Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Christ the King

The Rev Deborah Magdalene, OSH
John 18:33-37 and Revelation 1:4b-8

Today we end the Christian year by celebrating the authority and mercy of God as seen through Christ in his glory. It is Christ the King Sunday where we sing songs of praise and thanksgiving that the center of our lives is not a cause, or a person, or even a theology, but none other than the risen Christ – who was, and is, and is to come.

This ultimate and eternal power of Christ is manifested not only in his role as savior, but by his authority, power, dominion and influence over all those who believe. Today we are given a glance into heaven where God’s creation is always in the process of being created and where eternity touches our lives today.

We have vibrant images of the reign of Christ in today’s readings. The gospel reading from John takes us to Pontius Pilate’s headquarters where Jesus is being tried by Roman law. The author wants to make clear the difference between the other-worldly quality of God’s kingdom and the fragile, broken and sinful nature of human kingdoms.

The entire Gospel of John is written as a trial, which culminates in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. These scenes with Pilate lead up to Jesus’ shameful death by order of the crowds of Jews gathered outside Pilate’s chambers.
Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” to which Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”

Here is the key to understanding this episode between Jesus and Pilate. Jesus says that if his kingdom were from this world his followers would be fighting to keep him from being handed over to the Jews, who want his death.

Why aren’t the disciples there fighting to save Jesus? His words indicate that the disciples already know that Jesus has come to rule a world that exists beyond the one they can see and touch. Since his followers are not fighting to protect him we are led to believe that they fully understand the nature of his kingship. Can they know that Jesus reigning over a heavenly kingdom is the culmination of God’s plan for the redemption of the whole world?

Just prior to this scene with Pilot, Peter denies Jesus three times, showing us how frightened and confused he is by Jesus’ arrest and trial. The other disciples are nowhere to be seen, and we can gather that they are as numb and shell-shocked as Peter. What are we to make of this apparent contradiction – that Jesus says his followers have good reason not to fight for his life, but we see that the reason appears to be fright, denial, and shock? Are those good reasons?

The community that these words were written for were being persecuted by a group of Jews who wanted to purify the synagogues. The Jesus community that formed around John the Evangelist believed that they were good and faithful Jews who went to synagogues, followed the food customs, and lived transformed lives because of believing the truth of who Jesus really was – the much anticipated Messiah who died shamefully on a cross.

It was this shameful death that convinced many that Jesus could not be the Messiah. A number of influential Jews believed that the Messiah was coming as a king of this world, not a heavenly world – and as such would never have died on a cross.

This controversy so threatened the status quo that an edict was issued to ban the Jewish followers of Jesus from the synagogues, and gave license to persecute them.

The answer to the dilemma lies in the upside-down nature of time in God’s world. What happened to the original disciples is happening to us today and was happening to the early Christians as they were being banished from the synagogues.

The words in John’s gospel are meant to be interpreted as eternal words. As such, they reflect back on what was, forward to what will be, and shining within this church right now, as what is.

Think for a moment about the stars. On a dark night, far away from the city lights, we look into the past as see in the present the light of one bright star. This star that we choose to gaze at could have exploded like fireworks thousands of years ago, but we see it as if it exists today.

John wrote his gospel to reflect the eternal quality of God’s world against the backdrop of the horrors of discrimination, exclusion, persecution, and death that filled the First Century Middle East.

The disciples are full of denial, shock, and fear when Jesus is confronting Pontius Pilate, AND they know later that they always knew the truth of who Jesus was, but needed the resurrection experiences to remind them of all that Jesus had said and what he promised those who believe in the truth. They listened to his voice, and they belong to him. In God’s time it all happens at once.

We experience eternal truths as “Aha!” moments when we see the past with the eyes of learned compassion, knowing now that we just didn’t see the whole picture back then. There were reasons we suffered so, and irreplaceable spiritual personal growth came from that very suffering. God never punishes us with catastrophes, but rather provides opportunities for us to rise up through the suffering, as our dependence upon God’s mercy grows in more intimate and personal ways.

Just over a week ago, on Nov. 14th, about 75 clergy and lay delegates who gathered at All Saints Episcopal School in Fort Worth, Texas, unanimously elected the Rt. Rev. C. Wallis Ohl, retired bishop of Northwest Texas, as their next provisional bishop.

One week ago today, a throng of more than 400 well-wishers gathered at St. Luke’s in the Meadow Church for the 5:00 p.m. ordination of the Rev. Susan Slaughter, who is 67 years old.

After her ordination, the newly elected Bishop Ohl immediately installed her as rector of the Fort Worth parish where she has served as deacon for several years, also making her the diocese’s first woman rector.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote the diocese that there is great gratitude “for this sign of resurrection in the Diocese of Fort Worth. Many thought this day would never arrive, but you have all been faithful, hopeful, and highly persistent.” She compared the diocese to the biblical story of the widow who persisted until she received justice.

She added, “May the Rev. Slaughter be a living witness to the ministry of such seekers after justice.”

Susan Slaughter is a grandmother and a widow; her husband of 28 years, Jerry, died two years ago. She had pursued her dream of becoming a priest since the 1980s but the former diocesan leadership opposed women’s ordination.

She holds bachelor and master’s degrees in teaching, speech pathology, audiology and counseling. She says, “It is with a deep sense of awe in the mysterious ways of our Lord that I arrive at this moment.”

The President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson, sent gifts, and called Susan Slaughter’s ordination “the day we see hope realized in God’s time.”

Here again, we have the upside-down nature of God’s time. At the General Convention in 2006 I spoke with a woman from the Diocese of Pittsburgh who was grieving at having to join her break-away diocese in their separate celebration of the Eucharist, held in a room away from the communal gathering of Episcopalians.

Her grief was as vibrant as the grief I heard at this recent convention from the men and women who chose to stay with the remnants of Episcopalians who stayed behind. Susan Slaughter was one of those.

In 2006 no-one could see the eventual outcome of our split Episcopalian views on sexuality, justice, and inclusion. Few anticipated any joy coming from such pain. But I’ve seen joy in the faces of the members of Christ Church, Savannah, and I cheered when I heard about Susan Slaughter.

I hate dissention. But I love strong relationships forged from hard times, suffering, and honest work. We have to follow our own truth, with Jesus as our guide, knowing that others who claim the same guide march to different rhythms.

It is in God’s time that we are able to see Jesus enthroned in glory, even as we look today at our own struggles, grief, and anger.

Jesus describes the quality of his kingship in terms of God’s eternal justice. The reading from the book of Revelation speaks of Jesus the King freeing us from our sins and making us royal.

We live with the promise that we will see Christ in his glory, and that eventually what we see will be seen by all. In God’s time, it is all happening right now. We are being created and are being redeemed as we pray, worship, and follow Christ’s path as community of believers.
It is Jesus on the throne, reigning in the majesty of peace, reconciliation, and mercy that we pray to today in the Prayers of the People. We do this at every Eucharist service.

But our attention is not always drawn to King of Kings, and Lord of Lords who is receiving our prayers.

In God’s time, that reality of vibrant Christ-Presence, ruling with eternal mercy, sucks up our prayers and supplications and transforms every fear and worry into peaceful and gentle resolution.

But because it is God’s time, and not our own, we have to trust that this will happen, in ways to glorious to envision. Jesus already died and rose for us. This fact alone invites us to be confident that all will be well, and justice will flow among us, as we worship our eternal Christ.

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