Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Not having access to cable or broadcast television I had for several years been largely insulated from tv advertisements, which is just as well because my brain tends to latch on to annoying jingles. There are many such commercial jingles from the 1980s and 90s that are still taking up valuable mental real estate. Unfortunately, YouTube has for a while now been running precisely the sorts of ads that I assume air on regular television, and I’ve been exposed to an annoyingly catchy jingle from Burger King, informing the potential customer that he or she can have french fries or onion or french fries and onion rings. This is followed by the deathless reminder that at Burger King you can “have it your way.”

On this Christ the King Sunday, it is good to remember that the Kingdom of God is not Burger King. We don’t get to have it our way. I mentioned this to a group of clergy colleagues earlier this week as we were talking about what we might preach about today, and I was amused when one of them informed us that if one goes through a drive-through at this restaurant in the Year of Our Lord 2023, one is greeted with the following words: “Welcome to Burger King, where you reign.” I suppose they should really change their name to “Burger Anarcho-Syndicalist Collective”, though that just isn’t as catchy. That said, as contemporary Westerners, and as Americans in particular, the idea that one in authority should determine our choices (even if it’s just about what sort of fast food burger we should have) rubs against our commitments to democracy and individualism.

I hasten to add, I am happy to be an American and I also think that (at least in the secular realm and to an extent within the church) democratic principles are necessary and beneficial. My favorite political philosopher is Jacques Maritain, who laid the intellectual groundwork for Christian Democracy which became ascendant in Western Europe after the Second World War and later in parts of Latin America and in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.

As an aside, Maritain got in trouble with one Pope–Pius XII who wouldn’t follow Maritain’s advice to unequivocally denounce antisemitism–and became best friends with another–Paul VI, who tried to make Maritain the first layperson to be a Cardinal in hundreds of years, but Maritain refused. So, Jacques Maritain was, in my opinion, one of the coolest dudes of the Twentieth Century, and deserves to be more widely known.

Anyway, democratic principles are necessary in a world in which one cannot trust an individual to be sufficiently enlightened and charitable to rule well alone. I was reminded of this when Annie and I went to the movies and saw the highly entertaining (if somewhat silly) Napoleon biopic the other day. The most important thing about that film, I think, was its reminder at the end (and this is not a spoiler, since it’s common historical knowledge) that 3 million people died during the Emperor’s various wars of conquest. Yes, what preceded this was a brutal example in Revolutionary France of the excesses to which democracy can fall, but this doesn’t mean that despotism is at all preferable in this world.

The vision of the Kingdom which is to come, which Jesus proclaimed, stands against both “every man doing right by his own lights” on the one hand and merely human authority on the other. The First Century Jews who were the first to hear Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel would have known painfully well that the answer to anarchy was not unchecked human authority vested in the Roman Emperor or any other fallen human, but in a different country with the only king who could be trusted.

We see in today’s Gospel the nature of this King and his Kingdom. As the King reigning from his throne, Jesus welcomes those whose citizenship is determined solely by the love and concern they share for those on the margins of that same society. He doesn’t require proper documentation or a citizenship exam or the promise to pay taxes. He requires love for the least, the last, and the lost.

The King of Glory is a King whose law is love, and (as I’ve said from this pulpit before) Christian love is not about warm, sentimental feelings; it’s about treating those people we call brothers and sisters as if they really were our brothers and sisters. It’s about comforting the weak and feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and putting the stranger’s needs before our own.

And when I say “stranger”, I mean it. If Christ is truly King, it means that His Law is universal. It really means that we are obliged to see our God and King in people outside our own community. It means we treat the stranger just as well as the person already inside our walls, because in a very real sense the stranger is our King. It means we have to welcome the criminal, just like Jesus did on the cross. It means seeing Jesus in the outsider and then treating that outsider as if he were more important than ourselves. As William Tyndale, father of the English Bible, famously put it, “The Church is the one institution that exists for those outside it.” I fear, sometimes, that we’ve forgotten that.

In all events, the Kingship of Christ is not only different from the kingship of the emperor; it is diametrically opposed to the spirit of our age- the spirit which revels in individualism and so-called enlightened self interest. There is no place in the Kingdom for ethical egoism. I am not sure which is worse: an Emperor in Rome or a king in every man’s self-estimation. Whichever is worse, the latter is the contemporary sin, and it is more dangerous than the former at least as it regards our souls.

So our response to the Kingship of Christ is pretty simple. It is in loving sacrifice that we involve ourselves in Christ’s Kingship. It is in that remarkable paradox in which we see Christ reigning not only from His Throne of Glory, but from the Cross of Shame with a Crown bejeweled by thorns. Our own Glory, our own Kingship is bought on that more shameful throne with that most heavy crown, and our acceptance of the reign into which Christ wishes to welcome us is predicated on our willingness to take up that Cross, put on that crown, and follow.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.