November 22, 2009

Sermon 11/22/09


Sermon for Christ the King
November 22, 2009
Michael Coffey



Nothing could be more dangerous
and more enticing
than an eternal reign
of power and control.
The theme of our readings
and of this liturgical day
called Christ the King
sounds like an eternal reign of power and control.

The feast of Christ the King
is a 20th century liturgical novelty.
I love exploring and experimenting
with ways of making liturgy and eucharist
all the more powerful and transforming for us and others,
but this particular invention is not one of my favorites.
It came with good intentions, I suppose.
The pope in 1925 instituted the feast
in the face of a world growing in nationalism and secularism.
Proclaiming the reign of Christ
as opposed to the ruling power of any earthly human,
has a good purpose
making all ruling power relative and subject to God.
However, the cynical side of me
doesn’t trust the power and control needs of the church
to think that we ourselves can handle such a claim well.

There’s a problem the church has always faced
as the bearer of the mystery and message of Christ.
If the ruling power of the world belongs to Christ
and Christ belongs to us,
then we somehow have a lot of power.
So the church becomes the holder of true power and control.


We might argue and say
it isn’t about political, worldly power and control,
it’s only about spiritual power, matters of the soul.
But then,
what could be more important and dangerous
than having control over people’s spiritual lives, people’s souls?
So a day to talk about power and control,
especially eternal power and control,
is something we need to observe
with some humility, trepidation, and repentance.
With that said, let’s do it anyway.

The whole point of the biblical witness
is that the kingdom and the power and the glory
belong to God alone and no earthly ruler.
Daniel gives us a vision
of the long awaited reigning power of God
arriving on earth where there is so much death and destruction.
Revelation paints a vivid picture
of the future reign of God where death and tears are no more.
John’s Gospel gives is an ironic picture
of the power of Rome confronting the power of God in Jesus
and Pilate, standing face to face with the truth of God’s rule,
can’t see it at all.

The church has claimed that in the face of all the many ruling powers
God rules in this world through Jesus his chosen one.
The Christian witness to that power in Jesus
is that God rules the world through crucified power,
through humility, servanthood, and mercy,
through giving up claiming your own right or position or control.
That’s why all the impression that the theme of this day
is about an eternal reign of power and control
is false and misleading.
It is a about a reign of powerlessness and giving up control.


In these Scripture readings we get the impression
that this kingdom of God
comes about in some great future day,
or very soon and almost here,
or it is already here in Jesus.
It gets a little confusing, I know.
So when does this reign of God in Christ come about?
In some single, future, cataclysmic moment?
Well, maybe.
I’m completely open to and hopeful about
the way God will complete and fulfill
all the hopes and dreams God has for this world.
It’s beyond me to say it or understand it
Or decide that matter for God.

But the real question about the reign of God in Christ
might not be when, but how.
How does the reign of Christ the king come to be real among us?
I think that this reign of Christ comes about
whenever those who are Christ in the world
live the power of powerlessness each day.
There are glimpses of the kingdom
and moments and transformations that happen
whenever those who see the reign of God in the cross of Christ
actually choose to live it,
choose to relinquish power over others,
choose to use their power for good,
choose to love others for who they are,
and not for who we want them to be
choose to walk with others on the journey
without making them becoming more like us first.

Perhaps no other story in modern times
captures the depth and danger of power
than Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings.
It’s no coincidence that only a few years
after Pope Pius X recognized the growing problem of human power,
Tolkein began working on his story of power and courage.
The world in the 1930's and 1940's
had already fallen under the spell
of human power seeking absolute control.
So Tolkein’s story talks about the ring
that brings the power to reign over all.
And it is clear that no one can handle that power,
not Smeagal who finds the ring after it was lost for millenia,
not Bilbo the adventure loving hobbit
Who doesn’t even understand the power he has found,
not even the little, good-hearted hobit Frodo,
who is well intentioned.
If Frodo keeps the ring for long,
even he will only misuse it
and his power will lead to harm and destruction.

So what has to happen for the story to end well?
The ring must be destroyed.
Absolute, eternal power and control must be destroyed.
The real power Frodo has in the story
is to bring an end to absolute eternal power and control,
to give it all up and toss the ring into the melting fire.

The church gathers around the cross
that witnesses to the end of eternal power and control,
even, believe it or not,
God’s power and control over us.
Instead, a the reigning power of God in Christ
Is the power to become powerless,
The power to serve,
The power to love others
and accept them without changing them first,
The power to be vulnerable with others.


What if the reign of the Christ is happening through the church?
It is a dangerous and risky thing to say.
We have said it for 2,000 years and for much of that time
we have used it as an excuse to exercise power and control
Over other peoples.
But what if it is still true?
What if that power of God in Christ
is seeping into the needy world
but only through crucified words
and crucified actions
that make no claim for controlling anything
but only giving and offering and relinquishing?

The irony of this is that kingdom of God cannot be forced upon anyone,
that would undo and negate what the kingdom is.
it can only be offered and received as a gift
and lived as a joyfully obedient response
by those who get it,
those who see it,
those who know the depth of mercy
and can give themselves freely for it,
It comes in no other way,
or the cross of Jesus would be utterly meaningless and unnecessary.

The story of Jesus before Pilate in John’s Gospel
shows us that the truth is ironic and hidden in plain sight.
The power of the kingdom of God in Jesus
is the power of powerlessness
the power to transform the world
through humility, service, and loving the other.
The power of the reign of God in Christ in us
is the power to live in each day
trusting that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory
are rightly God’s and God’s alone,
because only God can use them for good.

God in the reign of Christ
is giving up control and absolute power over human souls
and instead comes to us and reigns over us
in powerlessness,
and self-emptying,
and loving without being loved first.
If, and only if, we as the church get that
do we have any safe way of talking about the reign of Christ,
Christ the king whose glorious and gentle rule
is over all people,
or maybe better put:
It is beneath all people and undergirds all of life.

Whether or not all people end up knowing
that glorious and gentle rule of God in Christ
is not a subject of great interest to me,
and I think it easily seeps over into the danger zone
of getting everyone else to be like us first,
and controlling the world by converting it to our cause.
But what is of great interest to me
is how we who believe and confess this reign of God in Christ
through crucified power,
actually embody that power,
Actually live that that risky love,
Actually practice that mysterious way of being in the world.
The truth of it,
which Pilate missed,
is right in front of us, too.
Bread is broken,
wine is poured.
Jesus gives himself away freely,
to us, yes,
and to the world for the world’s sake
not for his own sake,
not for the church’s sake.
Jesus gives himself away freely
for the healing and transformation of the world
into a place of selfless love and mercy lived daily.
Is that truth going to be as ironic for the church
as it was for Pilate?
Or will the church continue to find ways
to get beyond the irony,
and be a visible, humble sign of the kingdom of God?

I don’t know.
Talk of church as anyone beyond those of us gathered right here
gets muddy and risky.
But I do know some folks who are gathered right now
right here,
right in the face of the Jesus who is the truth of God’s reign.
You folks,
who will walk out the door and into the week,
and will find ways of living this reign of God in Jesus
I can’t even imagine or direct.
God’s reign that is operative in your body, mind, and soul
through this word and this meal
becomes real through your real, dailiy life.
It will surprise you
and reveal itself to you
as you love others for their own sake.

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