(Preached at Melville United Church and Alma United Church, November 20, 2016)
In the gymnasium of a real but nameless church in a real but nameless city there hangs a banner, doubtless made by the women of the church. It’s bright blue, with the picture of a world on it, and in large letters, the phrase “The World for Christ.”
The first time I looked at that banner, I thought to myself, “It’s backwards.”
Then I realized that perhaps, at many times in the past and present, we in the Christian Church have gotten this whole Christianity thing backwards.
Because to my way of thinking, the phrase should more properly read, “Christ for the World.”
Today is what is called, “Reign of Christ” Sunday, or sometimes “Christ the King” Sunday. And the words and the imagery that often go along with this particular Sunday are difficult for me to reconcile with the faith that I’ve developed.
Like many of you here, I grew up with the old blue “Hymnary.” It’s got some wonderful hymns in it—some we still sing today, some, because of space considerations or because of outdated language, have been left out of our newer hymn books.
But there are some that have been left out because, quite frankly, they make some people cringe.
“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the Cross of Jesus, going on before!”
I know without asking that there are probably some of you here who miss that hymn. It’s rousing, uplifting, and truly wonderful—as long as we don’t think about the words we’re actually singing.
Or this one:
Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Ye soldiers of the cross!
Lift high his royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory, His army He shall lead,
‘till every foe is vanquished and Christ is Lord indeed!
If you take the words metaphorically, and see the foes as incorporeal things like injustice, greed, lust, hatred, prejudice, poverty, etc., then those hymns, and others like them, can still be meaningful.
The problem is that words have power, and the words we use define our thoughts.
We all know what an army is. We’ve seen war documentaries on television, or videos on the news, or a few among us may have the unwelcome experience of actually being in an army and marching off to war.
Armies are made up of human beings who are armed with weapons that are designed to kill other human beings. Foes are other human beings who have been designated, for one reason or another, as being the “enemy,” and they are to be fought and conquered.
And a victory is when we have beaten the other guy.
These are the images our minds tend to supply when we sing these hymns.
From the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, when Christianity was officially declared the religion of the state, to the present time, Christians have all too often seen non-Christians, or even other Christians, as foes to be vanquished, more often than not by force.
Christ is the King, therefore all on earth should bow down to Him, and if they do not do so willingly, they will do so by force, or perish. Not only that, but they shall profess whatever form of Christianity is currently in vogue or at the top of the pyramid, or perish.
I grew up in the sixties and seventies, when bombings in Ireland were in the daily news. And both sides called themselves “Christian,” and justified the killings in the name of the “One True Faith.”
Before that and after that, there were the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Residential Schools, the rape and subjugation of the entire continent of Africa… I could go on here, but I’m sure you get the point.
Our insistence that the world is not just for Christ but for our version of Christ has led to a lot of misery on earth.
And that vision of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth is not borne out by scripture, least of all the one that we read today.
Jesus the King, hung up on a cross to die. He’s not the only one up there—Luke tells us that he was hung between two other common criminals, one on his right, one on his left. What Luke doesn’t tell us is what archaeologists have discovered—there was not one cross, not three crosses, but hundreds and hundreds of crosses.
Jesus was one of a multitude who perished in agony on a cross. He wasn’t unusual. He wasn’t special. He was one of many victims of an empire that chose to assert it’s power ruthlessly.
What kind of a king is that?
He was never rich. He never wore fine robes. While we’re told he sometimes dined with the rich and famous, his closest friends were common labourers, most likely illiterate, certainly poor.
What kind of a king is that?
And his preaching—let me tell you what he said.
“Blessed are you poor! Woe to you who are rich!”
“If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other towards him so he can hit you again. If someone asks you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it for two. If someone asks you for your coat, give her your cloak also.”
“Put away your sword, Peter!”
This really doesn’t sound like someone who’s going to lead an army of followers to conquer and convert or subjugate or kill all who stand against Him!
What kind of a king is that?
And more to the point, since those are the words and actions and life history of the one we confess as Christ, our King and God, how do we follow such a king?
What I read in scripture is a call to humility and service.
As Christ humbled himself, first as a baby born to a homeless mother who soon was forced to flee the country due to persecution, then as a healer and preacher who was both lauded and reviled, and finally as an outcast who was condemned to death, so we are called to humility, before both God and our fellow human beings.
Christ served, healing whoever asked it of him, feeding the multitudes even when his disciples thought there wasn’t enough food to go around, comforting those in distress and mourning, and so we are called to serve, without counting the cost, without stinting.
That is the image of Christ the King I believe we should keep in mind. The humble servant, giving comfort to those who ask it of him, even in his agony as he hangs on a cross in the hot desert sun.
This is not a Christ who demands that the world be for Him.
This is a Christ who has given himself for the world. As the Body of Christ, we too, should be for the world, giving, healing, feeding, comforting.
Because the Reign of Christ is not about golden thrones and waving banners and marching bands and shouting crowds. The Reign of Christ is Shalom—peace and wholeness and justice for all.