In 1925, the fires of World War I still smoldered in the memory of those who had lived through it. And yet, even with the memory of the suffering and destruction still vivid in the minds of millions if people on three continents, nationalism and fascism began to rise in Europe, political movements who sought to gain power by dividing people into victors and vanquished, that sought to claim the right to empire and oppression as the natural order for humanity.
Movements that sought to enslave or eliminate entire races of people based on hatred and fear. Movements that sought to co-opt the church, as in Italy and Germany, and blaspheme God by aligning God with national interests, serving human purposes. It was the continuation of the struggle between good and evil, fueled by technologies of death and worship of might over right unimaginable yet in human history.
This is the context in which the Feast of Christ the King was first proclaimed, and has continued to be observed annually. It is a feast that calls us to remember whose, exactly, we are, and the real power to which we owe our allegiance. It also reminds us how easy it is to be coopted into serving our own desires dressed up as true belief, to deify ourselves and our conception of power or human hierarchies. This feast was also established to remind us to identify and resist any attempt to divide us from God and from each other in pursuit of human political agendas.
The image of a king here in America is inevitably tainted by our last brush as being subject to one, an image that fills many of us with a mixture of repugnance and mockery, especially after we have watched Jonathan Groff strut around in heels singing “You’ll be back” as the delusional King George III in Hamilton. We treasure our autonomy and independence above all things. We don’t want someone telling us that, “when push comes to shove, I will send a fully-armed battalion to remind you of my love.”
But Christ’s reign in our hearts is founded upon entreaty rather than command. Proclaiming Christ as our King is a jubilant, grateful response to God’s plea to allow see ourselves as God’s own beloveds, as Psalm 100 reminds us, and to give thanks for God’s gifts of the good things in creation to bring us joy and a deep abiding sense of well-being.
But where and what is this kingdom? Throughout the gospels Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom of God is within us, and bringing it into fruition is our responsibility. And indeed, the gospel reading for this Sunday of Christ the King tells us the same thing: we created the kingdom when we fed the hungry and gave a drink to the thirsty, when we clothed those who were cold and naked, when we comforted the sick or the imprisoned. When we acted as if we saw Jesus in the exact people too many of claim to be “broken” or unworthy of dignity or compassion. Rather we are called to serve our king the convict, our king the refugee, our beggar king huddling for shelter.
It is also clear: the geography of this kingdom lies upon and within our hearts. The kingdom over which Jesus reigns is not in a place or in a time just as God does not exist within the boundaries of space or time. Jesus is God’s physical presence within space and time, within our understanding of the universe. Jesus’ power as king does not come from compulsion, or force, or power as earthly kings wield, but through the power of love and through example. Jesus’ power as king over our lives is not the power of demand but the power of love. We follow Christ and obey Christ through the choice of our will, which is what the root of the word, “voluntarily,” means.
The kingdom of heaven is not centered upon our own personal salvation. Making Christ our king means letting love and caritas rule our hearts. Once we accept Jesus as our Lord and king, we are not done. Making a choice to save ourselves is easy. That is why true salvation lies in what we do for others rather than what we do for ourselves by clinging to Jesus like a lifeline. As we are reminded, if we want to save our lives, we must be willing to look beyond ourselves. Proclaiming Jesus’ name will not bring about the kingdom of heaven—living out Jesus’ love among our fellow beings will bring about the kingdom of heaven and show that Jesus is our king. We acknowledge our king not by words but through deeds.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.