December 7, 2018
From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen… deliver us, good Lord – J. Barry Vaughn – Christ the King (Nov. 25, 2018)
If we go back to the beginning of human history, the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, for example, we find that religion was used to support and provide a foundation for the powers that ruled society. The idea of separating religion and the state was unheard of. The priests worked for the king. Often the temple was physically connected to the palace. In many cases the king was also the high priest.
To a degree, this was also true in ancient Israel. When David conquered Jerusalem in the 11th c. BC, and made it his capital, he not only built a palace there, he also tried to build a temple. And he did have the ark of the covenant brought there. To the Israelites the ark of the covenant was the holiest object in the world. It contained the two slabs of stone on which Moses had written the Ten Commandments during his heavenly summit conference with God atop Mt. Sinai. In other words, David centralized the power of state and religion in the same place.
Judaism, though, was different from other ancient religions. It had the power to critique the state and its rulers. Israel’s prophets proclaimed that the God of Israel required his people to act justly, to care for widows, orphans, and immigrants.
The prophet Amos wrote, “You afflict the righteous . . .and push aside the needy in the gate. . . . I hate, I despise your feasts and take no delight in your assemblies . . . but let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5)
Christianity began as an “outsider” religion. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called Christianity a “religion of slaves,” and he was right. ‘But by the 4th c. AD the “religion of slaves” had permeated the Roman Empire. Finally, the Emperor Constantine declared himself to be a Christian and went on to make Christianity the official religion of his empire.
Some would say that Constantine’s decree was the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity. I think it was a mixed blessing. Christianity gained a great deal of power and influence, but from the 4th c. to the present, Christianity has been tempted to be silent in the face of official misdeeds.
In the 16th c. when England’s king, Henry VIII, wanted to divorce his wife so that he could marry a younger woman who might be able to bear him a male heir, the bishops of England, by and large were silent or even encouraged the king. Then when he tired of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and had her put to death on the dubious charge of adultery, the bishops were silent again.
Much more significantly, however, when the United States divided over the issue of slavery, Southern clergy searched the Bible for ways to support the institution of slavery, while their Northern colleagues did just the opposite. But those same Northern clergy were silent about the issue of child labor and unjust pay and an eight hour work day. In other words, they condemned the way that the South treated slaves, but they turned a blind eye to the way the North treated its working men and women.
Two of today’s readings demonstrate the tendency of religion to bless and sanctify the political order.
Second Samuel claims to give us the last words of David:
“For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things and secure.
Will he not cause to prosper
all my help and my desire?
And Psalm 132 says:
“The Lord has sworn an oath to David;
in truth, he will not break it:
“A son, the fruit of your body
will I set upon your throne.
The Israelites believed that God had made a covenant or agreement with David that his dynasty would continue forever. In other words, God would ensure that a son of David would always rule the kingdom of Israel.
Although Psalm 132 prophesies that the house of David will rule Israel forever, it also states that God’s covenant is conditional:
“If your children keep my covenant
and my testimonies that I shall teach them,
their children will sit upon your throne for evermore.”
“If your children keep my covenant . . .” And that’s a big IF!
Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. This feast was created in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. In 1925 Mussolini abolished the Italian parliament, thus making himself the absolute ruler of Italy; the previous year Stalin had become the General Secretary of the Communist Party in the USSR; and in 1925 Hitler published Mein Kampf or My Struggle.
It was a terrible time for democracy.
The feast of Christ the King is not only a day when we can celebrate Christ’s wise and benevolent rule of the universe. It is also and especially a day when we must remember that religion and the state both flourish when they are apart.
A principal function of religion is to speak God’s word of judgment on the state and its rulers when they go astray. The state is healthiest when it does not attempt to corrupt religion by inviting it into the counsels of the state and seeming to offer it influence. When the state offers religious leaders influence, the price is always too high.
Evangelist Billy Graham became compromised when he defended Pres. Richard Nixon. Some evangelical leaders have given the present administration their support in exchange for influence on issues such as abortion. I’m afraid that it will undermine their spiritual authority.
A couple of weeks ago we celebrated the 100th anniversary of end of World War I and the founding of Veterans Day. I think we were right to do that, but we must always be somewhat uneasy when we bless the state and its endeavors. Because the goals of the state and the goals of God’s kingdom are never identical.
Today’s gospel reading shows us Jesus standing before Pilate. Jesus had been arrested in the middle of the night and the police had tortured him. They whipped him, placed a crown of thorns on his head, and mocked him by placing a purple robe on him and hailing him as King of the Jews. Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” is a question that is much on our minds today.
Today as then the truth is being mocked. But the irony of the scene in which Pilate passes judgment on Jesus is that it was Jesus who was actually passing judgment on Pilate.
Pilate and the Roman Empire that supported him have passed into the mists of history. But Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, is worshiped and praised in all the world’s kingdoms.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth: in other words, when God wants to sort out the world, to put it to rights once and for all, he doesn’t send in the tanks, as people often think he should. He sends in the meek; and by the time the high and mighty realize what’s happening, the meek, because they are thinking about people other than themselves, have built hospitals, founded leper colonies, looked after the orphans and widows, and founded colleges and universities.
One of Jesus’ most extraordinary promises is his promise that those who hunger and thirst for justice shall be satisfied. The Old Testament tells us that a just world is one in which the hungry are fed and the homeless have homes. Hard to believe in times such as these, but if we believe Jesus, then we must believe that this will come to pass.
Blessed are the peacemakers, and if we haven’t learned that after the twentieth century, what hope can there be? (NB: The last three paragraphs were borrowed from a sermon by N.T. Wright.)
Let us pray:
O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!
(from a hymn by G.K. Chesterton)