Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sermon for November 25: Christendom and Theocracy

Christ King 2007, Jeremiah 23:1-6, Benedictus, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23-33-43

The Feast of Christ the King is a very late addition to the church’s calendar. In 1925, Pope Pius XI invented the Feast and required Roman Catholics to observe it. That’s how it got into the ecumenical calendar. It’s only for ecumenical reasons that we Reformed Christians observe it now.

We would say, "Why not Christ the Prophet, and why not Christ the Priest?" We prefer the title, "Christ the Lord." We would say we already have a celebration of his kingship on Ascension Day, when he took his seat on the right hand of his Father, and also, for that matter, on Good Friday, when he was enthroned upon the cross and his title was posted above his head for all to see.

The reason the pope invented this feast day was to defend the Kingship of Christ against the secularism of politicians and intellectuals. Not to mention that the Roman Catholic Church was losing power, prestige, and privilege.

Just ten years later, in 1935, Josef Stalin made his famous remark about the pope. The French Foreign Minister had suggested to Stalin that if he would encourage more Roman Catholics in Russia, then the pope would be on better terms with him. Stalin replied, "The Pope? How many divisions has he got?"

All the Christian churches use to have a lot more power in the world, including politics and economics. Now that we have so much less, does that imply that Jesus has less power too?

When I became a citizen of Canada, I had to swear allegiance to Queen Elizabeth the Second. Ironically, it’s only because she is a powerless figure-head that modern Canadians are willing to swear that. The Queen of the Netherlands actually has more influence behind the scenes, but only as long as she behaves. Is this what we have done with Jesus Christ, that we have preserved his lovely royalty but emptied it of real authority and sovereignty? Pope Benedict seems to think so.

In 1925 Pope Pius was trying to preserve the old order of Europe—historic Christendom. There are many Christians in America today who are trying to preserve America as a Christian nation. The best of their reasons is their belief that the kingship of Christ demands it.

There is no doubt that the separation of church and state has gone along with the privatization of religion and the narrowing of the kingdom of God to merely personal issues. Since religion can have no place in the public arena, you have to keep it as your own private choice. But that’s like keeping a tiger in your back yard.

Theocracy means that all of worldly power and authority derives from God. Political sovereignty derives from God, not from the people. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are theocratic religions at their base. These three religions speak to all of life. The Laws of Moses structure a whole society. So does the Koran. The theocracy of Judaism is restricted to the land of Israel. But the theocracy of Islam is meant for all the world. Even a modern Muslim nation is expected to enforce it, whether it does that softly or strictly.

We cannot get around the theocratic element in Christianity. But how are to understand it? Should we be concerned for Christendom? Are we required to protect our Christian civilization? Is America a Christian country? Should we try to bring our Christian values into public policies and politics? Isn’t to leave it a private and individual matter to surrender the kingdom of God?

But the theocratic element in Christianity has been altered by Jesus Christ himself. The gospel version of theocracy we might better call Christocracy. There is a movement in the Bible. The Kingdom of God has been transferred into the Kingdom of Christ, the sovereignty of God is now focused in the sovereignty of Christ. And because he is the Christ who is crucified, his sovereignty is unlike any other in the world.

You can see it best revealed upon the cross. His cross is a judgement on the whole idea of kingship, but also the expression of how he does it.

Yes, his crucifixion is a travesty of justice, and in his accepting it he’s making a comment about the way that human beings do sovereignty in general. At the same time, because the cross is his throne, he’s showing us the radical difference of his kingdom. His glory is his humility. His policy is grace and reconciliation, his army is his very enemies, his weapons are the wounds of love upon his hands and feet. He does not defend his kingdom, so neither should we. He does not ask us to fight for his kingdom but simply to receive it by accepting his reconciliation.

I confess to you that I have sometimes been attracted by the arguments of those thinkers like Pope Benedict who believe it’s important for us to preserve the benefits of Christendom. I confess to you that sometimes I think I preach a slovenly form of Christianity, accommodating, easy-going, giving in too much, without standards and insufficiently rigorous. I don’t know, do you wonder this yourself? Are we selling short the sovereignty of Christ?

But then I remind myself of his sovereignty upon the cross in all its humility and lavish generosity. If you keep on bringing your enemies into your kingdom, then your kingdom needs no defense.

* * * *

Historically, kings were always judges, the supreme judges of the land. That is true of Christ, it is through judgement that Jesus exercises his kingship, not through conquest or through controlling things behind the scenes, but through judgement. And his verdicts are all set out ahead of time, his judgement is very public, it is easily available in the gospel, in what he said and what he did.

He judges all the powers and pretensions of the world. He judged the rulers of Jerusalem, both Jewish and Roman, especially by his death. He exposed the cruelty of Rome and the venality of Roman law. He exposed the corruption of the leaders of Judea and how shallow was their piety. Just by standing there before them hee exposed the fear that motivated all of them.

His judgements still continue in the world. By this very gospel he judges every nation of the world. He judges our exercise of power and our use of violence. His cross is the standard against which is measured all of our empires and achievements, and they all fall short.

But his judgement is to justify. He exposes us to reconcile us. He unmasks our pretensions in order to clothe us in his love. He condemns us with himself in order to take us with him walking in his royal garden, his paradise.

The Roman inscription posted on the cross above his head said, This is the King of the Judeans. It was a cruel joke, not to mention being anti-Semitic. The thief hanging next him did not get the joke. Unaccountably he believed it, that this loser of a Messiah would someday have a kingdom. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

Jesus answered that his kingdom was already there. Not completely, not yet fully, but truly there. Wherever there is reconciliation in the name of Jesus, there is the kingdom of God. We do not have to fight for it, we have only to receive it. The forgiveness of sins and of debts and of trespasses is much more important for the world and its politics than anyone seems to recognize. And that forgiveness and reconciliation is our version of Christendom and of theocracy.

A last word. The Dutch queen is not crowned, but installed, and she takes an oath of loyalty to the constitution. Dutch citizens do not swear allegiance to the Queen, but to the constitution. From 1890 till 1948 the Queen of the Netherlands was Wilhelmina, a remarkable woman of courage and intelligence who puts the modern monarchies to shame.

My grandfather loved her. Even after he immigrated in 1914. Even though he was a socialist. He might have been the only Calvinistic Socialist in New Jersey. Even after he became an America citizen he still regarded Wilhelmina as his Queen.

I believe that even as the world is changing with the positive benefits of secularization, there remains within the human heart a place for just that kind of loyalty and love, and we want to extend it to a Lord of whom the earthly kings and queens are but pale images.

So our concern is not defending the kingdom of Christ but loving its king, not its boundaries but its center, and being loyal to the power of his love, even to loving his enemies. This loyalty trumps all other loyalties, and this love generates so much other love. I want to say, "My Lord."

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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