The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Kingdom of Christ

This is the text of a homily given at Evensong in the Anglican parish of St. Aidan in Winnipeg on Sunday November, 24th, 2013, the Feast of the Reign of Christ The King. The Scripture readings were Zechariah 9: 9-16 and Luke 19: 11-27

We who belong to countries that share in the culture and civilization that is commonly called Western have a very linear way of thinking about time. We conceive of time as a current which flows from a source in the past, through the present, towards a destination in the future. Philosophers have posited various destinations towards which they have suggested history is moving. Karl Marx said that history was moving towards a state of universal communism. More recently Francis Fukuyama argued that a universal, American-style, democratic capitalism was the “end of history”. What these philosophies do not acknowledge is that the Western way of thinking about time and history that made their ideas possible is due to the influence of the Christian faith. Christianity teaches that history began with Creation, was diverted from its original end by the Fall, was redeemed by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is moving towards a final destination, the Kingdom of God.

Apart from Christian divine revelation the idea of time and history as moving in a straight line would not make much sense. The natural world suggests that time has a circular shape. Think of the basic units by which we measure time. A day, in the language of the ancients, is the time it takes for the sun to complete its journey through the sky from the east to the west. In the less picturesque language of the modern scientific worldview it is the period of time it takes for the earth to rotate on its axis. It amounts to the same thing and in both cases it is a circular motion. Likewise a month is the time it takes for the moon to complete its cycle of waxing and waning – or to revolve around the earth. Similar remarks could be made about the year. The seasons are a cycle to which man has attached great significance from earliest times, seeing in them a picture of the cycle of life, from birth in spring, through growth in summer, to maturity in fall, and finally culminating in death in winter, from which the cycle begins again with the rebirth of life in the next spring.

The spiritual conclusions that pagan faiths, enlightened only by natural revelation and not by special revelation, drew from what they observed in nature, were often false, such as the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul through reincarnation. Sir James Frazer, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Scottish anthropologist, in his notorious The Golden Bough, compared the various myths in which a god dies and is reborn in some way. This myth appears in one form or another throughout Mediterranean and indeed world mythology. It is ordinarily associated with fertility rituals and mysteries. It is clearly a symbolic representation of the natural cycle, of life, death, and rebirth. Frazer tried to explain away the gospel account of the death and resurrection of Christ as yet another version of this meme. C. S. Lewis, the Christian apologist whose death, fifty years ago, was overshadowed by the somewhat more spectacular death of a less interesting persona of whom we have all heard a great deal this weekend, that occurred on the same day, demolished Frazer’s argument by pointing out that Christ’s death and resurrection, unlike that of Osiris or Dionysus, took place not in some “other place” outside of time, but in actual history, in an identifiable place, at an identifiable time. Since the natural cycle of which the pagan mythology was a symbol, was itself used by Christ in the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel as a picture of His own redemptive work, Lewis argued, the Gospel was true myth. Jesus was and is the reality, of which the earlier myths were mere shadows.

The Christian Church, in developing its liturgical calendar, harmonized the Christian faith’s teleological history, with the cyclical time observed in nature. The Christian year, like any other calendar, is built around the seasons of the cycle of life. Its major festivals take place around the winter and the spring solstices. Its seasons ebb and flow with the rhythms of life. The significance, however that it assigns to days in the calendar is drawn from events of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, which are arranged in the order of linear time so as to reenact and remember these events each year. It begins with Advent, a four week period of anticipation that leads up to Christmas, the festival of the birth of Jesus Christ, the celebration of which continues until Epiphany, the feast of the visit of the magi. In Lent we have a period of penitent reflection leading up to Holy Week, which starts on Palm Sunday with the reenactment of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and ends in the celebration and remembrance of the Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, respectively. Ascension Day and Pentecost, commemorate the anniversaries of the ascension of Christ and the sending of the Holy Ghost.

Today is the last Sunday in the Christian calendar. It is the feast day of the Reign of Christ the King. This is a very new addition to the Christian calendar. The feast day was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925, at a time when the nations of the world were falling prey to the personality cults of Mussolini and Lenin, to remind the world of Him Who is king of kings, and lord of lords. It was originally assigned to the last Sunday before All Saints Day, i.e., the last Sunday in October. The Roman Catholic Church reassigned it to the final Sunday of the Christian Year in 1970, after which it was adopted by other liturgical denominations, including our own.

I am not ordinarily a fan of innovations, particularly those of the twentieth century, but in this case I think this was appropriate and unusually well thought out. For this addition to the calendar makes the liturgical cycle culminate in a celebration of the kingdom of Christ – the end towards which Christianity says history is moving, thus completing the harmonization of linear and cyclical time, in the Christian year.

The kingdom of Christ is what the Jews called the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. It was a Jewish concept before it was a Christian concept. It is the kingdom God promised to Israel through the Old Testament prophets. It was to break another cycle, a less healthy one, the cycle of sin, repentance, restoration, and apostasy told in Old Testament history. The gospel that Jesus preached was that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, and the kingdom was the subject, in one way or another, of virtually every sermon He preached, and every parable He told. There are many aspects to the kingdom. It is the reign of Christ from Heaven after His Ascension to sit on the right hand of His Father. It is the Reign of Christ in the heart of the believer and collectively in His earthly body the Church. It is also the coming future kingdom that will be manifested upon earth after the Second Coming.

Some today are skeptical of the latter aspect of the kingdom. They think that the spiritual and invisible aspects are all that there is and that the prophesies of the kingdom were all fulfilled in the first century.

This brings us to the parable told in the reading from Luke’s gospel today. According to Dr. Luke this parable was told by Jesus immediately after His encounter with Zaccheus the tax collector in Jericho and just before His entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This timing, as we are about to see, is crucial to understanding the parable.

This parable is unusual in that it joins two separate stories in one. One of those stories is quite familiar because it is very similar to another parable that Jesus told only a few days later in the Olivet Discourse as recorded by St. Matthew in the twenty-fifth chapter of his gospel. This is the story about the man who goes away, entrusts his money to his servants, then comes back to see how they had used the money.

The stories are not absolutely identical in each telling. A different monetary unit is used in each. In the Luke parable it is minas, in the Matthew parable it is talents. The Matthew parable is the source of our English use of the word “talent” to refer to a gift or ability, based upon the common interpretation of the parable as meaning that at the Last Judgement, men will be held accountable for how they have used the abilities with which they have been entrusted in this life. This interpretation comes from the fact that in Matthew’s parable, the talents are divided unevenly among the servants in accordance with their abilities as judged by their master. This is not the case in the parable recorded by Luke, where the minas are divided evenly among the servants. In Matthew’s parable, the unfaithful servant buries his talent, in Luke’s he hides it away in a napkin. In Luke’s gospel, the other servants respond in shock when the nobleman takes the coin away from the unfaithful servant and gives it to the servant who had made the largest profit, and make a kind of mildly worded protest at this taking from the poor to give to the rich. This is not found in the parable in Matthew, although the nobleman’s response, which could be paraphrased into current idiom as “the rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer”, is. Needless to say, neither parable is likely to be the favourite parable of those of our brethren who have been deceived by socialism. Otherwise it is basically the same story.

It is the other story, that is joined to this one in the Gospel of Luke, that I wish to focus on. It is a very interesting story, given as the reason for the journey the rich man takes into the far country. He goes there to receive a kingdom. Those, over whom he is to be made king, reject his authority and send representatives after him saying, in the language of the old King James, “we will not have this man to rule over us”. So when he returns, in addition to sorting out the financial doings and misdoings of his servants, he has to respond to this rebellion, which he does by rounding them up, and having them executed for their treason.

What makes this part of the parable so interesting is that Jesus was telling His audience a story that, with one crucial difference, is identical to an episode of history with which his audience would have been well familiar. King Herod the Great, the king who had ordered the slaughter of the innocents after the visit of the magi, had himself died shortly thereafter, naming his son Herod Archelaus his successor in his will. The throne did not automatically go to Archelaus, however, he had to journey to Rome to receive it from Augustus Caesar. As brutal a man as his father, he was not popular, and there was widespread opposition to his rule. He had 3000 of his opponents slaughtered at Passover, before departing for Rome, and when he arrived, Josephus tells us that a delegation of about 50 Jews and Samaritans arrived at approximately the same time, to plead with Caesar not to appoint Archelaus. Caesar did appoint Archelaus the ethnarch over Judea but ten years later removed him from office for his misrule.

The crucial difference between the story Jesus told, and the history to which He was alluding, is that Archelaus was a wicked and brutal king, whereas the king in Jesus’ story, who represents Jesus Himself, was a just king, hated by wicked subjects. Flipping the story around like that was not likely to endear Him to the crowd – especially after He had just befriended Zaccheus, a despised tax collector. So why did He do it?

Dr. Luke provides us with the answer, in verse eleven. They were getting close to Jerusalem, and His disciples thought that the kingdom would immediately appear. Indeed, His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday takes place immediately after this. The point of this parable was to tell His disciples that when they saw prophesy being fulfilled before their eyes, the prophesy we heard in the earlier reading from Zechariah about His riding into town on a donkey, that they should not think that He would establish the kingdom then and there. Rather He would be going away to be crowned king, to return later to judge the works of His servants, and to put down opposition to His reign.

The full significance of this only gradually dawned on His disciples. Soon after telling this parable, He rode into Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna. When, a few days later, in response to His prophecy that “not one stone of this temple will be left unturned”, they asked Him “when shall this be, and what shall be the sign of thy coming”, they showed by so asking that they recognized that despite His triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, His coming as king was yet to come. They assumed that the prophesy of the destruction of the Temple was referring to His Second Coming. After His Ascension into Heaven, they expected that His Second Coming to put down His enemies and establish His kingdom would happen immediately, within their lifetimes. Only after the destruction of the Temple forty years later, did the Church realize that what the disciples had thought to be a single question was actually two, concerning two distinct events, and that they would have to wait yet further for the Second Coming of Christ. Today, the Church is waiting still.

We should not allow the passing of two thousand years cause us to doubt the Second Coming and the future full manifestation of the kingdom. It is still an article of orthodox faith that “He will come again with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end”. It is appropriate, therefore, that as we prepare to begin again the Christian cycle of worship again with the season of anticipation of the coming of Christ, that we end the old cycle with a celebration of that kingdom to which all of sacred history leads. May our reflections upon the reign of Christ, this final Sunday of the old Christian year, inspire us to wait with the watchful anticipation enjoined upon us by Scripture, for the coming of the King.

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