A different kind of king, a different way of living

RCL Year C, Proper 29


Welcome to the Feast of Christ the King. It’s a relatively recent feast on the church calendar – it was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, and moved to its current date, the last Sunday of the church year, in 1969. Pope Pius created the feast day as a response to the growing secularism and nationalism of his age, a day to remind the world that it is God who is really in charge, and that we are citizens first of God’s kingdom, not our earthly nations. And so we keep the feast.

But technically, we don’t actually keep the feast, because we’re not Roman Catholic. Our Episcopal church calendar does not include this feast, even though it’s there in everything but name – you might have noticed that the readings for today all are on the theme of the righteous king, Jesus the king of the Jews, God’s reign on earth. And even though many materials from our national church say this Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, our democratic General Convention has never voted that name onto the calendar. So confusion abounds.

Well, there’s some church trivia for you. But who cares? Shouldn’t this day really be about Thanksgiving? Or better yet, Black Thursday?

But whether it is really a feast or not, there’s something important for us to hear today. The readings all make the point that yes, Jesus is king – but he’s king in a completely different way than we understand. He is not a new Caesar. He is not about earthly conquest and control. He is not absolute power wielded absolutely. Over and over again in the gospels Jesus turns our ideas of power upside down, and rebukes those who try to hold on to that kind of power – through riches, or status, or exploiting or lording it over others. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is indeed King of the Jews, Jesus’ answer is that he is one who bears witness to the truth – if he is king, then this is what his kingship is about, and his followers, his ‘subjects’, are those who hear the truth of God’s love and respond to it.

In the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a series of meditations for his monks. He includes one meditation called the Two Standards. The meditation offers two images of kings and their strategies: one the false king, Lucifer, who uses the desire for riches, honor, and pride as his strategy to enslave and destroy his followers, and one the true king, Christ, whose strategy is poverty, powerlessness, and humility. In the meditation, we are invited to decide whom we will follow – and therefore to begin changing our life to reflect those values. Of course the right answer is to follow Jesus. The paradox is that in self-emptying and humility, we possess everything:  Christ himself. Rather than being enslaved to the false king and the destructiveness of his path, we are brought into the truth: freedom from what has bound us, and the knowledge that our whole reality and value is grounded in being created and redeemed in Christ.

Here’s the thing, though: we find it very, very hard to live this out, because it requires living with a trust and a vulnerability that we rarely attain. It requires loving others more and worrying about ourselves less. That’s something that’s hard to do. It’s hard to do in our families – many of us will be trying it out over the holidays beginning this week. It’s hard to do everywhere. But here in this congregation, right now, we have an opportunity to try to do it better.

This last week we began our house meetings, the small group conversations we are having at ECA about why we are here and what we are feeling called to do together. We are including everyone in this process, every single one of you who come to this church. That means every one of you here – not just your spouse, not just the younger people, not just the grownups. Everyone is invited, because without knowing and understanding what everyone really cares about and has energy for, we can’t go anywhere together. Eight faithful people on the core team are doing a lot of work to coordinate, invite, and lead these conversations. Most of you have been civil to them. But not all of you have welcomed them and what they are inviting you to do with open arms – or with open time. Which makes me wonder: do people really care so little about this church that they can’t give one hour of their time to talk and listen to others? I find that hard to believe.

Of course it’s not that you don’t care about this church – everyone here has some story of what matters to them about ECA and what keeps them coming back. But despite your affection for the church, some of you seem to think that something like these meetings means you will get stuck with something that you don’t have energy for. Some of you fear this is a gambit to get the church into politics that you can’t support. Some of you seem to worry that somebody, somehow, is going to make you do something you don’t want to do.

It’s not just in this meeting campaign that I’ve noticed all this. This set of fears and suspicions seem to lurk out there, muddying up what should be a loving community. But more than just a community, the Episcopal Church in Almaden is a church – a congregation of people gathered around the leadership of Christ the King. This is a place where we love one another not because everyone has so much in common, but because we look for Christ in each other and love him. This is a place where we serve and give of our time not because we’re good volunteers, but because Christ in us compels us to serve. This is a place where we give each other the benefit of the doubt not because we think everybody’s all that great, but because without trust and goodwill we can’t love each other into a better way of being.

Church is where we practice the living we should be doing in all our lives. What Christ the King really means for us is that we practice living the way of the cross. We practice loving each other well. And we practice being truthful and honest with one another. We already do this in many ways. Right now, we can do it in these conversational meetings – giving each other the time and the honesty and the care to sit together and listen to where God is at work among us already, and where God is calling us to go. And we can do this in all our interactions, speaking to each other gently and face to face, never behind each others’ backs. We can do this in our ministries, serving in love and not in resentment. Church isn’t always going to be better than the secular world. But it should certainly be a place where we try to be better.

The question for us together is this: do we take into our heart of hearts the saving power of Christ’s humility? Do we follow the model Jesus gave us of love, giving himself up for others? Christ as king demands not that we bow down before him in fear, but rather that we love freely, in all openness and vulnerability and trust. And if we truly hear this, then our lives will show our response, in our allegiance to this very different kind of king. Whom then will we follow? May we learn together to let God lead – and trust that God will make of this place a blessing for us and for all. Amen.