Friday, June 12, 2009

Sermon: 2 Pentecost 2009 (14 June 2009)

Sermon: 2 Pentecost (14 June 2009)
(1 Samuel 15:34-16:13/Psalm 20/2 Corinthians 5:6-17/Mark 4:26-34)
Christ the King

(I must gratefully acknowledge N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, for his thought and writing on the Kingdom of God – much of which finds its way into this sermon. References are provided in the footnotes.)

Blessed be God and blessed be his kingdom now and forever. Amen.

Before we engage the Scripture this morning – and really as an introduction to the Scripture – let’s pause briefly to get our liturgical bearings, to see exactly where we are and where we are headed in the great cycle of feasts and fasts that tells our story and draws us into it anew each year.

The Easter cycle, with the climactic events of the story, is behind us: the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and, most recently, his ascension and the ensuing descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The season after Pentecost, which we enter now, is often called Ordinary Time in the Western church due to its lack of major, extraordinary, feasts.[1] Of course, there is nothing truly ordinary about it; this season focuses on the nature and ministry of the church, that most extraordinary mystical body of Christ for which he died and rose victorious.

Ordinary Time can be quite long when Easter comes early as it did this year – some six months long. It seems long, too, with no great celebrations to punctuate it. Sometimes, at best, we just faithfully slog through it. Even that is a fitting symbol of the long church age – some two millennia and counting now – during which the church has, with greater and lesser faithfulness, pursued its mission, slogging through, waiting for Jesus. This waiting for Jesus intensifies as the weeks of Ordinary Time pass. It finally propels us into the season of Advent, that dual-natured time that recalls the past hope of Christ’s incarnation in humility and anticipates the hope of his return in glory.

Recently – within the last forty years or so, which is the blink of an eye to the church – several expressions of the Western church, led by Rome, have inserted a new feast – and, in some cases, a new season – into the liturgical calendar between Ordinary Time and Advent. The last four weeks of Ordinary Time have become the Kingdom Season and the last Sunday before Advent has become the Feast of Christ the King or the Feast of the Reign of Christ. On the surface this seems at least harmless and perhaps a good and welcomed innovation; it enlivens Ordinary Time and it celebrates the Lordship of Jesus Christ, always a good and joyous thing. On further reflection, though, we realize that the placement of the Kingdom Season and the Feast of Christ the King at the end of Ordinary Time – the period which focuses on the nature and mission of the church – changes the story entirely. The new season tells the wrong story and leads to a seriously distorted understanding of Christ (Christology) and the church (ecclesiology).[2]

How so? Well, let’s pick up the church’s “revised” story at Ascension. On that day our Lord returns to his former glory in heaven at God’s right hand. Ten days later, in fulfillment of his promise, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit (John 16:7) to indwell and empower his disciples and to inaugurate the church age – Ordinary Time, in the liturgical cycle: two thousand years of it so far in which the church has more or less faithfully executed its mission. And what is that mission? Look ahead in the story. In the “revised” version the story ends with Kingdom Season and the Feast of Christ the King. The implications are clear. The church age ends when the church has completed its mission of building the Kingdom of God. Then, and only then, does Christ assume his rightful place as King; then and only then does the Reign of Christ begin. In this new version of the story, the Kingdom of God and the Reign of Christ both result from the mission of the church. This is precisely where the new story gets it wrong; the placement of the Kingdom Season and the Feast of Christ the King reverses cause-and-effect.

What of the traditional telling of the story – the telling in the Gospels, in Acts, in the Epistles and the Revelation, and the telling in the church in ages past? It is perfectly clear in Matthew: before the Ascension, before Pentecost, before Ordinary Time.

But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:16-20, NASB).

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore,” Jesus says to the twelve, to the nucleus of the church. This is the gospel order: the reign of Christ does not come as the result of the church accomplishing its mission; the church has a mission to accomplish because Christ has already begun his reign, because the Kingdom of God has already come, because Jesus is already Lord of all creation. The established fact of the Reign of Christ is precisely what gives the church its mission and what defines the mission of the Church: to live, in the present, under the Lordship of Christ and to announce to a rebellious world that Jesus is Lord and Christ – King and Savior. This is exactly what Peter proclaims in his Pentecost sermon:

“Therefore, let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36, NASB).

This is exactly the reason Peter and John get all uppity when confronted by the deposed powers of their day:

“Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be know to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead – by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Act 4:8b-12, NASB).

This is exactly why St. John’s vision of heaven in the opening chapters of the Revelation – heaven as it was in his day and is now – is that of God enthroned and the Lamb – our Lord Jesus – receiving the praise of all creation:

“Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

“You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign on earth”(Rev 5:9b-10, NASB).

While our reign is yet to come, Jesus’ reign is a present reality.

This is exactly why St. Paul continually invokes the earliest and most fundamental creed of the church – Jesus is Lord – to remind the church and the powers-that-think-they-be that the Kingdom of God has come, that Jesus has begun his reign, and that all nations and people had best heed the warning of the Psalmist.

1 Why are the nations in an uproar? *
Why do the peoples mutter empty threats?

2 Why do the kings of the earth rise up in revolt,
and the princes plot together, *
against the Lord and against his Anointed?

3 “Let us break their yoke,” they say; *
“let us cast off their bonds from us.”

4 He whose throne is in heaven is laughing; *
the Lord has them in derision.

5 Then he speaks to them in his wrath, *
and his rage fills them with terror.

6 “I myself have set my king *
upon my holy hill of Zion.”

7 Let me announce the decree of the Lord: *
he said to me, “You are my Son;
this day have I begotten you.

8 Ask of me, and I will give you the nations for
your inheritance *
and the ends of the earth for your possession.

9 You shall crush them with an iron rod *
and shatter them like a piece of pottery.”

10 And now, you kings, be wise; *
be warned, you rulers of the earth.

11 Submit to the Lord with fear, *
and with trembling bow before him;

12 Lest he be angry and you perish; *
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

13 Happy are they all *
who take refuge in him!

The biblical witness is clear and emphatic, and the testimony of the church in ages past is unwavering: the Kingdom of God has come already through the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ who already has begun his reign as Lord of heaven and earth. The mission of the church is not to build the kingdom so that Christ may begin his reign, but to announce to the world that God has already established the Kingdom of his Christ, that Christ is even now reigning over all creation, and that the world had better recognize the facts, repent of its rebellion, and bow before its true King.

So, we do not need another feast to celebrate Christ the King or the Reign of Christ, and particularly not one that comes at precisely the wrong time in the liturgical cycle. N. T. Wright says it this way.

First, we already have a ‘Feast of Christ the King’. It is called Ascension Day, and occurs forty days after Easter. It celebrates the time when the disciples recognized that the risen Lord Jesus was now the true King of the world… [He] has brought to birth a new sort of kingdom, a kingdom not from this world but emphatically for this world. Easter and Ascension, taken together, constitute Jesus as Messiah and King, as Lord of the world.

The mission of the church presupposes this. Going into the world to declare that Jesus is Lord only makes sense if he is already reigning, not if the church is merely suggesting that he might perhaps reign at some point in the distant future, at the end of the long years of church history (represented, in the church’s year by the Trinity Season [Ordinary Time]).

The church is privy to a great mystery – not a secret, but a mystery once hidden and now revealed: despite all appearances to the contrary, Jesus Christ is already King of all creation – of heaven and earth – and the Kingdom of God has already come. Ordinary Time – the church age – is actually Kingdomtide, a celebration of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This great truth propels the Spirit-empowered church into mission: to proclaim Kingdom-come to those who have yet to hear that good news and to those would-be powers who rebel against that good news, and to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God – not intimidated by the would-be powers and not conformed to their would-be rule.

What is this already present Kingdom of God like? It’s like…well, it’s like

“a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade” (Mk 4:31-32, NKJV).

Isn’t this just like our God to take something apparently small, insignificant – weak even – and use it to conquer all the powers and principalities, rulers and authorities arrayed against him? He did so with the cross; he does do now with a mustard seed kingdom and a crucified king before whom one day every knee will bow – in heaven, on earth, and under the earth – and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (cf Phil 2:10-11).

What is it like with this already present Kingdom of God? It’s as if…well, it’s as if

“a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mk 4:26b-29).

In this already present but ever growing Kingdom of God our role is to sleep by night and rise by day; to plant, water, weed, and prune; and then to sleep and rise again – day after day, year after year, millennia after millennia. It is God’s role to provide the growth – and we might very well not know how he does it or even recognize that he is doing it. In speaking of Apollos and himself – of their work in Corinth – Paul writes:

Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers (1 Cor 3:5-9a, NKJV).

God takes our faithfulness – our apparently insignificant mustard-seed prayers and works and sacrifices – and builds them together into his kingdom for his glory. God builds the kingdom, but not independent of us; we are God’s fellow workers: not that he needs our efforts, but that he has dignified and honored man by making us agents of the Kingdom.

So, we now enter Ordinary Time, though it is anything but ordinary. It is Kingdomtide, a celebration of the Kingdom of God and the Reign of Christ the King, a reminder to the church that the Kingdom of God has come, that Christ has begun his reign, and that the church has a mission: to proclaim Jesus as Lord, to live under his Lordship, and to offer God our prayers and worship and work as building blocks for the Kingdom.


[1] It is also called Trinity Season, beginning, as it does, with the Feast of the Trinity and celebrating the church’s empowerment for ministry by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.
[2]N. T. Wright has analyzed this most clearly in his books For All The Saints?, Morehouse (2004), and Surprised By Hope, Harper One (2008).
[3] N. T. Wright. For All The Saints? p. 66.

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