Reign of Christ Sunday
Texts: John 18:33-37;
Dan 7:9-10, 13-14; Rev 1:4b-8
ANOTHER KIND OF KING — WHO SUFFERS THE VIOLENCE IN LOVE
Today we celebrate Reign of Christ Sunday. “Big deal,” you might say (sarcastically). And I wouldn’t blame you. I can’t even remember observing Reign of Christ Sunday as I was growing up in church. Everyone knows about Christmas and Easter. Pentecost is not far behind in terms of being a major Christian holiday. But Reign of Christ Sunday? When did that even become a thing?1
Yet I find myself increasingly being drawn into its celebration as a Christian holy day. It has become a “big deal” for me — without the sarcasm. It has to do, you might guess, with that underlying concern I keep before us: the vanishing of our children’s and grandchildren’s generations from church. I’ve been proposing that we need to revitalize our basic Christian message, and I believe the themes of Reign of Christ Sunday are highly relevant to that — if we don’t see Christ as reigning in heaven only, but instead as our reading from Revelation today proclaims, Christ as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” If we truly come to understand how the Gospel is about God’s reign coming to earth through Jesus Christ, then that could be Good News to anyone with concerns about the crises facing us right now. Things like “climate change and nuclear war and economic inequality and all that” — as named by Charis, the millennial I’ve introduced you two the past two weeks.2 The younger generation is interested more in saving the world here and now than in what happens to us after we die. Celebrating Christ’s reign in this world can be very much about that. We only need to begin to show how.
So let’s recap very briefly where we’ve been in renewing our basic message of salvation. Two weeks ago (All Saints Sunday B) we began by simply asking, What or who did God send Jesus to save? We answered, God sent Jesus to save the entire creation, not just human souls. Last week (Proper 28B), we extended that question just a bit: What did God send Jesus to save the creation from? Our answer was not just sin in general, but especially the sin of human violence, the sin that most directly threatens our survival. That’s what we most need saving from throughout the long history of our species. And we talked about a special category of human violence that the cross itself represents — namely, the violence we sanction in order to contain the violence we think most directly threatens us. The Jewish and Roman leadership executed Jesus on the cross because they saw him as a threat to their law and order.
In ancient human cultures, the experience of using a dose of violence to ward off wider outbreaks of violence — a kind of vaccination against violence — began as ritual blood sacrifice. It’s very mysterious to us, but archeologists keep showing us repeatedly that ritual blood sacrifice was everywhere across the globe, going way, way, way back in time. As human societies grew more complex, this logic of sacrifice grew into things like executing criminals and forming armies to fight our enemies. On Christ the King Sunday, we note that these are the things that we look to human kings to provide for us. The most famous kings and emperors throughout history have been the ones that are successful at keeping law and order and in winning wars.
So human history, as such, has largely been all about this violence we use to try to stop our enemies. Will it ever stop? Is it an unending story of war after war until we finally destroy ourselves? Today we come to celebrate Reign of Christ Sunday with these questions front and center. We might do so by extending our questions about the message of salvation one more time. God sent Jesus to save us from our human violence. But how? How indeed? The only answer human beings have been able to come up with at this point is to fight fire with fire — in other words, to fight violence with violence. Is that God’s answer? Through the ages, human beings have certainly thought so. Our gods are like more powerful versions of our greatest kings and emperors who lead us into victory. On Reign of Christ Sunday we might ask: Do we celebrate Christ as a ruler like our kings and emperors as one who fights violence with violence? Or do we celebrate Christ as a ruler who finally brings us a different answer, one who is finally giving us an alternative to a history of endless wars?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let me cut right to the chase here. What I want to convey to you above all else is this crucial difference between how human beings try to save ourselves from violence with and through violence, and how God gives us a very different alternative through Jesus Christ. Human beings evolved with its own way of salvation from violence, and so the story of the Bible is how the true God has for centuries and millennia been trying to break through that evolution with another answer. We evolved with gods of violence for tens of thousands of years. If the true God that Jesus came to reveal to us is actually about something else — the power of love — then it would take at least thousands of years for that God to break through to us. Do you see how hard this is for God? This project of God’s to break through our evolution is how I’ve come to read the Bible in terms of looking for this journey from violence to love. Jesus came not only to reveal a very different God than the gods we had evolved with, but to break through our faith in those gods of violence it would take a very different way of reigning as our king in order to finally break through to us.
Today we are also finishing Year B in the three-year lectionary of scripture readings, the year featuring the Gospel of Mark, with the Gospel of John sprinkled in. Next week, with Advent, we begin the Year C featuring Luke’s Gospel. It would be a fitting end to Year B if we highlighted one of Mark’s central features, namely, how thickheaded the disciples were in not getting what Jesus was trying to show and tell them. They just never get what Jesus is trying to show them, right to the end. In other words, what we just said: how hard it is for the true God of love to break through our evolution with gods of violence. At a dramatic moment, when Jesus is beginning to teach in parables, Jesus quotes the call of the prophet Isaiah. Let me quote those verses from Isaiah 6 in their entirety. Isaiah has just said, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” but the passage continues:
And the LORD said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate. . . .” (Isaiah 6:9-11)
Do you see? That’s what we’ve been talking about today. We human beings have an almost impossible time of listening and seeing the true God of peace because of the noise from the violent gods we evolved with. We listen to them instead of the true God and so our history is a seemingly endless cycle of our cities lying waste in the aftermath of wars. In Mark’s Gospel, that’s dramatized by the denseness of Jesus’s own chosen disciples who continue to remain deaf and blind to his true message, while Jesus ironically heals people who are deaf and blind.
Let’s recall a sequence from Mark’s Gospel that we just read last month.3 Jesus has just told them for the third time that the Messiah isn’t going to be dishing out the violence to enemies. No, the Messiah is going to be suffering violence at the hands of their enemies, and the disciples continue not to listen. James and John take Jesus aside and ask if they can sit at his right and left hands when he comes in power. They are still clearly still thinking in terms of human kings who use violence to come into power. Jesus gathers everyone around him and tries one last time: ‘The nations’ kings,’ he tells them, ‘Lord it over them and use force to have them serve. But it isn’t so with me. I’m a Lord who came to serve others rather than be served, and to give his life as a ransom from many.’ Jesus came to not only speak the message of the true God, but also to live it on the cross. And when God raises him on the third day, it will be with the power of love and forgiveness, not vengeance and violent overthrow.
But in Mark’s Gospel there’s no one there that first Easter to carry on. Do you remember the very strange ending of Mark’s Gospel? The women all run away from the tomb and don’t tell anyone. Full stop. That’s the way Mark’s Gospel ends. Why? Obviously, someone told someone, or the Christian movement would never have been launched. But I think Mark has ended his Gospel in the same way as he’s portrayed the disciples throughout. Mark, above all the evangelists, has been realistic about hard it for us to get this. Let’s be realistic. How successful have we Christians been in listening and seeing this over the centuries? How have we, or haven’t we, understood the Gospel as being about saving us from our violence by suffering the violence rather than inflicting it?
As we end the year of Mark’s Gospel with this passage from the end of John’s Gospel, we see this again, right? Jesus is standing before Pilate. His followers are hoping that Jesus is going to turn the Tables on Rome and dish out to them some of their own medicine. Jesus is standing before Pilate and says, ‘Here’s the truth. If my kingdom was like the other earthly kingdoms, my followers would be fighting. But that’s not going to happen.’ That’s not God’s answer to the problem of violence.4
Coming to a conclusion this morning, I’m aware that all this stuff about nonviolence may be raising more questions than it may answer. It’s going to take listening anew . . . thinking creatively . . . for new possibilities that we Christians haven’t put our minds to in a long time. Two thousand years later, we still haven’t trusted in the power of nonviolent love. It’s so hard! It’s so hard to think that there’s a better answer to the problem of our human violence than using bigger and better violence. Bigger bombs, bigger armies, better weapons . . . and a great king to lead us . . . a great president, a great leader. Jesus presents us with a God who’s so different — who suffers the violence rather than dishing it out. Who comes to reveal to us a different power in this world. Love. And forgiveness. Ways to unite the human family rather than to constantly divide.
Here’s a big part of the grace for me — what we’ve been talking about today: how hard it is for us to understand this because of our evolution. That for tens of thousands of years we’ve relied on, we’ve believed in, gods and kings who lead us to dishing out the violence in order to stop our enemies. So from the passages we’ve looked at today — from Isaiah to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel — we see a God who understands how hard it is. That’s part of the grace! At the core of this message is itself the way of love and forgiveness. We are forgiven for not understanding. God says to us yet again, “Here’s another chance for you to hear and understand.”
Which brings us to the Good News for today: I believe from the top of my head to the tips of my toes that we are living in a moment — right now, with the mess of the world all around us — that our children’s and grandchildren’s generations are really open to hearing and understanding this other Way. And that we might bring that message to them anew . . . fresh. What does that look like? To be continued next week (Advent 1C). Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, November 21, 2021
1. Christ the King Sunday was instituted first in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, initially in October, and then moved to its present location at the end of Ordinary time in 1970. Protestants have gradually accepted it as part of its lectionary, cementing its place with the finalization of the Revised Common Lectionary in 1994. For more, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_Christ_the_King
2. From Brian McLaren, Faith after Doubt, 134.
3. The passage in question is Mark 10:35-45, which appears in the lectionary on Proper 24B (October 16-22). In 2021 that Sunday fell on October 17, five weeks prior to Reign of Christ Sunday on November 21.
4. There’s a lot more that could be unpacked from this passage which time doesn’t allow for due to editing choices made for this sermon. A key place to look for more on this text is the work of N.T. Wright, for whom the notion of Jesus coming as a decidedly different kind of king is so crucial that he wrote an entire book focused on it: How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. This passage appears often in that book, and at crucial places, such as pages 144-45 and 228-32. He also revisits this theme in a more recent book, Broken Signposts, 177-78.