Friday, November 23, 2007

Sermon: Christ the King (25 November 2007)

Christ the King: 25 November 2007
(Jeremiah 23:1-6/Psalm 46/Colossians 1:11-20/Luke 23:33-43)
Jesus for President

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In 1801 Thomas Jefferson won a hotly contested presidential election, made more contentious by issues of religion. His opponents accused Jefferson of being an atheist and stirred fears that, if elected, he might abolish the free expression of religion, close churches, and confiscate Bibles. The Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut was also concerned about religious freedom, but for another reason altogether. Congregationalism was the officially recognized state religion of Connecticut and the Baptists there had apparently heard rumors that Jefferson intended to make that federal policy, thus establishing the Congregationalist Church as the national church. This would, of course, marginalize the Baptists on a grand and official scale. They wrote to Jefferson congratulating him on his recent victory and seeking assurances that he would respect their rights as a religious minority. His response has profoundly affected the way we think of, and even speak of, the relationship between church and government to this day. In part he wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Here, Jefferson appeals directly to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

But Jefferson went farther than the strict language of the Constitution by advocating the erection of a wall of separation between church and State. It is Jefferson’s concept and language that often dominate discussions of the relationship between religion and politics.

How solid is the wall of separation between Church and State? Has the state any role in the regulation of religious practice? Well, yes, but only to the extent that religious practice would otherwise violate state or national law: no religious group could defend human sacrifice for example – or even the sacramental use of marijuana – on the basis of the First Amendment because these activities are outlawed, not for religious reasons, but for societal ones. But the State cannot establish a national religion or interfere with the legal practice of any religion. The wall is pretty solid from that direction.

But what about the other direction: has the church any role in the political process? (And here I narrowly restrict myself to a discussion of the Christian church; I have neither the right, the knowledge, nor the desire to speak more broadly – for mosque, temple, or other worshipping community.) There really is no consensus among Christians on this issue; rather, there is a continuum of thought. At one extreme of this continuum lies absolute withdrawal of the church from the political process: no holding political office, no voting, no military service, and the like. At the other extreme lies active engagement with the political process, engagement intended to influence and utilize the legislative process for Christian purposes: ban abortion, return prayer and the Ten Commandments to schools and all public life, feed the poor, and the like. The wall is more porous from this direction: too porous for some, not nearly enough for others.

Regardless of where you fall along this continuum – or perhaps even if you hover somewhere above it – it’s difficult not to recognize Christianity as an essentially political endeavor. Our faith is about creating a people, a kingdom and priests for our God (Rev 5:10) drawn from every language and nation, and that is political. Our God is the only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim 6:15), and that is political. Our Savior, Jesus is Lord (1 Cor 12:3) – so we believe and so we proclaim – and Caesar is not, and that is political. Jesus, the King of the Jews, is born in a manger and Herod, puppet king and vassal of Rome, trembles with fear in his palace, and that is political. John the Baptist heralds the advent of the Messiah and condemns the immorality of Herod the tetrarch, and this Herod imprisons John and beheads him, and that is political. This Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, rides into Jerusalem on a donkey hailed by the people as the Savior, the son of David, and that is political. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and the priests openly oppose Jesus and secretly plot to murder him and that is political. Pilate, the Roman procurator, flogs Jesus and crucifies him with a sign atop the cross announcing to all: King of the Jews. And that is political. This same Jesus harrows hell and burst asunder its gates, for death could not hold him – so proclaims Peter at Pentecost:

This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified (Acts 2:23-24, 36, ESV).

And that is political. Thomas Jefferson notwithstanding, Jesus destroyed once and for all the wall of separation between Church and state long before our founding fathers even sought to erect it. Our faith – the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – is necessarily political because it is the announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand in and through the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

Since all this is political, then on this Christ the King Sunday, I say let’s start a grassroots movement to elect Jesus for President. Can you imagine the campaign? Just picture Jesus on stage at a debate among all potential candidates. The moderator begins.

Moderator: Mr. Christ, the first question is for you. Where do you stand on family values?

Jesus: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26, ESV). 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:35-39, ESV).

OK. That didn’t go so well. Jesus’s handlers will need to work on that one before the next debate. Let’s move on, put that topic behind us, and try to recover.

Moderator: Mr. Nazareth (Let me interrupt to say we’ve got to work on this name recognition thing a bit – the moderator doesn’t even know what to call our candidate!) – Mr. Nazareth, immigration is a divisive issue in our country just now. How would you address immigration?

Jesus: "A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready.' 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, 'I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.' 19And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.' 20And another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' 21So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, 'Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.' 22And the servant said, 'Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.' 23And the master said to the servant, 'Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet,'" (Luke 14:16-24, ESV).

Oh no! Didn’t we talk about this? Sound bites, sound bites, not more stories! What works on a hillside in Galilee doesn’t necessarily translate to the debating stage. Well we can’t worry about that now; the Moderator is starting again.

Moderator: Mr. Galilee, the Social Security system is headed toward bankruptcy in just a few years. How would your administration assure that our senior citizens receive adequate provision?

Jesus: "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
32"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” (Luke 12:22-34, ESV).

Moderator: I’m not certain I understand your answer, Mr. Messiah. Are you telling everyone that, even though the Social Security fund will shortly be empty, they should not worry? Is that your plan?

Jesus: "The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' 18And he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' 20But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' 21So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God," (Luke 12:16-21, ESV).

Well, the other candidates are loving this. All they have to do to score points is keep their mouths closed, shake their heads, and roll their eyes. The Moderator again.

Moderator: As a result of the 911 attacks, we are presently engaged in wars on two separate fronts: Afghanistan and Iraq. National security and the war on terror are perhaps the two most important and challenging issues of our time. As Commander-in-Chief how will you exercise your responsibility to defend our country from all aggression, both foreign and domestic?

38"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles,”(Matthew 5:38-41, ESV).

Well, let’s end our fictional debate here. It’s really already over, isn’t it, at least for candidate Jesus? There never was any real hope of election. I’ve listened to snippets of recent presidential debates and speeches and not one of the candidates – though we have Baptists, Catholics, Mormons, and Church of Christ represented – not one of these men or women who claim to follow Jesus as Lord has espoused even one of his ideas on how to live in this world. Oh, they all have ideas about how either to prosecute the war or extricated our troops from it, but none of them advocates a strict stance of peace: none says, “Do not resist the one who is evil.” Oh, they all have ideas about immigration – building fences, widening the Rio Grande, granting limited amnesty – but not a one of them says, “Go and compel the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame to come in that our nation may be filled.” Oh they have ideas about our economic issues – taxes, social security, the stock market, trickle-down or bottom-up economies – but not one of them talks about laying up treasures in heaven and being rich before God. Every single one of them acts publicly as if the Kingdom of God simply doesn’t exist or else doesn’t matter. And so generally does the Church. I mean, it’s just not practical or possible to live like Jesus said, is it? Surely he intends these principles to apply in the future when the Kingdom of God is fully realized? Yeah, we tell ourselves this and we’d like to believe it, but we know better. “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus said repeatedly over 2000 years ago – not just in the future, but already at hand. And he closed the Sermon on the Mount, his kingdom manifesto, with these sobering words:

15"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' 23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness,'” (Mt 7:15-23, ESV).

As Christians, as resident aliens here, we simply cannot live among the nations of the world as if the Kingdom of God doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. To do so is to deny our King. It is to erect a wall of separation of Church and state that Jesus died and rose again to abolish. We celebrate Christ the King Sunday. It’s past time that the Church begins to live Christ the King Monday. It’s past time that the Church lives up to its name – ekklesia – the “called out ones,” those called out from among the peoples of the world to be holy unto God; those called out for mission – to return to the world announcing the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in word and deed, in faith and practice. It’s past time to take Christ the King seriously.

Is such a life practical? No, not as the world might understand practical. But it is filled with promise.

24"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock,” (Mt 7:24-25, ESV).

And now, to him who is the image of the invisible of God; the firstborn of all creation; the creator of all things seen and unseen, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities; the firstborn from the dead; the King of kings and Lord of lords; to Christ the King be glory and honor and power and dominion now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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