It’s good to know where and with whom you stand. Each year we celebrate the feast of Christ the King and are given the opportunity to stake our claim and proclaim our king. It’s fitting that this day of proclamation would come on the final Sunday of the church year. All the evidence is in. The Gospels offer us everything we need to know about who Jesus is and what it means – or should mean – to claim ourselves as followers of his way. We hear about how Jesus brought the Kingdom of Heaven to earth through his teachings and the way he modeled his life for us. Along the way we witness compassion and resistance, brokenness and healing. Jesus speaks about truth and justice and love and death. He taught us about eternal life and that the Kingdom of Heaven is not only upon us and around us, but also within us.
Where Jesus stands, what he stands for and with whom he stands is clear. He stands in the tension between the kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of Heaven. He stands for truth, justice, peace and salvation through wholeness of life. He yearns for the heart of every human being, and yet he is quickest to stand with those pushed around the most. He aligns himself with the most vulnerable, marginalized and disenfranchised – those often relegated to exile from the mainstream.
So today, we are encouraged to proclaim once again Jesus the Christ as our Lord and king. It is telling that we do that in the shadow of the cross, the instrument of capital punishment, as he hangs – not surprisingly – between to thieves, being put to death by crucifixion, a particularly violent and tortuous method of carrying-out the death penalty commonly reserved for insurrectionists of his time.
The teachings of Jesus and the life he modeled are there before us. The next big question is who are we? Are we people who can authentically claim our own identity as followers of the one whom we proclaim as our king? There is a lot riding on how we answer that question because to claim ourselves as followers of Jesus means that we should emulate his life in our own. It means that we stand where he does, for the things he stands for, and with the people he stands with. It means that we will often find ourselves standing within the tension of a culture clash between the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of the world.
We are living in troubled times. Staggering numbers of refugees are displaced and seeking safe refuge. Immigrants fleeing life-threatening violence are turned-away at our borders, forced to return to a life that feels to them like a death sentence. Our nation is in the death-grip of an opioid epidemic that is taking the lives of millions, in part because some large drug companies value profits over human life and dignity. Our response to the unequaled environmental crisis is inadequate because too many in power are willing to sacrifice the sacredness of God’s creation because of greed and ego. Mass incarceration is once again on the rise because those with power prefer to build more prisons instead of investing in rebuilding people’s lives. Gun violence continues to claim the lives of thousands in mass shootings because people insist on claiming their right to guns over the responsibility of keeping our communities safe. It’s a travesty that so many children live with the insidious fear that their school will be the target of the next mass shooting. We have never abolished racism, but only re-invented it again and again. Our hearts are troubled because so many of us know that the death penalty – nothing less than the state-sanctioned killing of human beings is barbaric and deteriorates our collective soul.
Break our hearts, dear Lord, for what breaks yours.
This, my sisters and brothers in Christ, is the culture clash between the Kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of Heaven. And today we make a statement about where we stand when we stand with Jesus. He was clear when he said that the new covenant is to love God with everything we have – heart, mind, body and soul; and that just as important is to love our neighbor as ourselves. There is a period at the end of that sentence. We are to love all people, regardless of how we worship, who we love, gender identity, religious tradition, denominational stripes or political affiliation. There is no “us” or “them,” there is only us. And no matter who we are, where we have been, what we have done or had done to us, no one is beyond the grace and love of God. This is love with no strings attached and Jesus was also clear on how we are to bring it into the world when he says we are to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner. When we do these things we are doing it to him … with him … for him.
In Baptism in the Episcopal Church, we make a covenant with God to: proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. All persons, all people, every human being means everybody, period. No exceptions. At times this way of being may feel counter-cultural for the kingdom of the world, but never in the Kingdom of God.
As Christians, we should do our best to protest the atrocities of the world around us that diminish respect for human life and all of life in creation. This is what it means to stand with Jesus as our King. Personally, I would never want to realize that I failed to stand against oppressive forces, corrupt power and callous egos because I remained silent while my brothers and sisters of the world, and indeed the earth itself, are being destroyed. And I know that when we do stand up for human dignity and speak out for truth and justice, we in good company because there is no doubt that Jesus stands at our side.
As a prison chaplain who walks daily with our incarcerated brothers and sisters, every time I step into a facility, it is a protest march against the indignities that are suffered by our friends banished to exile in jails and prisons. The same is true for all of us with each step into the world – a world that is often at odds with God’s vision. As Christians, we not only have the right to protest against those things that work against our Christian values, but we also have a clear responsibility to do so. This is what it means to be authentically Christian and claim Christ as our King, not only with our lips, but in our lives – with both our heart and our feet. Anything else falls short of that mark.
We were never promised that the authentic Gospel life would be easy, only that it would be worth it. But when the going gets rough, like a good leader who truly cares for the people, his words comfort us:
Come to me, all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
These are the words of a true king.