Reign of Christ Sunday
Texts: Luke 23:33-43;
Jer 23:1-6; Col 1:11-20
A DIFFERENT KIND OF RULER
Many people — myself included — are in the middle of watching Season 5 of The Crown on Netflix. I found Episode 4 to be especially enlightening for our celebration of Christ the King Sunday today. It’s 1992 and Queen Elizabeth is preparing to give a frank talk on her 40th anniversary of being on the throne. It has been such a horrible year — her three children are all in the process of having their marriages fall apart, and there’s been a terrible fire at Windsor Castle — it’s been such a horrible year that she titles her talk just that, Annus Horribilis, Latin for “horrible year.” Just as she is getting ready to leave, the Queen Mother comes in to talk her out of proclaiming annus horribilis to the rest of the world. Using Elizabeth’s own Latin theme, the Queen Mother says, tempis fugit, “time flies.” The time will fly by without anyone really noticing what a bad year it was for them . . . unless she memorializes it with the speech. Then, it will be recorded and remembered forever. The Queen Mother asks her why she would want to do that, to which Queen Elizabeth responds, “. . . I’m made of flesh and blood. And perhaps that I ha – we have fallen short in our duty as a family, and owe them an apology.”
“Apology?!” exclaims the Queen Mother. “That word shouldn’t be in your vocabulary. Monarchy is the only part of the constitution with an element of the divine. When you wear the crown, you are transfigured. Apologizing sullies not just your dignity but God’s, whose will it is that you are who you are.”
There you have it: a brief summary of the theology of kingship throughout human history. I say theology because it’s a worldview which sees it as God’s will that kings and queens should be kings and queens, and the rest of us as not — the rest of us somewhere below them on the power grid. For millennia, human beings have gone along with a theology which says that God puts kings and queens in their place to have power over the rest of us and justified in their hoarding of the lion’s share of the wealth and power. Pretty convenient, right? That God apparently made things that way? Convenient for the kings. Not so much for the rest of us.
That’s why I’ve emphasized the theme in recent weeks of how important our American experiment is. The American people created for one of the first times in history, a democracy where one person isn’t put in place by God to rule over the rest of us. No, we the People elect our leaders, not to rule over us but to govern with us. It’s not God’s will when we elect a president, or governor, or mayor. It’s our will.
And to go along with that principle of election, we also have the revolutionary principle that we still haven’t quite lived up to: the amazing principle that all people are created equal. We haven’t quite yet lived up to it because we began this country giving the full right to vote to only landowning white men. Women were excluded. People of color were excluded. Poor white men didn’t have full voting rights, primarily because of things like the Electoral College. But over our 246-year history, we’ve now come a long way in living into that principle. Giving full voting rights and opportunities to everyone will always be the first step to realizing the principle of all people being created equal. For we elect our leaders, not God — nor anyone else who thinks that their wealth and power gives them the right to limit the rights of others.
In short, human history is the story of how the rich and powerful used false notions of God as a means to prop up their own power. Democracy is the thing that begins to change all that. It is not God’s will that kings and queens should be kings and queens, and the rest of us not. It is God’s will that all people are created equal.
On Reign of Christ Sunday, we celebrate the ruler, God’s Messiah, who basically came to help us realize this. He is a different kind of ruler, one sent to help us realize our deeply mistaken politics in which some people are propped up by the gods to rule over others. Jesus of Nazareth is the king sent by God to help us undo all that. He is the ruler who truly treats all people as if they are created equal. Even while hanging on the cross, he asks God’s forgiveness on those who are executing him, “for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (More on that line in a couple minutes.) As ruler, he even tells one of the criminals hanging next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” A normal human ruler would never think of doing something like that. But to Jesus everyone deserves equal opportunity to flourish in life, even someone who has made a terrible mistake and committed a crime. As long as they realize what they have done and are ready to move into the true God’s way of being human, then that journey into a new life of flourishing can begin. All people are created equal.
The problem, of course, is that humankind has not yet been ready, as a whole, to move into God’s politics of everyone being created equal, a politics that begins by prioritizing the most vulnerable. In Jesus we see God’s way: that if the weakest and least powerful are cared for, then everyone will truly be cared for. And then everyone will have the opportunity to live lives of discovering what best helps them to flourish. In his life and teaching, Jesus, from beginning to end, made it clear that if God truly has a preference for anyone, it is not for the rulers and the rich. It’s actually a preference for the poor, for the least in God’s family.
Why? Not against the rich and powerful, but to help everyone to see that it’s in everyone’s best interest, including the rich and powerful, that we all have the opportunity to flourish. All people are created equal. We can only fully realize that divine principle when we work to level the playing field from the one that has been tilted in favor of the rich and powerful for most of human history. We’ve seen this all year long in Luke’s Gospel in particular. The pregnant Mary sings about the leveling of the playing field — the mighty brought down from the thrones and the lowly lifted up. Jesus inaugurates his ministry in his hometown by reading from the prophet Isaiah about Good News for the poor. He tells parables about heaven celebrating the lost being found and the dead being made alive. Finally, he lets himself be executed as a criminal next to other criminals, the lowest of the low, so that God could lift him up on Easter morning. Yes, Jesus came as a different kind of ruler, launching God’s reign here on earth. Not with an army to destroy enemies, like the other rulers. But by intentionally submitting to the emperors’ deadly power so that God could show the true power of life on Easter morning. The true power of life comes through a completely different kind of ruler, one who shows us how to take of everyone, beginning with the least.
I said that I’d get back to Jesus’s statement that God forgives us for we don’t know what we’re doing. I include us in that statement, because I’m not sure we’ve completely seen the light yet. We still seem enamored with the age-old power of human kings and queens, with the rich and the powerful. Jesus came to show us the power of God’s reign — namely, a power of love that reaches out to the least in our human family and even to our enemies — but how much do our politics reflect that? Do you and I advocate for a politics which cares for everyone by reaching out first to the least? Or have we lapsed back, at least partly, into the same age-old politics of kings and queens and billionaires who convince the rest of us that it is God’s will that they are rich and powerful? That it is God’s will when anyone becomes rich and powerful over others?
I dare to ask these questions because I think our lapse into at least partial not-knowing comes along with one of the main things I’ve been talking about as your pastor: namely, an over-emphasis on the afterlife. The Good News in Jesus is not just about what happens to us after we die and go to heaven — an emphasis, by the way, which benefits the rich and powerful in this life, if they can convince the rest of us that the rich staying rich and the poor staying poor is how it’s supposed to be that way in this life. No, the Good News throughout the New Testament centers on God’s reign coming into the world through Jesus the Messiah, here and now.
And two thousand years later we are blessed to live in a democracy that is actually founded on, and seeking to progressively live into, the central principle of God’s reign, that all people are created equal. It’s not as the Queen Mother says to Queen Elizabeth in The Crown. It’s not a matter of God’s will that some are created to be kings and queens, or rich and powerful, and the others not. No, God created all people equal. God created all people to be able to discover on their own, in freedom, what makes them to flourish —
In coordination with the flourishing of those around us, we must add. It’s not a matter of my flourishing in a way that hinders your flourishing. In a family, it’s a matter of flourishing by helping each other to flourish. That’s how it works. That’s how God made the world. Not as a place where only a small minority truly flourishes, as has been the case through most our history. No, in Jesus the Messiah, a different kind of ruler, we see that God made this world in love so that we would learn to do what God does: to see each other as family, as brothers and sisters, so that we might help each other to flourish. This is the vision of God’s reign which we are invited to take to the polls with us this week. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, November 20, 2022