Today marks the last Sunday of the church year, which we call the liturgical year. So it’s like New Year’s Eve! We’re counting down to the end of the year, and next week begins a new year, with Advent, when we count the weeks until Christmas.
God, who is and who was and who is to come, is not bound by time, so the liturgical year is not God’s creation. But we like to keep track of time, probably so we don’t forget stuff that we think is important. Are you a person who has to keep lists to remember to do everything you’re supposed to do? Maybe that’s how the liturgical calendar came about. If something is important, you make time for it. So we’ve got a festival Sunday for everything.
The Sundays and holy days when we celebrate moments in Christ’s life are designated as special by the colors gold or white. We remember Christ’s birth in a celebration we call: Christmas. Christ’s death and resurrection are celebrated at Easter. (Also an acceptable answer: Every Sunday, because we think Christ’s resurrection is THAT important.) But particularly the Sundays following Easter Sunday are the time when we remember the ministry of the risen Christ. We have special seasons for getting ready: Advent is the time for getting ready for Christmas, and the color is blue; Lent is the time for getting ready for Easter, and the color is purple. These are the fasts before the feasts.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, or Reign of Christ Sunday. Some of the churches traditions are ancient, going back to Jesus’s death and resurrection, but Reign of Christ Sunday has been around for less than one hundred years, started in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. Pope Pius saw a rising tide of nationalism and thought the church had become “too secular” and needed to be reminded that God has authority over civil life as well as personal life.
Lutherans call this the doctrine of two kingdoms—that God rules over the political/civil realm and God also rules over the church. The two kingdoms doctrine is not about separation of church and state, but recognizing ways that God rules over everything.
Reign of Christ Sunday was created for believers all over the world, not just the United States—so for Christians living in countries under political oppression, the Reign of Christ is a message of liberation, a reminder that what we see in this world is not everything, that God is bigger than the dictator or political leader in charge. And what about for believers in the United States, where we’re engaging in this grand experiment of democracy, each citizen responsible for voting to elect representatives to govern?
What does it say about us that this crucified Jesus Christ is our king? When Christ was hung on a cross to die as a criminal, the Roman government was happy to put away leaders of groups who would compete for political power. These days, we as citizens don’t get in trouble for calling Jesus a “king” or our “Lord,” but in Rome, those titles were a threat to the authority of Rome.
Do you ever wonder if you had lived at the time of Jesus, would you have recognized him as your Lord? Or would you have also turned away from his love, his teaching, and his problematic image? It’s not an easy or comfortable thing to follow this Jesus.
To whom do we pledge allegiance, with our money, our attention, our time? Whom do we honor with our respect and trust? There’s a measure of fear written in here. The people who crucified Jesus had no problem with making people fearful for their lives, making a spectacle of execution just to prove a point, that threats to Rome are taken seriously.
But for those of us who fear and love God, what does that mean? This is how Martin Luther explained the Ten Commandments—“We are to fear and love God.” This isn’t a fear for our lives, but a holy respect and reverence. We are respected and loved by God, and we return that love and respect by turning over our lives to God’s will: Jesus said you will lose your life if you want to find it. We lose our lives by seeking God’s will, doing what God would have us to do.
And what would God have us do? Dress up in our finest clothes and attend a worship with beautiful music and artistic displays of devotion? That’s probably fine. But if we look to Jesus as an example, I don’t think we have any evidence that he was concerned with how things look. Just last week in the Gospel, people were commenting to Jesus on the beauty of the Temple and he was like, “All of this is gonna crumble, you know.” Apparently beautiful buildings are not the way to impress Jesus.
If our king is a God who hangs on a cross, who suffers and dies, and we can’t save him and we can’t stop it from happening, and we can’t dress it up to make it look nicer, either, then how do we serve this king? How do we attend this bizarre coronation?
I think instead of rich, textured robes, Jesus would wear the clothes purchased for a child whose name is on an angel tree, or a winter jacket for someone who is cold. Instead of an elaborate dinner with the finest wine, I think Jesus would rather have the stew in a soup kitchen. Instead of a grand hall filled with royalty from many nations and lords and ladies in their finery, Jesus would rather parade the halls of a hospital, visiting people whose hope is fading and bringing them mercy and healing.
Before we start crowning Jesus with gold and making him look like a king we would recognize on earth, let’s remember the actual Jesus who lived in the world simply, entered the world in poverty, healed people and taught God’s love. This Reign of Christ Sunday begs us to look closely at the God we follow. Do we lose our way in entertainment that catches our fancy but does little for our souls? Or do we serve the God who calls us to love one another?
Maybe you didn’t notice the royal invitation to the banquet, but you’ll hear it in a few minutes: the humble invitation to feast on the body and blood of Christ, in obedience to Christ’s command to do this in remembrance of him, but also we receive this gift with joy. Every week in Holy Communion, we are gathering with the body of Christ, the entire company of the saints, and this is the richest invitation we get.
God, make us faithful servants in your kingdom, tune our wills to your will, and show us the way everlasting. Reveal your glory in unexpected ways, and help us to notice.