Sermon for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 29C) November 24, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Jeremiah 23:1-6Colossians 1:11-20
Psalm 46Luke 23:33-43

With me in Paradise

Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Feast Day of Christ the King.  In a sense all the prayers, all the Scripture readings, all the worship services of the past year lead up to this moment, for today we affirm the kingship of Christ, the one to whom we give our ultimate allegiance, the one whom we name as King of kings and Lord of lords. 

Now I have to stop right here and ask: What happens inside you when you hear the phrase “King of kings and Lord of lords” in today’s Collect?  What meaning does it have for you?  Are you drawn to the phrase or does it make you wince and pull back?  Personally, I have not always found the image of Christ the King particularly appealing.  At first glance the image evokes nothing more than patriarchy and arbitrary authority.  Many of us still entertain an image from an older generation of Christians, that Christ the King is a severe taskmaster and judge.  Many of us inadvertently confuse Christ the King with a punishing super-ego figure, like an angry father.  On top of that, we live in a democracy, in which our system of government began with getting rid of kings.  

So for years I found other images of Christ much more compelling: the image of Jesus as a child in his mother’s arms, the image of Jesus as the healer, as the teacher and truth-teller, as the good shepherd and guide.  I have turned in prayer to Jesus as the one who listens and gives life, as the crucified One who meets the world’s evil and suffering with love, as the Risen One who overcomes death and whose face is radiant with light – these have been powerful images of Christ for me, and for a long time I pretty much ignored the image of Christ the King.  Then, to my surprise, in a darkened cathedral in the city then called Leningrad, the image of Christ the King suddenly became very real.

It was in 1988, and I was on a diocesan trip to the Soviet Union to celebrate Easter and to mark the coming of Christianity to Russia one thousand years before.  One morning our group stood in St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which claimed to be one of the largest domed cathedrals in the world and has space in its sanctuary for 10,000 people to pray.  It was an impressive building, made of fourteen kinds of marble, and still graced with beautiful icons and mosaics.  But in 1988 Communism ruled the country, and the cathedral was not used as a space for worship.  In fact, ever since the Russian Revolution in 1917, worship in the cathedral had been forbidden.  Most of its priests had long ago been arrested, tried, and shot.  Jackhammers had ripped up the altar; placards denouncing religion had been mounted on the walls; and the dove of the Holy Spirit that once hung from the inner dome had been replaced with a pendulum to signal the rotation of the earth. 

Clearly, in the years after the Revolution, every effort had been made by the political authorities to mock and trivialize the holy, and to pour contempt on the deep human longing for connection to the divine.  Karl Marx famously denounced religion as magical wish-fulfillment, and condemned any notion of God as merely a human projection.  His followers scorned religion as nothing more than a relic of history. The powers-that-be had shrugged off faith in Christ as fantasy and superstition, as an opiate that distracted people from the real issues of the day.  And so the abandoned cathedral remained dimmed and dark and empty.  No candles flickered in the candlesticks.  No incense filled the air.  There was no choir-song to lift the heart, but just the slap and shuffle of shoes against the floor, and the constant murmur of the tour guides, commenting on this detail and that.  God was gone, and only a massive building remained, as empty as a worn-out shoe, as useless as a soda can discarded at the side of a busy highway.

And then I turned my eyes toward the darkness behind the holy doors that enclosed the place where the high altar once stood.  To my astonishment, out of the darkness a pair of eyes met mine.  There in the darkness stood a silent figure.  It was an enormous stained glass Christ the King, wearing brilliant, red robes.  His right hand was raised in blessing; his left hand was holding a scepter.  But it was his clear and steady eyes that grasped me, eyes at once compassionate and severe, eyes without a trace of sentimentality, the clear and loving eyes of the One who reigns in glory.  Christ was witnessing in silence to the power of love even here, where his sanctuary had been desecrated, even here, where his name was mocked.  Christ was King.  Even here, his loving, suffering, and triumphant presence was alive.  I could not turn away.  Christ’s eyes met mine, and my heart bowed in joy.

Who is this King to whom we give our hearts today?  Christ is King, but he is unlike any king on earth.  Christ is no patriarch who reigns above his subjects with impassive ease.  Christ comes among us not to dominate but to serve, not to exploit but to heal, not to force but to set free.  Christ suffers and dies with us and for us, and his loving arms sustain the world.  Even in the most desecrated and abandoned places of our lives, even in the most desecrated and abandoned places of our world, Christ’s love continues to abide and reign.      

We see that vividly in today’s Gospel passage (Luke 23: 35-43).  From out of the depths of terror and suffering, Jesus is able to speak a word of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  When Jesus is taunted by one of the criminals crucified beside him, he absorbs the verbal blows as silently as he endured the taunts of those who nailed him to the cross.  When the other criminal has a brief moment of repentance and a momentary change of heart, that last-minute willingness to turn to Jesus to ask for help is the only opening that Jesus needs.  Jesus turns to the man and gives him everything. “Today,” he says, “today you will be with me in paradise.”  It is as if Jesus were turning to the repentant man with shining eyes, to say, “Come with me!  Let’s go!  I won’t leave you behind.  I will never leave you behind.  I will be with you always.  You will share in everything that I receive.” 

Jesus is the king who gives everything away, the king who shares his glory and who gives us a crown. When we are locked in our own small world, imprisoned by bitterness or anger or grief or fear, trapped by worry or compulsion just as tightly as the two criminals beside Jesus were nailed to the wood of their crosses, time and again we can do what the penitent thief did: we can admit that we’re frightened or that we’re lost or that we’ve blown it, and we can turn to Jesus.  All he needs from us is just the tiniest of signs, the smallest chink in the wall of our self-enclosed prisons – just a moment of honesty or repentance or compassion – and, if we are willing, he will give us everything he has, his very self to sustain us, to strengthen us and to guide us home.

My friends, it is difficult to say goodbye, but if I had to pick a day to do it, I can’t think of a better day than on the Feast Day of Christ the King.  For a goodly stretch of time, Sunday by Sunday we have opened ourselves to Christ’s living presence.  Sunday by Sunday we have gathered to find our story in his story, and to find his story in our story.  Sunday by Sunday we have listened for Christ in our singing and our silence, in our doubts and our yearning and our praise.  In worship together we have drawn close to Christ, and then we have been sent forth to share that love wherever we go.  As long as we live, I hope that we will always breathe Christ: breathe Christ in, and breathe Christ out, breathe in God’s intimate love, and breathe out that love in our acts of compassion and service.  Don’t think that I am gone for good.  I won’t be attending weekly services at Grace, but I will still be part of this diocese, and I will be counting on you to keep the Gospel alive in this beautiful corner of the world.

Here on this last Sunday of the church year, we lift up God’s well-beloved Son as King of kings and Lord of lords, the one whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, the one who searches for the lost and rescues the scattered, the one who brings back the strayed and binds up the injured, the one who longs to gather everyone and all Creation into a community of justice and love.  We bow today to the One whom we meet in our depths and in our midst, whenever we’re vulnerable to love.  We call Christ “King” because our ultimate allegiance is to Christ, who is love.  It is in love, and love alone – not in fear, not in power-over, but only in love – that we find our identity, our true destiny, and our home.  In good times and bad, Christ is King.  In times of gladness and of sorrow, Christ is King.  In our greetings and our partings, in our beginnings and our endings, in the sowing and the reaping, Christ is King. 

Here at this table, where Christ gives himself to us in the bread and the wine, we will always meet – you and I, and every one of us, the living and the dead, those who are near and those who are far away.  Whenever we share in Holy Communion, Christ will draw us again into the heart of God, where everyone is present, and where the limits of time and space have no meaning.  As we say goodbye – as we say to each other “God be with you” and “God go with you” – we give thanks that love is all, that love is everything, that love never dies.  Christ is King.