This Last Sunday after Pentecost is also called, The Feast of Christ the King. The words of one of the antiphons for the first Evensong of Christmas Day speaks to me especially this year. “ The King of Peace is highly exalted, passing all the kings of the whole earth.” This theme of Christ the King of Peace is one I think we need to think about especially at this time.
I want to begin by giving some of my impressions of the Diocesan Convention earlier this month. Then I want to speak briefly on the theme of Peace and Unity as it appears in some hymns, Psalms, and other passages of Holy Scripture. After that I shall give a quick survey of the understanding of kingship among the earlier Hebrew people and how it changed. After examining the prophecy of Daniel read as our first lesson, I shall look at what the dialogue of Jesus and Pontius Pilate has to say about the Kingship of Christ.
This year’s Diocesan Convention was the most peaceful Convention that I have ever attended in this Diocese. There was no rancorous debating over resolutions. Only one point was raised about the budget, and that was dealt with in a businesslike and expeditious way. Even though the camp songs that accompanied the pictorial presentation about the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center were not exactly my type of music, they gave a flavor of the focus on youth that the Camp and Conference Center represents, and symbolized the “something for everyone” atmosphere of the Convention. Bishop Shaw’s address pointed us to looking to the future rather than glorying in the nostalgia of the past. Bp. Gayle Harris showed us through drama and music something of the human element in the ministry of the Diocese, and Bp. Bud Cederholm set before us the way of peace and unity given by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. (Eph. 2:14-22) The truth of Jesus being our peace and breaking down the dividing wall of hostility was further illustrated with pictures of the Coventry Cathedral Cross of Nails and Bp. Bud’s description of his pilgrimage there several years ago. The distribution of small replicas of that cross of nails helped us to keep that lesson in our minds.
The thing that most firmly impressed the themes of Peace and Unity on my mind was the opening hymn of Evening Prayer, “Peace before us, peace behind us, peace under our feet.” It continues, “Peace within us, peace over us, let all around us be peace.” In the next 3 verses, first the word Love is substituted for Peace, then Light, and then Christ. Finally the first verse is repeated, and the last line, “let all around us be peace,” is sung three times. It is reminiscent of the old Celtic classic, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, but it is a contemporary hymn written in 1987, based on a Navaho prayer. It can be found in the Hymnal supplement, Wonder, Love and Praise (#791). For me that hymn effectively evokes the feeling of peace. I am familiar with it from several Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Annual Consultation meetings.
The reading of the same lesson from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, presented earlier by Bp. Cederholm, once more set before us those themes of Christ as our peace and unity. This was followed by a moving homily by Bishop Steven Charleston, Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School.
Since I began preparing this sermon I have become very conscious of how often the themes of kingship and peace and unity under the dominion of God and of Jesus appear one way or another in the Psalms and hymns and Scripture readings in our daily round of worship.
When I first learned that I was to preach on this Sunday of Christ the King I read over the lessons and prayed about what I should say. I remembered that I had preached on this Sunday for the Chinese Congregation twice before, 3 years ago and also 15 years ago. I did not want to repeat that same sermon again, even in a revised form.
As I prayed, the hymn written by George Herbert, “King of glory, King of peace ”, came into my mind. That really confirmed for me the theme for preaching on Christ the King this year, Peace and Unity in Christ. I have found that hymn going through my mind again and again since then. King of glory, King of Peace, I will love thee; and that love may never cease, I will move thee. Thou hast granted my request, thou hast heard me; thou didst note my working breast, thou hast spared me. (Hymnal 1982, #382)
George Herbert lived in an age of conflict in the Church of England. At that time the conflict was between the Puritan Calvinists who wanted a drastic and severe reformation, and those like Herbert, and his contemporary Nicholas Ferrar, and Richard Hooker, who was some years older, wanted to preserve the continuity of the catholic heritage of the Church of England freed from the domination of Rome. George Herbert, as a country parson with the care of two small churches, was not as much involved in the conflicts as Richard Hooker was. Hooker left us his somewhat heavy and monumental work, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Instead, George Herbert left us a treasure chest of devotional poetry coming out of the spirituality that he inherited from the past.
In this year of turmoil and conflicts, with the war in Iraq, and the threat of divisions between liberal and conservative minded people, both within our Church nationally and internationally, and in our national politics, we can seek to find both peace and unity in Jesus Christ, our King of glory and our King of peace.
It might be helpful to review the understanding of kingship by the Hebrew people in the Old Testament. In the beginning that people considered God to be their King, governing them through the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. After the years in exile in Egypt they were led by Moses through the wilderness towards their promised homeland. After Moses’ death Joshua took on the role of leader and led the people of Israel into the “Promised Land”. Once they were settled there judges were chosen to rule the people until sometime late in the life of Samuel, their last significant judge. At that time the people asked Samuel to choose a king for them like the other nations around them had. Samuel tried to dissuade the people, telling them of all of the burdens that a king would put upon them, taxes, levies of land and of crops, conscription into the army and into service for the royal household and other burdens. Nevertheless the people persisted in their desire to have a king, and according to the story in the First Book of Samuel, God directed Samuel to give in to them. (Cf. 1 Sam. 8:4-22) As you know Samuel’s first choice, Saul, proved eventually not to be a suitable king. David was then anointed by Samuel to succeed Saul, but was not really able to do so until after the death of Saul in battle with the men who had gathered around David. In spite of a few incidents in David’s personal life he was considered to be a near perfect King. In succeeding generations there were good kings and bad kings, more bad than good according to the two Books of Kings. There were periods of captivity by other nations stronger than theirs. It was during one of those periods that a young man named Daniel became one of the important prophets.
Our first reading, from the Book of the Prophet Daniel, told us about a dream of prophecy that Daniel had during the time of captivity by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon in the 7 th Century, B.C., during the reign of Jehoiakim, King of Judah. In this dream Daniel saw a vision of God, described in our reading as the Ancient One seated on a throne surrounded by a court of thousands of attendants serving him. One of the several beasts that were there was speaking arrogant words from one of its many horns. The beast was put to death, and dominion was taken away from all of the beasts in that vision. (Dan. 7:9-12) At that point Daniel saw in his dream “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. Other translations call him “a son of man”, one of the titles with which Jesus sometimes referred to himself. The Ancient One then gave to him “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” It was further said, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall never pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Dan. 7:13-14)
Prophetic visions can usually be understood on three levels. The first is that of the prophet himself. Usually it does not apply to events much farther ahead than his own time. The second level is that interpretation given to the vision by succeeding generations. Each generation may interpret it as applying to events occurring in its own time frame. The third level is the spiritual level as seen by theologians and scholars. We can apply the things seen by the prophet in an eschatological framework to things already revealed to later generations concerning the prophecies about the Messiah. On this level we can see those prophecies as referring to Jesus as Savior and Lord in the spiritual and heavenly realm, rather than as an earthly monarch establishing a kingdom in this world.
In terms of the first of these three levels of interpreting prophecies I think that we can say that Daniel himself did not understand it as specifically referring to Jesus. On the second level it may have contributed to the later concept of the Promised Messiah. On the third level we can take the words of Daniel by faith as helping us to understand spiritually some aspects of the kingship of Christ that we are celebrating today.
When Jesus was called before Pontius Pilate, Pilate first asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” As Jesus frequently did, he answered Pilate with another question . “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” In other words, “What gave you that idea?” Pilate answered saying, it was the Jewish chief priests that had handed Jesus over to him. In other words, “I’m just going by what they told me.” Then Pilate asked Jesus, “What have you done?” I seem to sense some unspoken words here. “What have you done to make them hate you enough to hand you over to me?” This brought forth from Jesus perhaps the clearest statement about Jesus’ kingdom to be found in any of the Gospels, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Pilate’s next question brought forth even further clarification. “So you are a king?” This brought Jesus to answer directly, “You say that I am 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.” (Jn 18:33-37)
The truth to which Jesus was testifying is the truth about that kingdom that is not of this world. It is a spiritual kingdom that is not subject to physical or moral corruption. Jesus referred to it indirectly in Matthew’s account of the teachings of Jesus that we know as the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where month and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Mt. 6:19ff)
Those who wanted worldly wealth, and fame, and high positions in a kingdom of this world resented the fact that Jesus did not come to restore a kingdom like that of David or Solomon in this world.
The kingdom of which Jesus Christ is King is the kingdom of love, and peace, and spiritual security in unity with Jesus. It is the kingdom ruled by Christ the King of glory, Christ the King of Peace, who loves us, and hears us, and calls us into union with him in that love that comes from God the Father. It is the same love with which we also respond to him because we receive it from him, and become united with him in the bond of love.
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