Sermon for Christ the King Sunday on Colossians 1:9-20 and Luke 6:46-49, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
Today is “Christ the King” Sunday, the climax and end of the liturgical calendar that starts afresh next week with Advent. We Americans, however, don’t have the best history with kings and with being part of a kingdom. Remember King George III? The “Revolutionary War,” also called “the War for Independence”? We prize self-determination, self-direction, autonomy in as many areas of life as we can get it. We prize the freedom to do our own thing, to live as we want, to follow our own desires, and pursue our own dreams and goals. Unlike Christmas, for which Target, Wal-Mart, the Port Charlotte Mall, and the crazy neighbor behind me have already decorated, “Christ the King” Sunday is a fairly un-American event in the liturgical calendar. In John’s story of Jesus’ trial, the Judeans could cry out against him, “We have no king but Caesar.” We, however, would simply shout out “We have no king! Period!” Our ideal is to be able to say: “I’m my own boss!”
Paul’s political context, however, was “empire,” essentially a single kingdom built out of a dozen originally independent kingdoms that had been absorbed or otherwise subdued. At the center of this mega-kingdom was the Roman emperor, a son of deified emperors dead and gone. There was no representative democracy. What this one man decided, generally in consultation with about six hundred of the richest of the richest men in Rome, was what happened.
Paul makes a pretty radical statement, then, both about life under the Roman emperors and about the political significance of conversion to Christianity when he says: “God has rescued us from the authority of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). First, Paul makes an assertion here that the age of the emperor Augustus and his successors is not some return to a “golden age,” as the Roman court poets and propagandists trumpeted throughout the empire. It’s not an expression of the loving care of beneficent deities. No, says Paul, this was the time when the power of darkness held sway — when God’s enemies were in the driver’s seat. Paul also asserts that conversion to Christ means joining a new political entity with new allegiances, even while still living in the middle of the kingdom of darkness and its rulers, who still demand the converts’ allegiance. Who, Paul asks, is your king now – Nero, the son of the dead-but-deified emperor Claudius, or Jesus, the son of the ever-living God? Are you going to fit what you can of Jesus’ commands into the life that Nero expects of you, and no more? Or are you going to fit what you can of what Nero and this world’s order expects of you into the life that Jesus calls you to lead, and no more?
Paul sees only two options: a person lives under the authority of darkness or under the kingship of God’s Son. In this regard, he challenges our notions — perhaps, better, our illusions — about freedom and about not having any king. If you’re not living under Christ’s lordship, Paul would tell us, you’re still not your own boss. You’re living under the dominion of darkness (Col 1:13). Your own flesh, with its impulses and cravings, is your boss. It drives you; you’re not free. The society around you is your boss, telling you what to value, what to chase after, keeping you running in exactly the ruts it has carved out for you. And deep down underneath your consciousness, Death is your boss. As you keep trying to run away from it, it, too, has you running exactly as and where it wants you to run.
The good news in Colossians is that God has invaded and overpowered the kingdom of the flesh, the world, and death. God has brought about the time anticipated in Daniel, when the kingdoms of this world would be handed over to “one like a son of man,” and that “Son of Man” is Jesus. To all of us who had lived under — and, indeed, been faithful subjects of — the flesh, the world, and death, God grants “amnesty”:
“In Christ we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col 1:14)
“Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:20)
He says in Christ, “Look! Bygones are bygones. Everything you’ve done to resist my reign up to this point is forgiven. The slate is wiped clean. I’ve won the battle for your liberation; I’m reigning now through my son, Jesus. He’s your king now, so give him the same allegiance and obedience you used to give to his enemies, your former masters.”
This Sunday reminds us year after year that Jesus is not only our Savior, born to give us a life of freedom from sin, death, and judgment. He’s also our King, risen to exercise his rule through us who are his people, his subjects. We naturally gravitate to the part of the “good news” that highlights freedom from the dominion of darkness, but we tend to chafe against the part of the “good news” about living under a new King, a new Master, a new Lord. But without this second part, we never actually experience freedom from the power of darkness.
The “dominion of darkness” has personal, spiritual, and political dimensions. The challenge for us is to recognize these dimensions in the midst of a society that has shaped us to think that many aspects of the “dominion of darkness” are alright, even good, even our God-given right. We come to recognize this more and more, and quite naturally, as we submit ourselves more and more fully to the rule of the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. What this “submission” looks like is quite simple: we do what he says, more and more.
Jesus seemed to have been into reality checks. His reality check for “Christ the King” Sunday comes from Luke 6:46, today’s Gospel reading: “Why are you calling me ‘Lord’ when you’re not doing what I tell you?” Inherent in calling Jesus “Lord” is the acknowledgment of his authority specifically as authority over me, the authority to direct my actions. It may not be accidental that the very next paragraph in Luke’s Gospel that follows the one we heard this morning is the story of the centurion’s exchange with Jesus while the centurion was seeking healing for his favorite domestic slave. The centurion told Jesus that he didn’t have to trouble himself to come all the way to his house; if he would just speak the word from a distance, the centurion said, I know my servant will be healed. The officer explained, and I paraphrase: “I understand authority and how authority works, because I’m under authority myself and I’ve got people under my authority. I tell one soldier to jump and he jumps; I tell another to drop and give me twenty, and he drops and gives me twenty.” The centurion understood that Jesus had authority to command, and it would be so.
The question for us on this Christ the King Sunday is, do we understand authority? Do we understand what it means to live under Jesus’ authority – to call him “Lord” and live like we mean it because he says to do something and we do it? Do we make his kingship real in the little spheres of our lives, allowing him fully to annex us for his empire? Do we trust Jesus enough to believe that building our lives upon his instructions makes for the securest existence we can enjoy?
“I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” (Luke 6:47-49 NRSV)
You don’t have to be a spiritual mystic to hear Jesus’s words; you just have to be able to read. And an obvious place to start reading is the four Gospels. Many modern publishers make our task even easier by printing Jesus’ words in red. They practically jump off the page at us. I’m going to leave aside the whole somewhat bloated scholarly debate about how many such words actually go back to the historical Jesus. The important point is that we know a lot about what our king wants without having to wait for a special revelation from him.
Christ’s Kingship is inherent in God’s plan for creation: “All things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). We get the first preposition: “All things have been created through him.” As John wrote in the beginning of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word,” and “all things came into being through him,” and so forth. Do we really get the second: “All things were created for him”? People often seem to enjoy speculating: Why am I here? Why was I made? What is the purpose of this life? Paul thinks that he knows the answer, and that it’s embarrassingly simple. We were made through Christ, for Christ. We were made to bear witness to the rule of our King in this life by doing what he says. There is a purpose for our lives — it is to live as he tells us, to allow Christ to accomplish his purposes through us, to establish his kingdom in the space of what used to be our little fiefdoms.
God’s purpose for the Son was “that he might come to have first place in all things” (Col 1:18). In all things?! Does Jesus even have first place here? Does he have first place in your life? In mine? Does he have first place in this church? If we want to be genuine Christ-followers, and if we want this congregation truly to be a witness to Christ in this community, Paul raises these simple questions for us to keep before our eyes and in our conversations as a check on our plans, investments, and activities. Stop yourself every now and then throughout the day and develop the habit of asking yourself, “Is what I am doing, what I am speaking, what I am thinking reflecting Christ’s being in first place in my life?” Let’s stop ourselves every now and then when we’re gathered in committee meetings, in church activities, in other events together, and ask each other, “Is this conversation, is the heart that each of us is bringing to this conversation, are the questions that we’re asking and the plans that we’re forming reflecting that Christ has pre-eminence — first place — in our gathering?”
Paul uses the image of the “head” and the “body” to put Christ in his proper place, and us in ours: “He is the head of the body, the church” (Col 1:18). What do we think about parts of a body that are non-responsive — or even disobedient — to the directions coming from the head? We consider such parts spasmodic, diseased, malfunctioning, even dead. Think about your own body, over which you are the “head,” the great “I,” the “ego” that indwells and commands and moves your limbs in (ideally) whatever way you wish so as to accomplish what you wish. This is Paul’s image for the universal Church, except that no one of us is an “I” anymore. Christ is the “I,” the ego, that defines and directs the motions of the whole body and each of its parts so as to accomplish what he wants. What Paul says of his own experience, he hopes all disciples will come to say: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; the life I now live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20-21). I know I’ve quoted that verse here before, but I keep returning to it because it is so splendid an expression of the disciple who has “arrived” at God’s goal for him or her.
There is a splendid reciprocity involved here. Paul only has to hint at it, because everyone living around the Mediterranean understands the importance of reciprocity, of responding appropriately to gifts or assistance given. “Through Jesus, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). We give ourselves to be the Body of the one who “reconciled us in the body of his flesh,” giving up his body on our behalf when we were still estranged from God. Is the part of the Body that you represent as a disciple responsive to Jesus? Is the part of the Body that we represent together as a community of disciples responsive?
Christ the King Sunday signals that we’re approaching Advent. Like Lent, Advent is a wonderful time to increase our attention to our spiritual formation and maturation. For one thing, we’re all kind of in a religious mood anyway, because it’s almost the Christmas season and there are visual and auditory reminders of God and his Son everywhere. Advent is also an easier time than Lent for ramping up old spiritual disciplines or trying out new formational practices, since it’s really short — just four weeks, three weeks shorter than Lent. So it’s not as heavy a commitment.
If I hear from Jesus, I don’t want it to be “Why are you calling me ‘Lord, Lord’, but not doing what I say?” I imagine that none of us wants to be in a position to hear this. So I might suggest an Advent discipline such as the following. I know what you’re thinking – “O merciful heavens, he’s assigning homework again this Sunday!” The terrible truth about discipleship is that it’s like exercise: if you only attend to it once each week, you’re not going to get anywhere with it. A sermon can’t change you; only what you do with a sermon can move you on toward maturity in Christ.
So this is what I am suggesting for each of us this Advent. Spend some time each day reading and praying through the words of Jesus as collected either in Matthew or Luke. As you read and reflect on a single passage, paragraph, or even a single saying, ask yourself two simple questions: (1) What is Jesus really after when he says this or teaches that? and (2) How closely have I been lining up in my thoughts, words, and actions with what Jesus seems to be looking for? Ask Jesus for clear insight into your life and for clear direction about how to live out what he says more fully. Get yourself a little notebook for this exercise, and write down what you learn from the exercise each and every day. And if you’re really up for a challenge, do this exercise with two or three other Christians with whom you can be open, and to whom you can speak honestly. Another unfortunate rule of our culture is that we should keep religion a private matter; in the kingdom of God’s Son, however, it is not so. Religion and our growth as disciples are very much collectives matter. And it’s the cyber age – you can do this through e-mail or group messaging or “Facetime” to make it easier.
And if, by the time Christmas rolls around, this exercise hasn’t made a noticeable difference in your discipleship and witness, by all means stop. Most of us are very familiar with the Great Commission that closes Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of every nation, by baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” How many of us know what comes next? “And by teaching them to observe all things whatsoever that I have commanded you.” As we keep inviting people into a life of discipleship, let’s be sure that we, too, keep becoming disciples. May it be so.