“Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Collect of the Day)
The Christian life is founded, sustained, and brought to perfection through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Over and against our mortal desires and fears, stands the revelation of the life and death, and the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The revelation of Jesus Christ is, indeed, our life—for Jesus is revealed as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The Church’s worship on this day—which is the Last Sunday after Pentecost—bears witness to this truth, under the sign of the other designation for this day—the Feast of Christ the King. We have already heard of this sign in the Collect of the Day, “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” The titles “well-beloved Son,” “King of kings,” and “Lord of lords” refer, precisely, to that Jesus Christ who is the very revelation of God—the revelation of the Christian life. And today we focus our worship on the one title: “The King of kings.”
But in doing so, we are thrown up against a question: How does the title “King of kings” serve as a sign for the revelation of God in Jesus Christ? The answer is a bit more complex that we might first imagine. We cannot simply make one short, concise statement and say that we have exhausted the subject. Rather, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ comes to us primarily through the Holy Scriptures, but not in the form of a simple, declarative statement. I would liken the process more to a play or drama, that comes to us through a series of “scenes” or “acts,” unfolding as the play progresses and develops.
Because of this, we can’t watch just one scene and then say we’ve grasped the heart of the matter. Rather we must sit through the whole play, absorbing what each scene has to tell us about the matter as a whole.
I would propose that this play—which we might call “The Play of Jesus-as-King”—has at least three scenes, numbered as follows: Scene 1 is the Passion and Death of Jesus; Scene 2 is the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus; and Scene 3 is the Spirit-filled interpretation of the previous two scenes, represented for us this morning in the first chapter the Letter to the Colossians. So, very briefly…
Scene 1 is from the gospel account of the Passion and Death of Jesus. What account of a “King” do we find there? A rather odd one, to say the least! The scene is set on a mountain called “The Skull,” which does not bode well. Our King—Jesus—is crucified on a cross along with two common criminals, one of whom taunts and ridicules Jesus. Jesus’ “people” stand by as a helpless audience, powerless to do anything. The religious rulers make sport of Jesus and mock him: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God—God’s Chosen One!” And the Roman soldiers who carried out the crucifixion taunt him unmercifully: “If you are the King of the Jews, [then] save yourself!” If we are honest, Scene 1 gives us no hint, in and of itself, that Jesus is “King,” the revelation of God in the world. At best, we seem to have a story of a pretender to the throne who failed miserably.
But don’t leave yet—for in Scene 2 we have the Gospel-account of the Resurrection and Ascension of this crucified one to the right hand of God in heaven. I will not spend time sketching out the action of this scene; rather, I will say that having watched Scene 2, the whole trajectory of the plot has changed. It is no small thing that in the liturgy for the making of a king, that the-king-to-be is both “raised up” and “seated” on the throne of kingship, which is precisely the story told by the accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension in Scene 2.
And yet, the play is not completed by Scene 2, for we still have the need to interpret what we’ve seen in the first two scenes. And this is precisely what today’s reading from Colossians does for us; and this constitutes Scene 3.
The first chapter of Colossians is breath-taking in its witness to the meaning of Jesus Christ as King—the Christ who suffered and died, and the Christ who was raised from the dead and has ascended into heaven. Each phrase of this chapter could be the text for an entire sermon. I picture this Scene as a single figure, standing alone in the darkness at center stage with a focused spotlight on him, very quietly sharing with us the wisdom of the ages—in this case, the wisdom of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God under the sign of “King.” Listen to a sampling of what he says:
Jesus-as-King is the visible image of the invisible God—the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell bodily.
Jesus-as-King is “before” all created things in time and in pre-eminence because he is also the one “in” whom all things were created and “in” whom all created things hold together.
Jesus-as-King has delivered us—through his passion and death, and through his resurrection and ascension—out of “the dominion of darkness” and has “transferred” us into the kingdom of which he is the King. This is what we mean by the term “redemption.”
Jesus-as-King reigns in this kingdom both as its “head” and as “the first-born from the dead”—the inclusive image of all the redeemed.
And finally, Jesus-as-King is the peacemaker, for by the blood of his cross—his Passion and Death—he has reconciled us to God.
In truth we exit this play of “Jesus-as-King”—if we have seriously engaged with it—gripped by the stupendous paradox of Jesus Christ as the revealer of God. In this play Jesus is not defined by our definition of the term “King”; rather, Jesus—as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnate Word of God—has defined the meaning of “King” for us. And in the revelation of Jesus-as-King we find the revelation of God Himself.
Jesus-as-King is the epitome of power; but it is not the power of the tyrant who lives for himself; it is power wrought from the most profound act of self-giving, self-sacrifice, and love—his Passion and Death. It is not the power authenticated by virtue of self-aggrandizement and self-importance, but by virtue of his Resurrection and Ascension in the love of God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
And the most profound aspect of all is that this Jesus-as-King is King pro nobis—King for us! And as such, Jesus reveals the ultimate nature and will of God to redeem us, to reconcile us, and to make us his sons and daughters who can participate in His life of joy and glory.
It is the Feast of Christ the King—come, let us worship the King!
First let me say thank you for coming this morning. I am grateful for your presence, and I am hopeful you are grateful for each other’s presence. We had a glorious celebration last week; we remembered, we expressed our thanks, and we said our good-byes. Today the reality hits. There are only two at the altar this morning instead of 3. Mother Beth has retired and will no longer be here. That reality brings with it emotions, for many, some sadness, for some, apprehension as to what happens next and honestly for a few, happiness at a new beginning. It is important to pause and acknowledge these emotions, both as individuals and as a community. In some ways it is like a death, a little death. Something important has ended. And being together as a community is what we do in times of mourning. So, thank you for being here today.
A wise friend of mine, Brenda Patten, told me that the “little deaths”, those separations, those ends of relationships, those changes of jobs, those graduations, emotion-filled as they may be, help prepare us for the “big death”. We learn with each moving on what is lasting and what is eternal. It will continue to be important that we come together regularly in this transition time. We can be both comforted and strengthened in each other’s presence in this sacred place.
We are fast approaching the end of the liturgical year and the darkest part of the natural seasons; the days just keep getting shorter. At this time of the year the lectionary focus, both on Sunday morning and in the Daily Office turns to the Parousia, the time of Jesus’ return to earth. While we as a church do believe that Christ will come again, we profess this in most of our Eucharists, I’m not sure we have it in the front of our minds on a regular basis.
As human beings we can be lulled by what is going on right now into thinking that life, as it is, goes on forever. There are times however where we are reminded that is not so.
Sometimes that is at a funeral or even a move away from home. Perhaps it becomes clear as you mark a young child’s growth on the doorframe and see what a difference a few months can make. And sometimes it is a day like today when the meaning of a rector’s retirement hits. The realization that life does not stand still can come through something simple or something large. These moments cause us to see the reality that always is. Our time on this earth is limited. Each day is not exactly the same as the one before. While sometimes change is slow and subtle there are other moments when the truth of beginnings and endings becomes crystal clear.
This is when the central message from today’s lessons can anchor us.
God through his son and through his prophets tells us to get our priorities straight. We do not have forever to put things off. There is a strong urgency that comes through these passages this morning. The challenge for modern day Christians is to hear the urgency they express.
In the readings from Malachi and Luke, the message of the “day of judgement” is clearly spelled out. It is depicted as a time of destruction. The wicked will be burned; there will be great earthquakes; nations will fight against nation; there will be famines and plagues.
In some ways it reads like a current newspaper, doesn’t it?
The problem is that it has seemed so to every generation that has heard these words. And so, people generally have stopped listening. The point being made in today’s lessons is not how to predict when Christ will come again but rather to be reminded that it will happen. These scriptures do that in no uncertain terms.
The question then is how does this change the way in which we live? What are our priorities as we live our day-to-day life in the knowledge that it will come to an end?
That answer comes in part from a closer look at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. In his first letter to that church, Paul reminded them that the Lord’s return will be as a thief coming at night. In other words, only God knows the time. We cannot know it and we will not know it. As we hear in this morning’s epistle, Paul’s second letter to the same church, there were many people who took the fact of Christ’s return as an excuse to sit around doing nothing. The attitude Paul challenges in today’s passage is, oh, well, this is going to end soon so I might as well sit back, relax and enjoy myself.
Instead, Paul taught that being a follower of Christ means that we must cultivate what is lasting. Paul stresses that we are not to give up on our normal practices even when we are not so sure about the future. Sometimes this uncertainty is helpful as it causes us to sort out what is most important.
The questions raised for us through these end-time lessons are especially important for us to consider in this time of transition. What is essential and important in our life? And what is unnecessary and trivial? What is lasting and true and what a is distraction from that truth?
Each November, as the liturgical year is ending, we are called to reexamine our priorities. This particular year, it is even more crucial. We are reminded that God calls us to a just and peaceful life. We are to love God, to love our neighbor and ourselves, and yes, to love our enemies. Living in this way requires our time, especially when there are so many other things that can get in the way.
None of this is easy and we might just as well wish to avoid it. We, like those Christians in the first century can be lulled into complacency and become lazy. But we too, need to heed the reminder from these passages to attend to the important things in life. After all, our time on this earth does have a limit. And, there are some things for our spiritual health that we cannot put off.
Does this mean that we are to get all spun up about this, filled with worry and anxiety? No, our example, as in most things in life, is to follow Jesus. As he neared the end of his life on earth, he did not become anxious, worrying about what he was to do or to say. Rather, he continued in his work, in healing, in teaching and in prayer to the very end.
This is what I believe these lessons today are calling us to do during this time of transition. We are to remember our priorities and to continue in the course we know to be true. We are to pray, to study scripture, and to follow Jesus under all circumstances. We are to continue in our work to spread God’s message of healing love to all. We are to come together regularly at the altar here to gain and provide strength to each other. We are to give of ourselves for the spread of God’s kingdom. These are the Christian basics. This is what it means to be Emmanuel, to be God’s church in this place.
While the scriptures today remind us of the temporary nature of our lives on earth we also are given the wonderful truth of eternal life found in Jesus Christ. Jesus is with us in all times and in all things. God’s love is unchanging and unending. God accompanies us in all our journeys. He will guide us in these uncertain times and comfort us in all our emotions.
In a few moments we will begin the next phase of our journey together. While we have looked at the past with gratitude, now we will look forward with hope. As we commission the search committee to do their work of discerning who God is sending us as the next rector of this place, let us each promise to continue in our work, in our prayer and in our actions for the spread of God’s kingdom.
God is faithful to us, and his love is eternal. We ae called to renew our faithfulness in him.
It is tough to believe that this is my final sermon in your pulpit. The Christian community called Emmanuel has been here a long time and will be here for many years to come, but my particular chapter in your story comes to a close today. And since I announced my retirement last June, you’ve all heard me quote an Episcopal lay leader nicknamed Uncle Norman who was fond of saying, “Priests come and priests go.” And that’s true; clergy move in and out of parishes, but the parishes’ lives go on. I am confident that as you go on, you will be fine. So many of you have told me that you feel that way too, that you are grateful for the past eight and a half years -- and sad, as I am too today -- but that you also know that there is a bright future ahead. It does my heart good to have heard that message from so many parishioners.
Nevertheless, there is a feeling in the pit of my stomach that reminds me of parents calling out after their now-grown offspring as the car pulls out of the driveway on the way to college. “Wear a sweater! Don’t forget to email us! Lock your doors!” It’s a big temptation for me to spend this sermon doing the same kind of thing. I want to send you off into the new era in your life by trying to squeeze some last-minute advice in under the wire. Calling out as the car leaves the driveway: Now remember to keep going back to Scripture every chance you get.
Or: Don’t forget, you can’t just assume people know what Christians believe.
Or: No matter what happens, pray about it.
But I’m not going to permit myself any more than that. Advice is cheap. Advice is annoying, much of the time. And more than that, one of the great Christian insights is that advice doesn’t have much power. Being told what to do is not what the Gospel is about -- the Gospel is about the news of what Jesus has already done, about receiving that news and letting him go to work in your life and the life of your community. So, no more advice.
Instead, let’s look at this magnificent prayer from Ephesians. Paul writes to the congregation at Ephesus: I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. (Certainly true for me right now!) I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.
You see how that prayer just presumes that advice is not what churches need? What we need is the news of Jesus, news that pours out its power through the Word of God and the sacraments into us, power that then motivates us to live in response, to live out of gratitude. Paul doesn’t pray about what he would advise the church in Ephesus to do. He doesn’t pray that they’d start some new program or be more friendly. He prays that they would grasp ever more fully what God has already done in Jesus. He prays for spiritual eyes and ears that are open to see the hope God gives, the inheritance God gives, and the power God gives, which Paul calls immeasurably great.
At our final vestry meeting last Sunday, your vestry members were doing some looking back and looking forward, and one of the things people were sharing that they valued about the past several years was how missional Emmanuel had become, how we’d learned to look outward and engage with our local community. And another one was that they valued the way I’d emphasized teaching the classic Christian tradition and taking seriously the Word of God. Those are both good things, but let’s connect the dots -- the first of those comes from the second. If you only do the first, you are the same as any social service agency. But when the Spirit opens your eyes and ears to the second, to the depth of God’s Word and God’s Sacraments, those naturally create an outward movement fueled by the spiritual potency they have inside them. As Paul prays for. And that, I hope, is what has happened here.
In a few minutes we’ll have the rite of leavetaking that the Episcopal church offers when a rector retires or moves on to a new call. And in that rite, there’s a symbolic passing back to the church of symbols of the rector’s stewardship and authority. That includes my stewardship of this community and this physical place, but also my stewardship specifically on your behalf of God’s Word for you and his sacraments for you. Those two lodestones of Christian life and practice, those covenanted channels through which God has promised to reveal himself to those who gather at his altar for Mass Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
God’s Word and God’s sacraments. They have been ours since the time of the apostles and will be ours until that time when we are in the fullness of the Kingdom and sacraments shall cease because we see God face to face. They are the two most precious things I have to put back into Emmanuel’s hands, and I hope that you all will treasure them and steward them well over the interim period and in your discernment of who is being called as your next Rector. I have so treasured your confidence in me to hold them for you and to help you as a parish system and as individuals to take hold of them yourselves. It has been a great privilege and an immensely fulfilling time. Mark and I will always carry you in our hearts. We are grateful to God for having called us here, and even more grateful to God for being God.
For I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.