Sunday, November 24, 2013

When Jesus comes into his kingdom

Text: Luke 23:33-43 (the crucifixion)

Today is "Reign of Christ" or "Christ the King" Sunday, and the Gospel reading is about Jesus' crucifixion. In this sermon, I reflect on how Jesus as our crucified King exposes human kingdoms.

Monarchy and religion have always been closely linked. In Jesus' time, most people were ruled by a king or emperor, and monarchs were worshipped as gods.

Today, however, most people no longer have a monarch. Since the United States broke free of Britain and its kings in 1776, many other countries have become republics, including the most populous ones.

Japan is the only country of more than 100 million people that is still a monarchy. It is also the last country -- as late as 1946 -- that considered its emperor to be divine. Canada, of course, is also a constitutional monarchy.

Kingdoms may be disappearing, but monarchs still get a lot of attention. Americans in particular seem to be fascinated with the British Royal Family. And despite the fact that the U.S. is a republic, Americans treat their powerful political families -- such as the Kennedy's, Bush's and Clinton's -- like royalty.

This past Friday, as the world marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, we were reminded that JFK's administration was called "Camelot" after the mythical realm of King Arthur. Following JFK's death, both of his brothers ran for President.

The impulse towards creating a family dynasty is strong. In North Korea, dictatorship has been handed from father to son for three generations. In Cuba, when President Fidel Castro became incapacitated in 2008, power passed to his younger brother, Raul. In Canada, Justin Trudeau's main claim to legitimacy as a potential Prime Minister is his status as the son of Pierre Trudeau. Then there is Rob and Doug Ford and their wealthy father, who was also a politician. But enough has probably been said about the Fords lately . . .

One of the first republics -- the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell in Britain in the 1650s -- failed in part because Cromwell passed political power to his son. Cromwell led England's Puritan Parliament against King Charles I in the 1640s, which ended with Charles' execution in 1649. Then in 1652, Cromwell disbanded parliament and named himself dictator; and when Cromwell died in 1658, his son took over. This imitation of royalty probably helped persuade the British to reinstate the old royal family. King Charles' son replaced the younger Cromwell in 1660.

The republican government of the Puritans and Presbyterians in England and Scotland from 1649 to 1660 was unprecedented. Before that time, religion and royalty had always been each other's biggest supporters.

When Jesus began his ministry, he was hailed as a new King David -- the Messiah or Christ -- who would defeat the Romans and re-establish a monarchy in Jerusalem. But as our Gospel reading reminds us, the Romans executed Jesus while mocking him as the King of the Jews.

God raised Jesus to new life on Easter, and St. Paul preached that Christ now lived within us. He denied that sovereignty lay with a king in Jerusalem or an emperor in Rome. Instead, sovereignty lay with ordinary people. Each person was part of the Body of Christ, and so was also part of the throne of both God and King.

The church abandoned this democratic vision in the Fourth Century when the Roman empire made Christianity its state religion. For the next 1500 years, the bond between monarchy and church was central again. The church preached that kings ruled by divine right. Archbishops crowned European monarchs in ceremonies that mimicked those of ancient Israel. Loyalty to Christ was identified with loyalty to one's monarch no matter how terrible that monarch might be.

The Puritans and Presbyterians of the 1600s had tried to break the link between church and king. But though they held power for less than 20 years, their republican experiment was a sign of what was to follow.

In many countries, monarchy was destroyed in World War One. In Russia, after several million Russians had been killed in the first two and half years of war with Germany, workers and soldiers rose up to overthrew the Czar in March 1917. The Russian Orthodox church survived, but its centuries of support for brutal and incompetent Czars left it weakened.

The Germans followed in October 1918. With defeat looming, German sailors rebelled against their superiors and overthrew the Kaiser. The churches that had supported the Kaiser survived, but they became a shadow of their former selves.

The crisis affecting church in Canada today is also an echo of World War One. The British monarchy survived the disaster of the Great War, but it became ever-more distant from real power.

Governments no longer rely on monarchy. Instead, they look to nationalism, consumerism, and the mass media for support.

Today's Grey Cup gives us an example. Saskatchewan is much more focused on the Roughriders than it is on the monarchy or on church. We are a football province more than a royal province, even if our capital is named after Queen Victoria. And the spirit in Mosaic Stadium this afternoon will be stronger than anything ever seen in our churches.

I don't say this to belittle support for the Roughriders, but to underline how things have changed since Saskatchewan was founded in 1905. As monarchy has withered away and been replaced by other cultural forces, the church that supported the monarchy has withered away along with it.

For 1500 years, the church told us that Europe's monarchs ruled by divine right. But given that Jesus was a humble peasant who was crucified by empire, this support for oppressive kingdoms betrayed the church's ideals.

In our Gospel reading today, the thief who is dying beside Jesus sees his royal power even on the cross. He knows that Jesus will come into his kingdom, and he wants to be part of it.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21). When we commit to the Way of Jesus, we are already living in God's kingdom. No matter how poor we may be, sovereignty lies within us.

Jesus' vision of divine democracy is the church's oldest tradition. And now that governments have abandoned monarchy, we can better reclaim our democratic and popular heritage. Doing so is hardly easy, though.

Here in Borderlands, several meetings last week discussed our future. On Tuesday, the Central Board decided to suspend Sunday worship in January and February following my departure for Edmonton.

Then on Wednesday, six of us went to a meeting in Assiniboia to discuss how United churches in eight towns across our region might collaborate. The 40 people there made no decisions. But retired and active ministers in the region said they are willing to provide pulpit coverage here. Perhaps by next summer after more discussion, a new "normal" for our churches will emerge. I felt hopeful after the meeting.

While the "glory days" for both kings and their churches are gone, the spirit of Christ continues to burn in our hearts. It guides us deeper into God's kingdom both in our living and in our dying.

Governments today try to capture hearts and minds through nationalism and consumerism. Jesus shows us another way. No matter which republic or monarch claims sovereignty over us, the only true sovereign we need recognize is the crucified and Risen Christ who lives within us, now and forever.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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