Harrowing Of Hell
November 24, 2019

Imagination and the Kingdom of God

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Today we come together to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. In the Episcopal Church this feast day is celebrated every year on this last Sunday of ‘Ordinary time.” This feast day, which was first established by Pope Pius the XI in 1925, is the time in the liturgical calendar when we celebrate Christ’s supreme sovereignty both in heaven and on earth. But as has been the case since the church’s very beginnings, our understanding of the reign of Jesus Christ has often been inconsistent at best. Pope Pius, whose motto was “Pax Christi in Regno Christi” or “The Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ ” himself seemed to waver in how he understood or interpreted the Kingdom of Christ. This is probably best illustrated by the fact that even as he proclaimed the supreme rule of the Christ, he became the first sovereign of the newly established Vatican City on February 11, 1929. While the establishment of Vatican City as an independent City State doesn’t in any way negate the Pope’s proclamation of Christ’s sovereignty – it does indicate the difficulty we Christians often have in understanding how Christ’s Kingdom in Heaven is also present here on earth. We have ideas about what Christ’s kingdom should look like and when we look around at all the messy, broken, difficult and, yes, evil things going on all around us it is hard to proclaim that this here is also the Kingdom of God.

Certainly, that was the case for Pope Pius who served as Pope during the difficult time between the first and second World Wars where the seeds of discord where once again evolving into increasing tension in many parts of the world. It makes sense, then, that the Pope would want to point to the sovereignty of Christ’s Kingdom of Heaven over that of the secular powers. But, just as in Jesus’ time, the secular powers refused to observe the rule of the Christ’s Kingdom. And, in order to try to preserve the temporal power and rights of the Church, the Pope would have to concede to the demands of the powers of that time. While Pope Pius would go on to consistently speak out against both the Nazis and Mussolini, in an attempt to lessen the harassment of Catholic clergy by the new regime, he would also sign the Reichskonkordat—the concordat or agreement between the Holy See and Nazi Germany—which some say gave moral legitimacy to the Nazis. As James Carroll wrote in Constantine’s Sword, “The Reichskonkordat effectively removed the German Catholic Church from any continued role of opposition to Hitler.[1]’”

With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the pope’s work of establishing the concordat with the Germans was not only ill-advised but the wrong thing to do. Because while there is no mention of the Nazis or Hitler’s evil plans of genocide in the agreement, it brought the Roman church back into relationship with the German State. And as history could teach us, the goals of human states are often inimical to the Kingdom of God.

Knowing this now about the times then, however, seems to do little to help us see this reality in the world around us today – especially those of us here in the United States where many of us, as Christians, have enjoyed a very long period of being able to observe our religion freely and openly without threats of harassment and punishment at the hands of our government. In this environment and with the benefits of an extended domestic peace, it is easy to forget how human states can and do harm the children of God – and to unconsciously almost equate our human state with the aims of God’s Kingdom. But they are very different. Today’s gospel gives us an idea of just how different they are. In Jesus’s last moment on the cross, surrounded by criminals on either side of him – one who mocks him and one who comes to believe in him even as he, too, is on the verge of death, Jesus shows us exactly what power in the Kingdom of God looks like. The criminal who believes says to the other, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  And then he says to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus says without hesitation, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The difference between God’s Kingdom and our kingdoms is that God’s love and grace rules supreme and is not bound by subjective evaluations of who deserves to be forgiven or favored or honored. The criminal has been, according to his own words, rightfully punished for his misdeeds but Jesus’ sovereignty judges him with love and grace and promises him an immediate place in the Kingdom of God.

I sometimes wonder if our inability to live into the Kingdom of God here on earth doesn’t come down to that one simple thing – our lack of imagination when it comes to Christ’s Kingdom.  Now I think most of us here have heard John Lennon’s song Imagine at least a time or two… am I right? Well, while it is a beautiful song, I think it is a good example of what I am talking about, regardless of its title. The song begins:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

John Lennon is here giving voice to his desire for peace, for a good and just world where human beings live together in a community that strives for the common good and that values each person. But, Lennon, who is actually describing it — can’t imagine the Kingdom of God. For him, Christians believe in a “heaven” as a place separate and apart from this world which rewards only a few and a “hell” that again is a separate sphere which threatens the majority with eternal punishment. And, of course, these beliefs only add to his dissatisfaction with the world which he sees around him. But that is not the paradise that Jesus refers to in today’s gospel—and it is not consistent with Christian belief in God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Lennon’s difficulty, and our own, in imagining the reign of God on earth makes sense because it is so very difficult for us to separate ourselves from our belief that the powers-that-be have control over us. And it is even more difficult for us to accept and believe in the power and freedom we have as God’s beloved children – as those who are made in God’s image and so, too, contain within ourselves that image. Along with Lennon we often seem to dismiss the power of God’s Kingdom – the power that God does have here on earth – and the power, through God, we have to imagine and change this world. But what if we refused to be subjected to the powers-that be? What if we truly believed in our inheritance as the children of God? Belief is a powerful thing. As Milton would say, “…the mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Next Sunday, we will observe the first Sunday of Advent and will begin a time of expectant waiting for the Messiah; the Christ. Truly imagining – truly believing in the sovereignty of Christ’s kingdom makes this waiting not only bearable but joyful… Christ is King children of God… imagine what is possible if we but risk believing this is true….

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

[1] David B. Green, Haaretz, July 20, 2016