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Making Peace by the Blood of His Cross

Homily preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd November 21, 2010, Solemnity of Christ the King

Did you know that today’s celebration is one of the newest on our liturgical calendar? The Feast of Christ the King was established by Pius XI in 1925. In church years, that’s practically yesterday.

In his letter establishing this celebration, Pius XI carefully laid out his reasons as to why he thought this feast was necessary. His primary reason was to highlight the fact that our modern societies needed to be reminded that only by following the Gospel will true justice be achieved. Only the commandments of Christ the King can bring true peace and social cooperation.

Of course, you know the commandments of Jesus:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

This gospel reading from Mark (12:28-31) is proclaimed at every baptism here at Good Shepherd Church. In the Rite of Baptism the parents are asked point-blank:

“It will be your duty to bring [your child] up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?”

And for each of us, we must still constantly ask ourselves if we clearly understand what we are undertaking if we seek to live as disciples of Jesus.

Recently a friend of mine posted on Facebook a quotation from my hero Dorothy Day that brought these two commandments — to love God and neighbor — together in a very concise but uncomfortable way:

“I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

King of Kings and Lord of Lords. That’s how we often imagine this feast in the words of Händel’s Messiah that we will hear in the upcoming days. We imagine the glory of Christ enthroned, a crown on his head and angels bowing before him. Yet today’s gospel reading portrays a different kind of king, a king sentenced to the death penalty for treason against the state, making promises to a thief.

A couple of weeks ago Fr. Tom and I both attended the installation of the new rector of our neighboring parish, All Saints Episcopal Church. I was so pleased to see that the new rector, Fr. Steve Huber, had cards printed up and distributed to everyone at that celebration, because these cards had one of my favorite quotations from Teresa of Ávila:

Christ has no body but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion upon this world
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good
Yours are the hands with which he blesses the world
Yours are the hands
Yours are the feet
Yours are the eyes
You are his body.

You see, the concept of all of us as the Body of Christ is not some high theological concept, some mystical idea. It is down-to-earth, rooted in daily life. Because it’s us.

And if Christ is king, then we are also kings and queens. In fact, by baptism we all become priests, prophets and kings (or queens). We are each to build the Kingdom of God on earth. And again, that’s not some abstraction. It’s real and tangible, here and now.

Cardinal Newman wrote of the Kingdom of God:

“it is as unmeaning to speak of an invisible kingdom on earth, as of invisible chariots and horsemen, invisible swords and spears; to be a kingdom at all it must be visible, if the word has any true meaning.”

And what does that mean in everyday life? To be a part of and a builder of the Kingdom of God?

In ancient Israel, the role of the king was to ensure a just society. So we, kings and queens by baptism, anointed with the same chrism oil that is a part of ancient coronation ceremonies, must strive to ensure a just society.

Because you see, this feast is not just about Jesus. It’s also about us. And it challenges us to a new way of thinking about our role in society.

And as we think about our role as kings and queens, with a baptismal duty to build a just society, we have to think about how in our lives we have been taught from an early age to overlook injustice. It’s so easy to adopt the blindness of society: “That’s just the way things are.” “This is a business, after all.” “Don’t worry about that, it’s none of your business.” “Hey, life is unfair.”

But our baptism is always there in the background, the sound of flowing waters reminding us that as prophets we have to recognize injustice, to speak out on behalf of the oppressed, and as kings and queens we need to do something about it.

And lest we think that our efforts to bring justice to those we encounter in society and our workplace will result in some sort of plaque or award, we are again reminded of the image of the crucified king in today’s gospel reading. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” That’s what was written above Jesus on the cross in Latin, Hebrew and Greek. But the placard was not an accolade, it was a verdict.

By claiming to be king, he had committed treason against the Roman Empire. That placard was a warning made by the Romans to a conquered people 2,000 years ago. But it is also a warning for us today: seek justice for the oppressed and we may pay a price.

All of a sudden this whole baptism thing is about more than white clothes and a party for a baby. It has life-changing consequences. It turns out that being a king or a queen in today’s world is not what you might expect.

Again we are drawn to the gospel image of the king, naked and dehydrated, bleeding, asphyxiating on a cross. “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” And in response, he turned to a thief and promised him paradise. Think of all the people in your own life who turn to you in despair and loneliness and look at you with eyes that plead, “Show me heaven.” How should we respond? We could take Jesus as our example from today’s gospel reading: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

In preparation for his Second Coming, Jesus sent his best friend John to earth to gather ideas for where and how the Second Coming should take place. “John,” Jesus said, “You know my heart. You know what works for me. Talk to some people on earth and come back with some ideas for me.”

So John came to earth to scout out locations. After quite a long time, he came back to report to Jesus.

“Yeshua,” John said, because that’s what he called him on earth, “I’ve talked to thousands of people, and I’ve narrowed it down to three options.

“The first offer comes from the pope. He suggests you appear in the sky above St. Peter’s Basilica with a huge flash of lightning. Then you descend into St. Peter’s Square before the television cameras of the world and take a seat upon a throne. He is commissioning a costly gold crown and elegant vestments for you to wear. Here’s his first draft of your speech. It’s 40 pages. Covers all the main points he’s been trying to get across for some time.”

Jesus nodded. “Well, an invitation from Peter’s successor is something to be considered seriously. Go on.”

“Well, Rabbi,” John said, because sometimes he calls Jesus that for old times’ sake, “the second offer is from the right to life people. They would like you to be a guest of honor at a huge celebrity awards dinner at the Beverly Wilshire. With you as a draw, they feel they can push their cause to the forefront and raise enough money to give campaign contributions to thousands of politicians to outlaw abortion everywhere.”

Jesus thought for a moment. “There’s no doubt that abortion is a serious problem.” he said. “What’s your third choice?”

“Jesus,” John said, because sometimes he talks to Yeshua in English just for fun, “there’s a run-down little hustler bar on the eastern end of Santa Monica Boulevard. The manager there said some of the regulars would like to meet you, and he’ll buy your first beer and an order of nachos.”

Jesus paused thoughtfully.

“That’s a lovely offer, John,” Jesus said. “All of these are good suggestions. Thank you for all your work, and thank everyone who made a suggestion for their invitations. I think you know which one appeals to me.”

“Yes Lord,” John said, because that’s what he calls Jesus when he knows he’s doing something awesome. “I’ll tell Gabriel to make all the arrangements.”

Which offer do you think Jesus accepted? And if we are the Body of Christ, kings and queens by baptism, where should we find ourselves if we are to build the Kingdom of God, if we are to heal and mend our wounded society, as Paul wrote in our second reading, “making peace through the blood of his cross?”

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