Harrowing Of Hell
November 26, 2023

Christ the King

Susan Pitchford, Lay Preacher

To watch the sermon click here.

Let’s just be honest from the start. In this country, we may admire and even be kind of fascinated by the monarchies of other countries (we’re talking about Britain here, because that’s the only one we know anything about)–while we may enjoy the pomp and ceremony of a coronation, we really don’t want any of that for ourselves. We opted out of that a long time ago, and public “servants” who begin to act like royalty kind of give us a rash. So I’ve noticed that lots of people in the church here don’t get too excited about a feast called “Christ the King.” It’s very hierarchical, not to mention very masculine—so that’s two strikes right there. 

And I get it. I like democracy. I mean, democracy is terrible, but it’s the best system we have, right? Or maybe the best system we sort of try to pretend to approximate?

As an aside, it might interest you to know that Christ the King is a relatively new feast. It was only established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. Why then? The motivation was very political. It was a time when the fascist movement was rising in Italy and Germany (Spain would follow later), and the Church wanted to remind people of where true power resides, and where Christians’ true allegiance should lie: not with the kingdoms of this world. And we have not gotten past needing that reminder.

Okay. So when Jesus arrived on the scene, we’re told in Mark’s gospel that he announced: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” So there’s a kingdom, and that’s somehow gospel, or “good news.”

The Jews of Jesus’ time were plenty used to monarchy, and they were also definitely in need of some good news. They knew all about fallible leaders and oppressive political systems. There’d been–disastrously–the Babylonians, then the Persians, who actually weren’t that bad, but then the Seleucids who were, and now Rome. Conquest, occupation and oppression were woven into Israel’s story, and the people were ready—that is to say, longing—for a righteous king. A king who would rule them God’s way. Or at least, what they imagined to be God’s way. 

And Jesus comes saying, “Great news–it’s here!” When I imaginatively insert myself into that scene, I see myself looking around me and going, “It is? Is it? What’s changed?”

Let’s go back to the British monarchy for a moment. One of the fundamental things about the royals is that they’re inaccessible. And there’s a whole huge industry that makes enormous sums of money by giving us peeks at them. And when there’s a great occasion like a coronation or a royal wedding, they themselves give us a peek, by coming out on the balcony and waving at the throngs of people below. Now, I’m a sociologist and my professional opinion is that in the eyes of the world, the people who matter are on the balcony, and the people below don’t matter at all–or they only matter because they make a large crowd. But as individuals, they’re utterly insignificant. 

That’s how the world does kingdoms. And before we congratulate ourselves on not having any of that–come on. We have our elites and masses too. If you think you can just walk right up to the President, I would invite you to have a chat with the Secret Service first. 

The world does kingdoms in worldly ways (surprise!). But the point of today is that Jesus doesn’t

Jesus spends a lot of his ministry telling us what the kingdom is like: precious pearls, a treasure buried in a field, a mustard seed. But there are certain places where we learn more about what he is like as a king. 

When Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus tells him that his kingdom is not from this world—if it were, his followers would be fighting for him. That seems a little optimistic at this point in the story, given how his gutless disciples have just fled. But he knew they could–and eventually would–do better.

Soon after that, we hear the crucified man next to Jesus say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It’s an odd thing to ask of a man who’s being tortured to death at your side. Maybe desperation, losing everything, and being on the edge of eternity gives you a certain clarity of vision. 

So Jesus declares that the kingdom is at hand as he begins his earthly ministry, and at the end, he speaks again of his kingdom, the one that is “not of this world.” 

Kingdom talk at the beginning, kingdom talk at the end…and in between, nothing anyone would recognize as a kingdom—except maybe from the vantage point of a cross—nothing that looks like a kingdom has appeared. So the question still goes begging: what is this kingdom? And why is its appearance such good news?

Remember your French history, how Louis XIV said “L’etat, c’est moi”? “I am the state, I am the nation.” Well, Louis was a bit of a narcissist, but Jesus wasn’t—yet he was saying something similar. When Jesus appeared on the scene, the “kingdom” was near because the kingdom was him

Let’s think about this. In the beginning, Eden was the place where God walked among humans in the cool of the day. Then it was the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and finally the Temple, where God’s glory dwelt among the people. But now, Jesus is the place where Israel’s God dwells, the place where everything is right, everything is exactly what it should be. As the God-man, Jesus is himself, in his own person, the point where heaven touches earth and earth heaven. Centuries before, the prophet Isaiah had told the people of Israel that their “builder,” their God, “wants to marry you.” Jesus is himself the marriage of heaven and earth, the union of God with humanity. It’s not exactly a coincidence that his first public miracle is at a wedding

In John’s gospel, when Philip brings Nathanael to meet Jesus, to “come and see,” Nathanael instantly gets it: “You are the Son of God,” he says to Jesus; “you are the King of Israel.” And Jesus answers that confession with a stunning statement to Nathanael: “You will see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” What a bizarre thing to say; I mean, it’s kind of a non-sequitur. 

But think about the last time in scripture that we saw the angels going up and down between heaven and earth—that is, in a place where heaven touched earth, and earth heaven. It was in Genesis 28, when the patriarch Jacob was running from his brother Esau, whom he’d defrauded, and he had that strange “Jacob’s ladder” dream. Remember? 

And when he woke, what did he say? “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” He went on to say, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” And now Jesus, standing before Nathanael, is the house of God, is the gate of heaven, where that union of heaven and earth finally takes place.

So Jesus arrives on the scene, and announces that the kingdom of heaven has come. Israel has a king once again. But we still haven’t said why this is particularly good news. Israel’s had lots of kings over the course of its history, some of whom were great and some…not. And even if Jesus’ presence does bring earth and heaven together, what if that’s just for the purpose of damning everyone to hell? That wouldn’t be such great news.

It becomes good news when we remember who and what the God is who is now “with us” in Jesus. Our collect for today speaks of “his most gracious rule.” What would a “most gracious” ruler be like? We get a look in today’s gospel, in the story of the sheep and the goats. 

Jesus does come as judge; there’s no getting around that. I’ve been learning about near death experiences lately (and Doyt talked about them in the forum last Sunday), and I’d love to believe that we’ll all just go sailing happily into the light when our time comes. But Jesus is telling us there will be a reckoning. We will ultimately have to face the truth of how we’ve lived our lives.

But look at the criteria! Contrary to the kingdoms of the world, it’s not about who’s born into “importance,” or who was talented or lucky or even cunning and treacherous enough to slither their way into the elite. The ones congratulated by this King are those who’ve shown mercy to the poor and defenseless: “the least of these.” “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” 

And there’s more good news: There’s not a tiny balcony for a select few, and hordes of unimportant people below. This King brought every one of us up to the balcony at the greatest personal cost. Because every single one of us is important, every one of us is known to the King by name. This King is utterly, totally, accessible to us at all times, on intimate terms, every day and every moment of our lives. Because this King is love: that’s the good news. And I don’t care what you think about yourself: you are his beloved, no matter what.

At All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA, they’ve written another collect for today. I’d like us to close by praying it together. Let us pray:

Most Gracious God, who in Jesus of Nazareth showed us an alternative to the kings, queens and emperors of history, help us to revere and emulate Jesus’ leadership: To love, and to seek justice for all people. Help us to recognize the true grandeur and life-changing power based in loving you and all of our neighbors. In Christ Jesus with you and the Holy Spirit, may we co-create a world ruled not through domination, but in that radical and all-powerful compassion and love. Amen.