed you?”
The Gospel of Matthew, which has been read for most of this year, points over and over to the kingdom of God as a hidden reality obscured by the world of human endeavor, a reality that peeks out occasionally, when Jesus does what Jesus does: he heals, he masters the chaotic elements of creation, he feeds people, he meets and loves people on the margins. In Matthew, Jesus says over and over that the kingdom is visible and available to his followers, as well, when we behave as citizens of that kingdom: when we serve the least, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, and perhaps, above all, emulate Jesus when he speaks God’s truth to the powers that be.
There is, further, a subversive quality to the reality of the kingdom, a sense that those who see and understand it are from the margins of society rather than from the powerful and content center. In Matthew, the list of those who see and accept what Jesus has to offer includes a Roman centurion, a Canaanite woman, and Matthew, a despised tax collector. The disciples themselves are hardly the elite of Jerusalem; they are country bumpkins from the provinces, hardly the sort to set the world on fire. Yet all these people listen to Jesus and follow him, perhaps because the status quo has not given them very much.
While the world has changed over and over in the years since the Gospel of Matthew was written, the list of the vulnerable in today’s gospel has only grown. “The hungry” now means a billion people who go to bed every night with little or no food. “The thirsty,” means millions of people worldwide dealing with severe drought. “The sick,” includes millions of people infected with the most difficult and pernicious illnesses, including AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. And the United States leads the world in its share of “those in prison.” It is harder than ever to see the reality of God’s kingdom and the Lordship of Christ behind these devastating everyday realities. But it is easier than ever to see those on the margins whose needs are overwhelming.
The call of Jesus to his disciples has not changed. As followers of Jesus, we are called to behave as citizens of the kingdom, for love of the King.
The Episcopal Church at its General Convention in 2003 formally endorsed the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, and at each subsequent convention the church has taken further steps, including a pledge of 0.7% of its funds to bring these goals to fruition. Episcopal Relief & Development is involved in work all over the world that aims to help the most vulnerable – the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the poor – and provide not only immediate relief, but assist in creating self-sustaining programs that will raise the standard of living for whole villages and areas.
The notion of the kingship of Christ, over against the reality in which we live, begs the question: are we behaving like citizens of the kingdom? Are the hungry and thirsty, the poor and neglected better off because of us? Is the reality of the expansive, all-encompassing love of God visible in what we do? In the end, this gospel says, that’s what matters in human existence. When we make choices about where to spend our time, our money, our energy, and our best gifts, we are making choices that build the kingdom – or don’t.
We are called by today’s gospel to understand ourselves as those who are called to embody the kingdom in the here and now, so that it can come in its fullness, and Christ will be king – because we choose to dwell in that kingdom.
What this feast day affirms is twofold: that Christ is King, all evidence in the current time to the contrary; and that what we do, the choices we make, matter very, very much.