This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lindsey Baynham about the readings for Christ The King Sunday [A] (Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1.15-23, Matthew 25.31-46). Lindsey serves as the Director of the Center for Clergy Excellence in the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including eschatology, RBG, liturgical history, preludes to Advent, stubborn creatures, joyful noises, John Wesley’s preaching, hope at the end of the year, and the King of the least. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I Pledge Allegiance To The Lord
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
On Tuesday afternoon I went into the Preschool and sat on the floor of the yellow room with our Preschoolers. In mere minutes I would be walking with them into the sanctuary for their end of year performance and graduation, but for the moment we were sitting crisscross applesauce on the alphabet carpet.
Some of the kids were visibly nervous, rocking back and forth on the floor knees tucked into their chests, others were focused and practicing the words to the songs under their breath, and others were completely oblivious to what we were about to do and instead were making faces at one another and then cackling from the depth of their hilarity.
When I got the signal from our director that the time had come to stand, line up, and make our way into the sanctuary I bounced off the floor and called for attention. I said, “My friends, whose ready to have some fun?!” To which they responded with a conflated and cacophonous scream.
“Well,” I continued, “Before we go upstairs I want everyone to take a deep breath. Good, hold it, now blow it our slowly and listen carefully. I want you all to know that no matter what, this is going to be great, because your families love you, I love you, and Jesus loves you.”
One by one they lined up in the hallway in their specific order and just before we started to move one of our boys grabbed me by the pant leg. “But Pastor Taylor, I have a question.” Figuring he needed to use the bathroom or some such thing, I got down on my knees and said, “What is it Keller?” He said, “I know my parents love me because they’re here, and I know you love me because you’re right here, but where’s Jesus?”
I said, “C’mon Keller! We’re seconds away from the program beginning and you want to know where Jesus is?! I don’t have time for this theological nonsense!”
Just kidding. But in the moment I thought about how to answer the question, what would satisfy his longing and curiosity. Where is Jesus?
I thought about placing my one hand on his shoulder and using my other hand to point toward his chest and saying, “Keller, Jesus is in our hearts!”
I thought about grabbing a nearby children’s bible to show him a picture of the Ascension, but of course, children’s bibles only contain stories like Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, and an Easter Sunday that has more to do with budding flowers than a dead man being raised back into life.
So I settled for this: “I’ll tell you where Jesus is after we finish the program.”
When the disciples came together they asked Jesus, “Are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” After years of listening to parables, watching miracles, and being fed out of nowhere, after encountering their resurrected friend, they still didn’t get it. Jesus replied, “There are some things you are not meant to know. But you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”
When he said this, the disciples watched as he ascended into the sky and a cloud took him out of their sight. And two men in white came by and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand with your eyes in the sky?” The disciples returned to Jerusalem and they devoted themselves to prayer while they waited.
The Ascension is important. Sadly, however, it is one of the Sundays that gets lost in the liturgical year and is overshadowed by the likes of Pentecost and Christ the King. This story of what took place 40 days after the first Easter answers our little preschooler’s question about where Jesus is, but it also does so much more.
The Ascension is not about where Jesus is, but where Jesus rules. In the Ascension, Jesus takes his place at the right hand of the Father and becomes the King who rules our lives here and now. In this spectacular moment, a vision that would keep our eyes in the sky, God brings full circle the incarnation that took place in Mary’s womb. God became what we are, and as Jesus returned to the Father the humanity of our existence was brought into the divine.
Far too often we use the Ascension story to explain Christ’s absence from our lives, we use it as the means by which we calm the questions of preschoolers, and comfort those who are in the midst of suffering. But the Ascension loses it’s beauty, majesty, and power when we limit it to the physical location of the Son of God.
When Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father he received the authority to rule here and now through a particular people called church; people like us.
Today, we throw the word “heaven” around like we throw around the word “love.” We use it as a filler or a descriptor to such a degree that it no longer means anything. And therefore when we say that Jesus ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, we no longer know what we are saying.
In the Ascension, Christ is exalted to the Oval Office of the universe to rule forever and ever.
I use the Oval Office specifically because the Oval Office means something to us, it embodies power and gravitas and even a little bit of fear. It is the place where things get done, where decisions are made that have an effect on our lives, it is where our leader rules.
But of course, our real Leader doesn’t reside in a White House, nor does our Leader work in an Oval Office made by the hands of morals.
Our Lord is Jesus Christ who rules from the Oval Office of the Universe.
Just as we throw around the term “heaven” today without knowing what we are saying, the same thing happens with “the mission of the church.” Ask any good United Methodist about the mission of the church and they will tell you that we are here to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. However, the church is already the better place that God has made in the world.
It would seem then, that perhaps the real mission of the church, particularly in the world we live in today, is to reclaim the understanding and belief that Jesus is Lord.
Because we either live under that reality or we don’t.
After my brief theological conundrum in the basement, I walked up the stairs with the kids and we entered the sanctuary for the program. The kids stood attentively as I welcomed the families and friends, they belted out the songs with such volume that they drowned out the sound system with the backing music, and then we came to the final song.
It’s really simple and it goes like this: “I like to jump every day, I like to jump every day, I like to jump every day because I know He loves me, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me yeah, yeah, yeah, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me yeah, yeah, yeah!” And of course, I popped out into the chancel area and jumped with the kids while we were singing. The second time through its all about clapping, so we did that. And then the third time through we sing about dancing, and we did that as well.
While performing with the kids I could hear the parents laughing and clapping along as I made a fool of myself with a bunch of 3, 4, and 5 year olds, but the thing is, they really meant it. The kids threw every bit of themselves into the three verses of that song and they jumped, clapped, and danced with reckless abandon.
After the last song I announced the graduates of the Preschool, those who are going to kindergarten in the fall, and then I dismissed everyone from the sanctuary for a meal in the fellowship hall.
While the families and children were milling about I went to go find Keller to finish our conversation about the location of the Lord. I scanned through all the people and thought about what I might say, what story I could tell, how I could make it intelligible to a 4 year old when I felt another tug at my leg.
Keller was standing there with a huge smile on his face. I said, “Keller, you did a great job and I have my answer for you about where Jesus is.” And he just stood there grinning from ear to ear and said, “I know now Pastor Taylor, I felt him up there when we were dancing!”
Our Christ is a cosmic King who rules and reigns over us. In the ascension Jesus broke forth from the chains of being one of us, among us, into a freedom to rule with authority and power at the right hand of God. We are now his witnesses in Staunton, Augusta County, and to the ends of the earth. As Christians we believe that Christ is with us in the midst of being this strange, wonderful, and beautiful thing called church. Jesus makes himself manifest with us when we break bread, when we pass the peace, when we encounter the stranger, and even when we’re dancing in the sanctuary.
The story of the ascension is transformative for us Christians because in it we recognize our inability to go it alone. The first disciples met together, traveled together, worked together, prayed together, wept together, and rejoiced together, and even danced together all in Christ’s name. Just like them, we need each other’s witness and support, challenge and care, love and grace, to live into the reality that the church is the witness to Jesus Christ.
Jesus reigns from the Oval Office of the Universe at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. But for as much as Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, Jesus is also with us, the resurrected Christ is the one who makes possible our resurrection, who brings forth reconciliation in our lives, who offers us a story when we have no story, who dances with us, who weeps with us, who is our Lord. Amen.
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! Says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall fear nor longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence for condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself! There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.
The first time I traveled to Guatemala I had no idea what to expect. Sure I had been on previous mission trips to different parts of the United States, but I had yet to serve the church in a truly different environment. Everywhere we traveled there was a sense of excitement in the air because everything was so remarkably fresh. The abundance of colors in the differing marketplaces, the worn and wrinkled faces of the elderly mayans carrying heavy loads, and the mountains scratching across the horizon.
I had been looking forward to the trip for sometime and when we finally arrived, everything was meeting my expectations. I believed that we were truly serving God’s kingdom by serving our Guatemalan neighbors by building stoves in the indigenous highland areas. I believed that we had something to share with them, not to convert them, but to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ and demonstrate the love of God in the world.
On one of the early days of the trip, our team arrived in the town of Chichicastenango, known for its traditional K’iche’ Mayan culture. It was a pit stop for us on the way to the higher regions, and we were there for lunch and to explore the vast and dense market. Everywhere you turned you were overwhelmed by the sense of time and tradition, as if this place had remained unchanged for the last few centuries. I wandered through the winding streets, peeked in some of the different booths, but really I was just trying to soak up the culture.
At some point, I became lost. I could not see anyone from my group and continued to travel aimlessly throughout the town. I tried to keep it together, not panic, and decided to find a high vantage point in order to get a bearing on my surroundings. I walked until the stones under my feet started to slant upwards and eventually found myself in front of a very old church. The stone steps were covered with Mayans, sitting and sprawling over every space, and I had to weave my way back and forth in order to reach the entrance of the church. Though I should have immediately turned around to look out at the town, something drew me inside.
The church was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. The ground felt alive under my feet as it gave way to my weight, the walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires, and the paintings and decorations had nearly all disappeared from view. The smell of melted wax filled my nostrils as I began to creep closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar. It was the least church-like church I had ever entered. Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooded seats until I finally found myself standing in the front of the church. There poised in front of me was perhaps one of the most pristine sculptures of Christ that I had ever seen. In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Christ was unblemished, beautiful, and brilliant. Jesus stood elegantly with his robes draped over his shoulders with one hand outstretched with a remarkable golden crown resting on his forehead: Christ the King.
The celebration of Christ the King Sunday is a relatively recent addition to the Christian calendar. The greater church had celebrated the knowledge and image of Christ as king for centuries, but Pope Pius IX officially added to the Christian year in 1925. It took the church 1900 years to need this feast so bad in order to add it to the life of worship. When the first celebration of Christ the King occurred, Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for three years, the maniacal man named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was growing in popularity, and the United States was preparing for the Great Depression. In such a time, when the world seemed out of control, the church asserted that, nevertheless, Jesus Christ is King of the universe.
This day, this celebration in the life of the church, became the church’s great nevertheless to the godlessness of the world. Despite the rise of dictators, wars, fear, and death, despite the widespread notion that religion was only a “private affair” for individuals, Christ the King asserted that Jesus Christ is the Lord, and he shall reign forever and ever.
On Christ the King Sunday the Lectionary provides for us scriptures that reflect the “kingliness” of Jesus. The Old Testament scripture from Jeremiah, contains a prophetic word about the coming Messiah: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” Jeremiah reports the Word of the Lord to a people in a time of chaos: there are people who are unworthily leading and scattering God’s sheep. But nevertheless, God will bring about a righteous Branch, a king to rule all things, a king of righteousness.
What do we want out of a king? Someone who will execute justice and righteousness? Someone who has our best interests at heart? Someone who lowers our taxes? Someone who will lead us victoriously into battle?
The Israelites wanted a king like David. They so desired someone to come in the name of the Lord in order to overthrow the powers that be, and take a seat on their appointed throne. To be crowned with glorious gems and rubies, to bring about God’s kingdom on earth with power. What kind of a king do we want?
And he was led away to the place called The Skull with two others, who were criminals. There Jesus was crucified with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left. With the blood still wet on his hands and feet, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” those who had gathered to witness his death began to cast lots for his clothing, and people stood by watching, waiting. The leaders began to mock him, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers present also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And there was a sign hung over his head that read, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals hung next to Christ kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself AND us!” But the other criminal rebuked him, saying “Are you not afraid of God, since you are under the same punishment? And we were condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he looked to the Christ, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
That is our King.
When you really get down to it, when you hear Luke’s remembrance of the crucifixion, it is so simple and straightforward. This is in contrast with the flood of feeling-filled poetry, hymns, sermons, and images that have flowed ever since. Our King did not reign in glory according to the expectations of the world. Instead of a long flowing purple robe he was left nearly naked on the cross. Instead of a crown of rubies, diamonds, and gems, he wore a crown of thorns. Instead of a majestic throne inlaid with gold and comfort, Christ reigned from a cross.
The Romans were notorious for using crucifixion as a form of execution for common criminals because it not only warned the public about the crimes against Rome, but it also added shame, pain, and a slow death. Yet somehow, instead of being hung for shame, Jesus Christ was elevated to his throne on the cross.
In that simple moment of hanging for all to see, Christ the King reigned magnificently over God’s kingdom and demonstrated the depth of what it means to be our King. Jesus refused to test God and heed the call of his tormentors to save himself. Three separate times Jesus was mocked to “save himself,” with the one criminal adding, “and us.” In his final moments Jesus does save someone, and that the one he saved was a dying criminal fits perfectly with the greater message of God’s Good News of the world. In Jesus’ dying hour, he continued his ministry: For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost. That is what it means to be King.
As I stood in that Guatemalan church, I was confronted for the very first time about what it really means to believe that Christ is the King. I was surrounded by decay, desolation, and disregard yet Christ stood before me as the King. In that moment I saw the paradox of the crucifixion, that the King of God’s glory was hung on a cross to die, that Christians in Guatemala can see the world slipping away from them, yet Christ is still King of the universe. I thought I was bringing something with me to Guatemala, that I was carrying God’s message. I believed I was looking for and seeking out God in my own life when God was the one looking for me; waiting to confront me in that dark and empty church.
How remarkable is it that we worship a God who loves us so much that he is continually looking for us, finding us in the differing moments of our lives to remind us who is really in charge? How beautiful is it that our God came in the form of flesh, to be the incarnate Word, and reign from a cross at the place called The Skull? How perfect is it that our King does not meet the expectations of the world, but instead turns the world upside down? How blessed are we that our King reigns not above us, but for us, beside us, and with us?
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year, we have come to the conclusion of our liturgical calendar. We began with Christ’s birth made our way through his life death and resurrection. We have remembered the stories of the Old Testament where God made covenant with his people to be their God. We have witnessed the tragedies that have occurred in the world, we have lost loved ones, and suffered in our own lives.
Yet, nevertheless, Jesus Christ is King of all things.
Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, brought forth a new age in the life of humanity, ushered in a new kingdom by water and the Spirit, reigned triumphantly from the most unexpected of places. Jesus Christ, Son of Man, came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus Christ, Son of God, died on a cross for the world so that we might all be reunited and reconciled with God. Jesus Christ, the Holy One, taught us about how to live and love abundantly in God’s Kingdom. Jesus Christ, King of the universe, was resurrected from the grave to share life eternal with us.
Hallelujah! To God be the Glory forever and ever!