November 24, 2019
Reign of Christ, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
We’ve been watching some of the retrospective shows on the lunar landings from 50 years ago. The other night I caught the last few minutes of an episode on Apollo 8, the first crewed mission to orbit the moon and return to earth. For those of us old enough to remember, it was the one that flew Christmas week, 1968, and sent back those first iconic photos[i] of the earth from the moon’s orbital perspective. Astronaut Bill Anders says about that mission, “We came to explore the moon and what we discovered was the Earth.[ii]”
The year of Apollo 8’s mission had been incredibly violent and divisive for our nation: the horrific Tet offensive in Viet Nam, assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, race riots erupting across the country, and anti-war demonstrations met with violent responses at the Democratic National Convention and on college campuses. The divisions between those who felt like their voices were never heard, and those who clung to undying loyalty to their country, “right or wrong,” seemed to push us to extremes from which we could never recover.
By Christmas, the country longed for something, for anything, to unite us in hope or aspiration. Glued to our televisions and daring to hope that the crew could survive a mission as daunting as a trip to the moon and back in something that looked about as durable as a tin can, our nation was suddenly pulled back together.
Maybe it was the astronauts’ distance, their new perspective, or the incredible beauty of the earth but something helped us recognize that at the end of it all, we belong to each other. From space, we realized that the earth is simply an amazing, water-soaked orb, spinning quietly in the vast expanse, and held in check by a universe beyond us. Back on earth, someone sent a message to the crew, “Thank you, Apollo 8. You saved 1968[iii].”
Reign of Christ Sunday, or as it’s sometimes called, the Feast Day of Christ the King, isn’t an old celebration in the scheme of things. It was instituted by a papal decree after the First World War in response to the growing movements of nationalism and fascism throughout the world[iv].
Pope Pius XI was trying to remind the church of the power of God which transcends any claim to power or right of any political group. He hoped that by emphasizing Christ as Supreme Ruler, who had announced that the world was ultimately under God’s kingdom (and power and glory forever and ever, Amen) he could quash the trend toward claiming world leaders as ultimate authorities or rulers. Christ rules the world in righteousness and peace, and we should trust no one else’s claim to world dominion. Other mainline churches picked up on the emphasis, and joined in the prayer that God’s authority would inspire all nations to work for peace and cooperation.
Alas, the dream didn’t quite catch on. Oh, lots of churches liked the idea of claiming Christ as King over all, but instead of inspiring us to work for the good of our neighbor, the feast seemed to entitle us to claim Christian nations as better than all others. Since Christ was the Real Supreme Monarch, anyone who wasn’t Christian could be subject to exploitation and domination. The image of a macho-militaristic monarch, able to tower over the whole universe, was all too easy to coopt into an excuse for nationalistic arrogance.
By the time Reign of Christ became a church-wide observance, totalitarianism and Nazism had infected the entire political discourse, sometimes with the blessing of the church itself, and the world was on the brink of the Holocaust and a second world war.
If you’re wondering why I’m talking about all of this after reading Luke’s account of Jesus on the cross, I understand your confusion. Why would the church appoint a text as gruesome and painful as an execution to help us observe the Sovereign power of Christ[v]?
How does a story that we expect to only have to think about during Holy Week inspire us to consider God’s ultimate reign and authority? Couldn’t we have at least heard the Easter story, rather than Good Friday’s?
Luke’s story of Jesus’s crucifixion includes details that the other gospels omit, specifically those verses about forgiveness and inclusion. Even as he was being crucified, Jesus continues the ministry he has embodied throughout his life, bringing the reign of God into action in our lives.
Right here, Jesus has been saying, right now, in your very midst, in this very moment, God is reigning. Jesus emphasizes that we need each other in order to experience the fullness of God’s love. And when we are reconciled to each other, the completeness of God’s compassion and hope and delight in us all, is already present.
The reign of God comes to us, not just when we get to heaven, not just after Christ returns in glory, not just on Easter, but even in pain, even in sorrow, even in death, even among the lost and the marginalized. It always has.
As soon as the old forgotten priest Zechariah hears that his child would prepare the way, he announces that the dawn from on high is breaking upon him[vi]. As soon as poor, young, unwed Mary learns she will bear God’s own child, she sings of the poor being lifted up and the Mighty One doing great things[vii]. As soon as Jesus is born in an outback shed in the middle of nowhere, angels light up the sky with good news for all people[viii].
Throughout his ministry Jesus doesn’t wait for all the miracles and signs and power to be in place before he starts proclaiming the good news of the reign of God[ix].
It couldn’t have looked all that convincing to those around him. What good is it to know that the love of God is being proclaimed when people are still sick and poor, when foreign powers are holding us hostage, when the Ruler of Heaven and Earth is hanging from a tree?
In his death, Jesus shows us the ultimate purpose of this reign he has been inaugurating: God’s love never stops. God’s love never loses. Even when we violently oppose it, Jesus announces compassionate forgiveness to his executioners. Even when we mock or humiliate the power of love and goodness, Jesus turns to us. Even when we don’t deserve it, Jesus assures us of our inclusion in the gracious embrace of God. Not even an execution can stop God’s reign of life and goodness. We came to see a dying monarch, and what we discovered was a God of love.
Jeremiah had long ago assured God’s people of the same truth: world and religious leaders who have scattered or oppressed God’s people don’t get the final word. No corrupt shepherd, no dictator or tyrant gets to claim God’s power. When God reigns, no one will be missing or excluded. No one will be frightened, or dismayed, or lost. God’s justice and righteousness have the ultimate power. God reigns.
Jesus uses his entire ministry to demonstrate the justice and righteousness Jeremiah promised.
As Rachel Held Evans writes in Searching for Sunday, Jesus’ ministry proclaims God’s reign, even when it doesn’t seem obvious to us. “It is the wheat growing in the midst of weeds, the yeast working its magic in the dough, the pearl germinating in a sepulchral shell. It can come and go in the twinkling of an eye.” It “belongs to the poor, Jesus said, and to the peacemakers, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for God.” God’s reign “knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture. It advances not through power and might, but through acts of love and joy and peace, missions of mercy and kindness and humility[x],” and it has already begun.
The purpose of the church, Evans goes on to say, “is to give the world a glimpse of that kingdom, to point in its direction…to put a kingdom-spin on ordinary things—water, wine, leadership, friendship, feasting, sickness, forgiveness[xi].” The church demonstrates to the world how God is using our daily lives to work extraordinary goodness into the world.
The church is like that crew from Apollo 8, who remind us to take a longer, broader look at the work of God, and realize that boundaries and political powers and national identity have no lasting meaning. Though we may miss it from up close, God knits all of creation into one beautifully complex and wonderful wholeness, and longs for every corner of it to be loved and included.
We point to God’s reign when we offer forgiveness, or extend kindness, or take a prayer shawl or a meal to someone who is grieving, or work so that no one is lost or forgotten. We enact God’s reign when we shelter homeless families, or feed those who are hungry at Loaves and Fishes or through our neighborhood food shelves. We put it into action when we fill Highland Elementary kids’ backpacks with groceries for the weekend. We proclaim God’s reign when we advocate for justice and peace, when we work to overturn systems that disempower the least, and when we sing of good news for all the people.
So here’s your challenge for the week: How will you be a sign of God’s reign to the world? How will you work to show those around you that you need to be reconciled with them in order to share God’s beauty?
From the cross, Jesus turns to each one of us and invites us to see that at the end of it all, we belong to each other. Christ our Sovereign appeals to us to live in the love of God which is stronger and deeper and more eternal than any hatred or fear of each other we may invent.
Jesus assures us that this very day we are with him in Paradise. Right here, when a splash of water washes Veda Grace and Charles James they will be assured that nothing can ever separate them from God’s embrace. Right here, we turn to our neighbor, whether a stranger or our best friend, and say, “the peace and love of God are here for you.” Right here, plain bread and wine is transformed into a divine feast, God’s own presence in our hands and on our lips. Right here, through simple words and gestures and prayers, Jesus turns to us and assures us that we are with him in glory.
Today we are forgiven and embraced, held in hope and purpose and grace, and ushered into the eternal reign of God forever.
The earth never looks more beautiful than it does from the perspective of the reign of God.
[i] Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=99085, http://history.nasa.gov/ap08fj/photos/a/as08-16-2593.jpg;
[v] Today’s bible readings are Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; and Luke 23:33-43.
[vi] Luke 1:78-79.
[vii] Luke 1:46-5
[viii] Luke 2:10
[ix] See Luke 4:21 and Luke 4:43 for early examples of Jesus’s message.
[x] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Nelson Books, 2015, p. 252-253.
[xi] ibid., p. 255.