In the name of God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every year on Good Friday for centuries we have read and heard the long Passion Gospel from John, sometimes with assigned parts. I am always glad when I have a part to play so I don’t have to yell out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” So why are we hearing a portion of that Passion Gospel today, in late November? Well, you learn something every day. Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, or Christ the King Sunday as this has been called since we got the “new” prayer book which we have had now for 42 years. I just assumed that the idea of Christ the King Sunday was at least hundreds of years old, maybe a thousand years old. So I checked our 1928 prayer book, our 1892 prayer book, our 1789 prayer book, and the various Church of England prayer books. In all of them this is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, or after Trinity. My curiosity was really up by now. I thought I should have known the answer. As a boy I read the fine print of the prayer book, as the sermons were really boring.
Well guess what? Christ the King Sunday has been a part of the Church year since 1925, less than a hundred years. I know nothing of his thought process, or of what motivated the Bishop of Rome, Pius XI, but he apparently thought it would be a good idea to make this Christ the King Sunday, and the Episcopal Church in this country bought into it in 1979. So we heard the part of the Passion Gospel from John this morning, and we will hear it all in March.
Pilate asked Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus equivocates in his answer, and Pilate says “Well, I’m not a Jew. Your own people tell me you have committed grievous wrongs and have handed you over to me”. Of course we know that Jewish law did not have the death penalty and that’s why the temple priests who had flat had it with Jesus wanted him judged under Roman law by imperial Roman authorities, who could, and of course did, order Jesus’ execution. To digress for a moment, the Episcopal Church in this century, the Anglican Communion, and the Roman Catholic Church worldwide have long been officially opposed to the death penalty. Francis, the Bishop of Rome, often speaks against it, and he regularly calls on state governors in this country to commute death sentences. Francis must surely know it would be a waste of time to call anyone in China, Iran or Saudi Arabia, the only other countries which still put people to death for criminal offenses, but occasionally he reaches a receptive American ear. He spoke out notably two weeks ago before and after an execution in Oklahoma. The condemned fellow there was killed by a previously unused lethal chemical cocktail, and he convulsed, screamed, and vomited as he died. When you think about it, the United States, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia is quite an international quadrilateral, in their 21st century modeling of Pilate and the Roman emperor. The death penalty is on the wane here, and prayers and votes will help speed up that process. Twenty three states do not have it, and a number have never had the death penalty. But the Roman Empire had it big time, and made enormous political use of it. Pilate asked Jesus if he was the king of the Jews, but Jesus answered the question. “My kingdom is not of this world.” And it wasn’t. The kingdom of God is, I believe, what we have today, in the here and now, and tomorrow. We cannot say it often enough. We are actors in the never-ending drama of going out of this place to do the work we have been given to do, to be nothing less than the hands and feet of Christ to and for others. When? Now, in the time of this mortal life.
Kings in the real world have a long history, in Holy Scripture and elsewhere. Remember that the children of Israel were desperate to have a king. All the other nations had a king. Why not us? The prophet Samuel told them they better be careful what they wish for. But the Jebusites, the Philistines, the Perrizzites and the Hittites all have kings, and we want one too. Again, Samuel cautioned them to be careful what they wished for and warned them of dictator tyrants who might enslave them as they were enslaved in Egypt. Finally, fed up with their whining, God told Samuel, “Give ‘em a king.” So Samuel anointed Saul king. Things were fine for awhile but Saul had some psychiatric issues and proved Samuel right. There then came a civil war between the forces of Saul and the forces of David. And David prevailed, but at an enormous cost, in lives and treasury. We do see though the lovely story of the friendship between David and Saul’s son Jonathan.
We have had absolute monarchs in this century too, eleven by my count, from Elizabeth I in 1584 when Roanoke Island was colonized, to George III when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781 and the world turned upside down. In terms of the rights of the people, George III was surely the best of the lot. There is much to be said for a constitutional monarchy, but neither the term nor the concept existed when the Israelites were clamoring for a king.
I have mentioned it before, but it was my good fortune in 1952, on the day George VI died and his daughter Elizabeth II became queen, to hear Sir Laurence Olivier speak on what it means to have a king, at a memorial service at the Little Church Around the Corner in New York. Olivier reminded us that the word king comes from the Old English kind, or kin, one who is our kin, and he spoke of his own family and the royal family. My mother worked for the CBS station in Boston and went to London for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. I was captivated by all of it and saw my mother’s beautiful slides over and over. There are parallels between the coronation liturgy today, little changed over 1000 years, and the Passion Gospel in John.
In John the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus, kneeling before him saying, “Hail, king of the Jews.” In the coronation liturgy the peers of the realm, including her husband, Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, knelt before the young Queen to swear their allegiance to her.
The new young queen wore two famous crowns at her coronation. The first was the Imperial State Crown she still wears today on occasions such as the opening of Parliament. The other was the much heavier crown of St. Edward the Confessor. We seldom see that one except in the Crown Jewel display at the Town of London. It was with St. Edward’s heavy crown that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York actually crowned the young queen.
Similarly the Roman soldiers made a crown of thorns and placed it on Jesus’ head, crowning him as the King of the Jews. They dressed him in a purple robe, purple being the symbol color of royalty 2000 years ago, as indigo was an expensive dye. They gave Jesus a reed to hold, just as the young queen held a scepter at her coronation. She also in her other hand held an orb, symbolizing the world that was her empire then. Jesus held no orb, but we do have the old African American spiritual, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Sung by Mahalia Jackson, it is hard to beat.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, no security detail, no troops, just worshipful followers waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna. It was quite a festive parade, but only Jesus knew the full parade route and what awaited him and all of us at the end. In contrast the young queen in 1953 rode to her coronation in a golden coach made for George II, followed by Grenadier guards, Coldstream guards, Scots guards, Irish guards, Welsh guards, the Household Cavalry, Indian Gurkhas, and Canadian Mounties, I was captivated by it as a boy, and my brother still has all those little lead soldier figures my mother brought back from London. But they both had a processional parade, Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant Jewish wonder worker, and Elizabeth II, the young queen. The young queen reigned over the remnants of an empire on which the sun never set. Jesus reigned, indeed reigns, over a different sort of kingdom, the Kingdom of God here on earth. And that’s where the Kingdom of God is, right here in this holy place and right outside these doors. It’s in the ICU and in the jails and prisons, in the anxiety of teenage love, in a joyous birth and a peaceful death, in love and forgiveness. As Tolstoy wrote “The Kingdom of God is Within You.” You may remember Francie, the heroine in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. If you haven’t read it, you have missed a treat. Francie tells of her neighborhood library on Flatbush Avenue:
The feeling she had that it was a good thing, the feeling she had about church.
And I recently saw the Kingdom of Heaven compared to a library. Libraries run counter to other institutions. Libraries produce and sell nothing. And the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges imagined the Kingdom of God as a library and wrote that God is one whose center is everywhere and circumference unknown. Chaos is never far from creativity and must therefore belong to God, be found in the divine liturgy in the Kingdom of God: God overcomes chaos, with the word no less, the Word made flesh.
Margaret Kearney of Yale has noted that there were no public libraries in first century Galilee, but Jesus answered questions about God with the tools found in a library, stories, a treasury of tales, fables, and parables. What libraries have, they must give away, and so must we, as dutiful children and heirs of God’s kingdom:
So Pilate, of all people, got it right.
Jesus was a king.
For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
The portion of the Passion Gospel we read this morning leaves out what comes next, Pilate’s question, “What is truth,” but that’s for another day. For today, Christ the King Sunday, we cry out not God Save the King, but rather God Is the King.