A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on November 25, 2007.
Based on Luke 23:35-43 (Christ the King Sunday, Year C).
I had a brush with royalty once. About twenty years ago my family took a trip to London. We hit all the usual tourist hotspots; the Tower of London, Big Ben, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Then we loaded onto the top of one of those red double-decker buses and toured the city. From that vantage point we had a stunning view of the Thames River as well as some amazingly colorful and unique punk hairstyles. It was the ‘80’s after all. My brother and I even spotted Billy Joel walking in Trafalgar Square and we got him to wave to the whole bus. But that’s not the kind of royalty I’m talking about. No, I’m talking about the real deal. Because towards the end of the day, we ended up in the famous Tate Gallery to see a special Franz Hals exhibit. At some point I wandered off by myself to stare at one of his more magnificent portraits, and when I turned around I came face-to-face with…the Queen Mum.
I’m not much of a royal watcher but even I couldn’t miss this one. There she was, in all her glory, wearing a bright purple dress with matching bright purple shoes and a bright purple handbag. She was short but dignified and quite, well, old. She was at least 90-something at that point – she lived to be 101. But she made a striking impression. And there she was, close enough that I could have literally reached out and touched her. But something held me back – probably the large bodyguard who had his hand inside his sport jacket ready to blow anyone away who even looked at her funny. I smiled slightly and scurried off to find the rest of my family so we could all gawk at a safe distance.
This morning we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. And so we’ve got royalty on our minds and in the readings. We acknowledge the kingship of Jesus and pray to the “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Christ as king is a traditional image of the Church – he’s often portrayed as such, complete with crown and royal robes and orb, in icons and paintings and in crucifixes known as the christus rex. Scripture depicts Jesus returning to judge the earth at the Second Coming adorned in kingly majesty.
Which makes it all the more jarring when we look to this morning’s gospel passage and encounter Jesus’ crucifixion. Hanging on a cross is certainly not how we’d envision the royal splendor of Christ the King. We want to see him coming to us in great glory and robed in purple majesty. But this is hardly the kind of royalty Jesus embodies.
And so when we reflect upon Christ the King, our earthly notions of kingship must be suspended. Because Jesus isn’t about the trappings of earthly monarchs – he was born in a stable, not a palace; he had a rag-tag group of nomadic followers, not a royal court; he had “nowhere to lay his head,” not a royal bed chamber. And yet, as the son of God, Jesus is the only king in the history of kingship who could authentically lay claim to Divine Right.
It was certainly hard for many of Jesus’ own disciples to make sense of his legacy. So many of them misunderstood his kingship. They earnestly believed that he would deliver them by the power of the sword and overthrow the ruling authorities. They wanted to crown Jesus as their king and establish for Jesus an earthly realm over which he and his ancestors would rule for generations. They yearned for a messiah who would change the world; but they wanted it changed on their terms, on the human terms that they knew and understood. They misunderstood the meaning of the kingdom of Heaven on earth. And to counteract this, Jesus often performed his miracles in secret and then demanded that no one tell of his mighty deeds. This, of course, didn’t work out so well. But the reason for this was simple: he didn’t want people to misunderstand his kingship; and he knew it wouldn’t be until after the resurrection that people would begin to fully grasp his teachings about this new kingdom; a kingdom not of this world but of the next.
In the coming weeks of Advent, we’ll hear the Old Testament prophecies foretelling this kingdom. We’ll hear from Isaiah about a place of peace; a place where the lion and the lamb lay down together; a place where swords are beat into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. And together we’ll await the coming of the Christ-child, that incarnational act that ushers in this new kingdom. A kingdom where Jesus expands the notion of royalty to include all of us, not just the chosen few. You and I are part of this new kingdom. Our faith in Jesus Christ makes us royal courtiers in the kingdom of heaven. We’re not left on the outside looking in; we’re brought into the throne room, into the inner sanctum of God’s presence. And that was, and is, a radical notion of kingship. It is the “upside down” kingdom – a place where death leads to resurrection; where light overcomes darkness; where suffering yields to joy; where war gives way to peace.
This morning we hear one of the most compelling exchanges in the New Testament. The so-called penitent thief who is crucified alongside Jesus, says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” And thus is embodied the whole notion of “Seek and ye shall find; knock and the door will be opened unto you.” The penitent thief seeks the kingdom of God and is rewarded. So, too, are we bid to seek the kingdom. Perhaps that’s what we can take away from this day: a renewed passion for seeking the kingdom of God. Not a bad entry point as we prepare for the season of hope and expectation that is Advent.
It is a different kind of kingship. Jesus isn’t part of a high profile and obscenely rich and dysfunctional royal family. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John aren’t comparable to the National Enquirer, the Star, the Sun, and the Globe. Jesus Christ embodies a different kind of kingship, he rules a different kind of kingdom, and he is a different kind of king.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007