The Rev. Dr. Richard L. Tolliver preached the following sermon at St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church, Chicago, Illinois on The Feast of Christ the King, also The Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 25, 2001.
We are only a week from the beginning of Advent and yet the church lectionary today takes us back to Good Friday. Jesus is hanging on the cross. On either side hangs a thief. Soldiers gamble for his clothing. They mock him, crying out, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” A sign is nailed above his head: “This is the King of the Jews.” Even one of the thieves scoffs at Jesus: “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself, and us, too, while you’re at it!” The other thief rebukes his colleague in crime and makes a request of Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” At least this one miscreant has been won over, and Jesus instantly rewards his plea of faith. Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Today is the celebration of Christ the King. Next week we will begin the cycle of the church year all over again. We will look forward to Christ’s advent into the world. We will gaze into the face of the babe of Bethlehem. But today is the day we sum up what Christ means to humankind. What he means to us and what the thief upon the cross, discovered Christ meant for him personally: salvation. Jesus came into the world for one purpose: that the world might be saved.
Jesus didn’t come into the world to found an institution, though we are grateful for this institution, which we call the church. Jesus came to save the world, with all the ramifications of what that word “save” means.
Are there children dying of AIDS in Africa? Jesus came to save them. Are there children dying of gunshot wounds in schools in America? Jesus came to save them. Are there people living in penthouses who have no purpose for life except to deaden their senses with drugs, alcohol and meaningless sex? Jesus came to save them. Are there people living under bridges with rags for a pillow? Jesus came to save them. Are there families torn with abuse and poverty and pollution? Jesus came to save them. When we crown Christ King, we do it not with a Cartier assortment of precious jewels. We do it with thorns pressed upon his brow and nails driven through his hands. He did not come to reign triumphant. He came to lay down his life as a ransom for our beleaguered souls. Why did Christ come into the world? One reason and one reason alone: he came to seek and to save that which was lost.
Sometimes we forget who we are and why we are here, and that is sad. When that happens, the Christian message becomes distorted and many people, who might hail Jesus as Christ the King, are repulsed by him.
For example, in the early, founding days of our country, a band of settlers was on a ship, bound for the shores of America. The captain of this particular ship was a devoutly religious man. It was at his bidding that a religious service was held on the ship’s deck at noon each day. They simply never missed having this service.
One particular day it was terribly hot on the ship’s deck. It was so hot that a few worshipers fainted. One can only imagine what it was like for the slaves rowing the ship in the huff underneath. They were miserable to the point of torment. Because they were shackled in chains, they could not even wipe the stinging sweat out of their eyes or even swat away the flies.
Finally, near the point of exhaustion, these slaves began to moan and to groan in excruciating misery. This pathetic groaning was so loud it wafted up to the ship’s deck, where the religious service was in progress. The noise from the hull escalated to the point that it was interfering with that service.
Sensing this, the ship’s captain called a temporary halt to the service so the deck hands could go below and “minister” to the slaves. What was their solution to the noise problem? They beat and whipped the slaves into silent submission, so they could go back up to the deck and continue their “religious” service.
Appalling, yes! Not just because of the insensitive cruelty, but because the captain and his crew apparently saw no connection to their actions and their religious convictions. Such actions as those just described have caused many people to reject Jesus as Christ the King.
On the other hand, reflecting on the same cruelty just described, other people read their Bible and led many to accept Jesus as Christ the King, by their actions. For example, while most black pre-Civil War preachers did not take part in slave revolts, few failed to see that God hated slavery. One such preacher, the Rev. Nathaniel Paul, stated on July 5, 1827, “The progress of emancipation is certain. It is certain because that God who has made of one blood all nations of men, and who is said to be no respecter of persons, has so decreed. Did I believe that it would always continue, and that man to the end of time would be permitted, with impunity to usurp the same undue authority over his fellows, I would ridicule the religion of the Savior of the world. I would consider my bible as a book of false and delusive fables, and commit it to flame. Nay, I would still go further: I would at once confess myself an atheist, and deny the existence of a holy God.”
Yale Law School Professor and fellow Episcopalian Stephen L Carter, wrote a book in 2000 titled, The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics: God’s Name in Vain. Professor Carter states: “Most antislavery preachers were not murdered, or tarred and feathered, or run out of town on a rail. But all of them, arguing in religious terms, for religious reasons, for a fundamental change in American society, were considered dangerous.
“In an important sense, the charge was true. The Abolitionists were fanatical. They were dangerous. They believed themselves the custodian of God’s Word, and, for the more radical among them, the William Lloyd Garrisons, the Nat Turners, the Frederick Douglasses, no force on God’s Earth was going to prevent them from building the New Jerusalem. The end of slavery is the legacy to their fanaticism, but so is the bloody war that preceded it. Yet the question in political terms is not whether they were wrong to invoke God’s Will, but whether the gain was worth the candle. I believe that it was; and this belief disables me from saying to others who invoke God’s Name in their causes that they are acting undemocratically. I only pray that they take the time and the caution to be as certain as they can be that they are right.” If they are not careful and cautious, they have the potential of turning people away from hailing Jesus as Christ the King.
An editorial, titled, “What does God intend?” appearing in the September 26 – October 3, 2001 edition of The Christian Century provides the following words of caution: “President Bush, for example, inserted an implicit declaration of war in the midst of the service dedicated to prayer and remembrance in the Washington National Cathedral. Martial rhetoric seeking religious legitimation at a time of crisis is understandable, but nevertheless deeply regrettable. Rather than conforming their minds, hearts and wills to God’s purposes, humans are adept at manipulating the name of God to serve their own agendas. Some do so with diabolical purpose; for most, it’s simply hard not to assume that God sees things the way we do.”
Since September 11th, Americans have been forced to recognize the Islamic presence in this country as never before. It’s the fastest growing religion in the United States. There are more members of the Islamic faith than Episcopalians residing in this country. There are approximately four million Muslims and two million seven hundred thousand Episcopalians. The primary reason for the increased growth is due to immigration from countries where people embrace the Islamic faith. A primary reason for its growth in the African-American community, is due to the fact that some African-Americans reject Jesus as Christ the King, due to the history of Christianity and its relationship to African-American oppression.
I’m currently reading a book written by Ronald Segal titled, Islam’s Black Slaves. It documents a centuries-old institution that still survives, and traces the business of slavery and its repercussions from Islam’s inception in the seventh century, through its history in China, India, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Spain, and on to Sudan and Mauritania, where, even today, slaves continue to be sold. The dark complexioned people we see on the television in Afghanistan today are the descendents of African slaves, primarily from Ethiopia, who were brought to that part of the world under Islamic rulers. Ronald Segal describes a slaveholding Muslim power, the Mughal Empire, instituted in 1526 in Northern India after an invasion from Afghanistan, and consolidated and expanded in the reign of Akbar (1556-1605). At the beginning of the eighteenth century, it attained its greatest extent, when it reached from Kabul, the capital of present-day Afghanistan, and Kashmir in the north, the area currently claimed by both India and Pakistan, to all but a relatively small area in the south.
In the mid 1980s I served as administrator of the United States Peace Corps for the East Coast of Kenya, the primary locus of Kenya’s Muslim population. They were introduced to Islam when the Arab slave traders came to Kenya’s East Coast to take African slaves to the Arabian peninsula. Swahili is the language the Arabs and Africans developed in the 14th Century so that they could communicate with each other. Twenty-five percent of Swahili words are Arabic words.
Writing in his book, Ronald Segal states: “Christian societies were responsible for an engagement to slavery in its most hideous, dehumanizing form. Yet it was Christians who led the campaign to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself. Islam has been, by specific spiritual precept and in common practice, relatively humane in its treatment of slaves and its readiness to free them, even though individual Muslims have been among the most ferocious slavers in history. It is necessary to record this as a warning against demonizing either religion, along with its collective adherents.”
These thoughts lead me to you. There is an old folk legend that has it that scattered throughout the earth; there are twenty-eight people on whom the future of the world depends. These twenty-eight people do not know who they are. You could be one. But their actions determine whether the world will continue or not. Well, suppose the future of the world did depend on your actions. Would that fill you with hope or with dread? Suppose the future destiny of your children depended on you, their values, their happiness, their eternal well being? How about the well being of your neighbors and the people you work with? Do you see where I am heading?
It is critical that we understand what the church is about. We are not merely a shrine where people come to offer up prayers in order to attract the attention of a disinterested deity. We are Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, healing the hurting, lifting up the fallen, and calling the world to faith and repentance.
Does that mean that we turn a blind eye to the ills of society? That is far from what we are called to do. In every social cause that seeks to better the lot of humanity you will find members of the body of Christ actively engaged. We are the world’s “do-gooders”, more so than any other movement on earth. Because Christ was a “do-gooder.” He cared about people who couldn’t help themselves. But we are interested in more than their bodies. We are interested in their eternal souls. For you see, we believe there is a spiritual dimension to life every bit as real as the physical dimension. And though it is good and noble to bind up physical wounds and to ease emotional and mental traumas, until we touch that spiritual need in people’s life, we have not helped them to know who they are and what life can be for them.
We long to touch the inner man, the inner woman, the inner boy and girl, and so we teach them a name, a name above any other name. No wonder we celebrate Christ the King Sunday as we prepare to begin a new church year. We need to be reminded of who Christ is and what Christ has done. And we need to be reminded of who we are and what Christ has called us to do. We are not our own. We are ambassadors for Christ in a fallen world. On this Feast of Christ the King, let our prayer be the words of the familiar hymn, “In the morning when I rise, In the morning when I rise, In the morning when I rise, Give me Jesus. Give me Jesus, Give me Jesus, You may have all this world, Give me Jesus.” AMEN.
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