Sunday 25 November 2018
Reign of Christ Sunday
This is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we have a new beginning. Next week is the first Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, the start of the cycle of a new liturgical year. But this week is the end. This is Christ the King Sunday, also called Reign of Christ Sunday. This is the end.
And so we begin at the end, or rather, at the beginning of the end. We turn this morning to the beginning of the last book of the bible. And Apocalypse of John, the Book of Revelation.
It’s hard to capture in English the true depth of meaning or the elegance of poetry in today’s passage. It’s hard to perceive the pure volume of significance that is packed into such a very few verses. Virtually every word is loaded with hidden meaning. And in only four and a half verses, there are no fewer than twenty-eight allusions to other passages of the bible, each one evoking a world of context and meanings, all crammed into these few words. It’s difficult to get all that across.
The Book of Revelation is in the form of a letter, and like any letter of the period, it begins, after an introduction, with blessings upon the intended readers. “Grace to you, and peace”—a very standard blessing. But then we are told where the grace and peace are supposed to come from, and it is hard to imagine a description more florid than the one we get.
First, blessings come from “the one who is and who was and who is to come.” Only eight words, but I could probably spend eight minutes explaining them. The one who is. Literally, the being one, the one who is existing, the one who is existence itself, the source of all being, the great I AM. This refers not only to the Hebrew understanding of God the creator, but also to the Greek understanding of the prime mover, the first cause, that thing whose existence allows all other things to exist. This is also the title you’ll see written around Jesus’s head in most icons. Just three letters in Greek: ὁ ων. The being one. The one who is being itself.
But this being one, the who is, is also the one who was. Who has been since the beginning of time, the eternal, the everlasting. The one who existed before there was existence.
And the one who is and was is also the one who is coming. The one on whom we wait. The one who will set the world right, who will bring about salvation, who will declare justice and peace to the nations. The one who is and was and is to come. Heavy, heavy words, filled with an over abundance of philosophical meaning. Blessings from one who is and was and is to come. Blessings from God the Creator.
Second, blessings come from the seven spirits who are before his throne. This letter is addressed to seven different churches, and so here are described the seven spirits or angels who are assigned to look after them, one for each church.
But third and most importantly, blessings come from Jesus Christ. And the remainder of this passage is spent describing Jesus.
First, Christ is the witness. The Greek word is μάρτυς, martyr. The one who will declare the truth regardless of the consequences, and the one who through his death reveals the true nature of reality. His words bring about his death, but his death and resurrection speak a word of their, a word of blessing and grace to all people, the good word that Death has been defeated by the Lord of Life.
Christ is also the faithful one. The one who can be trusted. The one who fulfills his obligation to God even if that means death. The one whom we can trust with our cares, our joys, our sorrows, our fears. The whom we can trust with our very lives. Jesus Christ, the faithful one.
And Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead. He died, and dying he defeated death. He conquered the grave. And because he lives we know that death no longer has any power over us. In his resurrection is the promise of eternal life.
And Christ is the ruler of the kings of the earth. That is the title of this sermon: Ἄρχων τῶν Βασιλέων. Βασιλέων is the word for kings. Ἄρχων has a dual meaning. It can refer something very powerful, like an archbishop (a bishop that is over other bishops) or an archangel (an angel that is over other angels). It can also refer to something that very old, like archaic or archeology. Jesus is above all of the earthly authorities, the one whose power is so great that even the greatest of emperors seems weak in comparison. He is greater than earthly rulers because he came before all of them, because his authority comes from before the beginning of time, from before the foundations of the earth were put in place. He is the ruler of the kings of the earth.
Next, Christ loves us with a holy and godly love, the love by which all other love is defined. He has freed us from our sins. He has broken the chains and set us loose from the power that sin had over our lives. And he did it by his blood. The blood he shed for our sake, the blood that he shares with us in the sacrament of Holy Communion, the blood that makes us one human family, bound together through his self-giving grace.
Christ makes us to be a kingdom, an empire of God. In him we are part of an order, part of a reality that is not like the broken politics of this world. It is a kingdom that transcends this world, that is beyond and above our understanding. But at the same time it is a kingdom that is continuously breaking in to our present reality, overthrowing the forces of evil, bringing about justice and peace. And it is a kingdom that will one day conquer evil once and for all, that will put an end to suffering and pain and grief and crying and mourning. Christ’s kingdom of peace will be without end.
Christ makes us priests of God, each one of us. In everything we do we are serving the most high. In the most mundane actions we are offering sacred sacrifices to God. And so each thing we do should be done as a gift to God. Every action we take should be a sacrament. Everything that we do should bring glory to our God.
For behold, this Jesus Christ is the one about whom Daniel spoke, the Son of Man, the great celestial being, the Messiah, the one who is coming with the clouds. Every eye will spy him. His glory will be hidden from no one. As Zechariah told us, even the ones who pierced him will see and understand him. Those who crucified him, those who have brought him pain through our failure to love God and love our neighbor, all will see and know him. And we will cry out for the great sacrifice, the great gift he has made for us. The one who was once crowned with thorns is now crowned in glory.
“I AM the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” the Lord God is saying, “The One Who IS and Who WAS and Who IS COMING, the All-Powerful.”
Christ the King. Quite a different picture of Jesus than the one we are used to hearing in the gospels: a poor traveler, a teacher, a healer, a prophet, the dirt of the road caked to his feet as he proclaimed the good news of the coming kingdom of God. Quite a different picture than the exorcist and miracle-worker, the one who expelled demons by laying on his own hands. Quite a different picture than the Galilean peasant hung on a cross like a criminal to die.
But John the Revelator wants us to know that Christ did not end on that dusty hill called Golgotha. The author of the Apocalypse wants us to know that the suffering Christ endured was not a sign of weakness, but a revelation of the greatest kind of strength. John wants us to know that Christ is a new kind of king, a king who through his self-sacrifice has turned suffering into salvation, has turned pain into paradise, has turned tears into triumph. This Jesus is the very sovereign of the universe, the ruler of the kings of the earth. He has unlimited power, and yet he chooses to reveal his strength through what the world saw as weakness.
But do not be fooled, John tells us. Do not be taken in. Jesus is the lord of all. Jesus has turned that crown of thorns into a crown of glory. Jesus has turned that cross of torture into a royal throne. Jesus has turned death into life, has turned sorrow into joy, has turned despair into hope… do you believe it brothers and sisters?
And in the midst of our imperfect world, Jesus invites us to be a part of God’s kingdom. To stand up for what is right and leave behind what is evil. To work alongside him to bring about God’s will on this earth. To live as if heaven were already here so that through our living heaven might finally come, not just in part, but in all of its glory… my friends, Christ is our king. Christ is our emperor. Christ is our president. If we will only let him lead us. If we will only give him the control of our lives. If we will only stand with him in the struggle, until Christ comes in final victory and we all feast at his heavenly banquet. Christ is king. Alleluia. Amen.