Sunday, November 22, 2009

Christ the King

November 22, 2009

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37

For some reason, this is one of my favorite Sundays of the Church year. It is a transition time—a time of transitioning from that long green season after Pentecost, to the season of Advent. Often people ask me why the season after Pentecost is so long, stretching as it does from May to the end of November. The traditional view for the length of this season is, of course, symbolic of the long period of waiting for the coming of Christ. And on this Christ the King Sunday, we are making a transition from waiting to anticipation.

Today, get a glimpse of who we are anticipating. Today, we commemorate Christ as King. We are invited to see our King coming to us on clouds, and on wheels of burning fire.

In our readings today—especially our readings from the Prophet Daniel and Revelation, we too, with Daniel and the Apostle John, get a glimpse of who it is we are hoping for, who we are striving for. We also see clearly who it is who has ultimate control of our lives. We see a glimpse of the one we, as Christians, recognize as Christ—that Alpha and Omega—that Beginning and End—that one coming to us with the clouds.

But the Christ we see in our own collective vision this morning is not the humble carpenter, the amazing miracle worker, or the innocent newborn baby we are anticipating in a month’s time. The Christ we encounter this morning is coming to us on clouds, yes, be he also comes to us while standing in the shadow of the Cross—an about-to-be condemned criminal—engaging in a conversation with Pilate about who he is.

It seems a long way from the King we find in our readings from the Hebrew Bible and from Revelation. But it is the same Christ—the one who will come to us in our anticipation, who guides us and guards us and who, in the end, awaits us. The Christ we encounter today is Christ, our King, Christ our Priest, Christ our ultimate Ideal.

We, on this Sunday and in the coming days of Advent, are faced with eschatological reality. Uh oh. There’s a word for us on this Christ the King Sunday—eschatological. It’s a strange word that always trips us up, whether we understand what it means or not. Eschatology is just a fancy Greek word for the “end things.” It is a word that invites us to think about THE END.

As we enter Advent, which, although a beginning, we realize it is also a time of preparation for the End. And there is an End waiting for us. There is an End waiting us all collectively as the Church. And there is an End waiting each of individually. And eschatology, Christ the King Sunday and Advent are all about both that collective End and our own personal End.

The King we encounter on this Sunday, the King that awaits us at the end of our days, is not a despotic king. The King that we encounter today is not a King who rules with an iron fist and makes life under his reign oppressive. But at the same time the King we honor today is not a figurehead or a soft and ineffective ruler. Rather, the King we encounter today is truly LORD. The King we encounter today is brother, and friend and King and Savior all wrapped up in one.

As we think about the “last things,” we realize that, on that last day, this King is the one we will encounter. This King will be the one who makes the final decision about us.

Now, for some of us, that might be a moment to despair. Certainly by the standards of the majority of Christianity, this is a big issue. I never realize how big of an issue this final judgment was until about five years ago. At that time, I was invited to preach at Lutheran College. I was looking forward to the experience. It was the Week of Christian Unity and I decided to preach about the claim that only good Christians get to go to heaven. That night—the service was held about 10:00 on Wednesday—the chapel was packed with good Lutheran students. They filled the chairs, the balconies above. They sang good, hearty Lutheran hymns. It was incredible. On that occasion I preached about the fact that, for us as Christians, we need to take a long hard look at our belief about eternal punishment—namely, hell.

I posed the question: what if? What if everyone got in? What if we all got to go to heaven and be one with God because God wants us to be in heaven?

Well, let me tell you, my sermon did not go over too well. I had a backlash of criticism regarding that sermon. After the service that evening, I had a small line of students ready to debate me and tell me the errors of my way. My strange form of “Christian Universalism” was not something most of them wanted to hear—especially from an Episcopalian. But the fact is, as we think about our End and about the King that awaits us there, we must face facts about that End. We must ponder it honestly and with glaring clear mindedness.

Recently, I have found many of those views about people being saved affirmed in a wonderful book that has completely blown me away. This book is one of the most influential books I’ve read recently. It is called Gifts of the Desert by Kyricos Markides. In this book, Markides engaged his spiritual teacher, a Father Maximos, a Greek Orthodox priest from the Greek monastic Isle of Mount Athos (which is featured in the latest issue of National Geographic by the way). In the book, Markides shares tidbits such as these:

“How could I be happy in paradise, said Saint Silouan [a Greek Orthodox saint], if I know that a single fellow human being is condemned to eternal damnation?”

Or, this one:

“St Gregory of Nyssa, brother of Saint Basil the Great, speaks of…the restoration of everything in its pre-Fallen state, implying that in some mysterious way all will be saved at the end sofar as all sinners will sooner or later mature spiritually…”

Markides also quotes Huston Smith’s wonderful book, Why Religion Matters. He relates an incident that I have thought about often. In 1964, Smith was in India conducting research on Hinduism and gurus. One day, while he was in the foothills of the Himalayas, there appeared to him an Eastern Orthodox priest by the name of Father Lazarus, who had been in India for twenty years. Father Lazarus allowed Smith to forget all about the gurus. When Smith told Father Lazarus that hew as interested in Hinduism because of its belief in universalism salvation. Smith said to Father Lazarus: “Everyone makes it in the end. Its alternative, eternal damnation, struck me as a monstrous doctrine I could accept.”

Father Lazarus responded by saying citing the passage in Second Corinthians in which St. Paul talks about knowing someone who had been caught up in the third heaven.

“…in that heave the man ‘heard things that were not be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat…Paul was speaking of himself, Father Lazarus was convinced, and the secret he was told in the third heaven was that ultimately everyone is saved. That is the fact of the matter, Father Lazarus believed, but it must not be told because the uncomprehending would take it as a license for irresponsibility. If they are going to be saved eventually, why bother? That exegesis solved problem,” Smith wrote, “ and has stayed in place every since.”

This kind of thinking is not just some fluke in Christianity. Many early Christian teachers taught that all people would eventually be saved. Some early Church Fathers believed that, ultimately, even Satan himself will be one day redeemed.

I think it’s important that we are reminded of these great teachings on Christ the King Sunday and throughout Advent. As we prepare for THE END—our collective end and our personal end—we should remember that the King we know and live, the King who will one day come to us “with the clouds of heaven” is not someone to be feared. We should not run in fear as we would from a dictatorial King. Rather, we should rejoice in the King that comes to us. And we should rejoice in the fact that, in the end, all of us will be received by that King into that Kingdom he promises to us.

So, on this Christ the King Sunday, let us ponder the End, but let us remember that the End is not a terrible thing. The end is, in fact, that very King we are longing for. “I am the Alpha—the beginning—and the Omega—the End,” he says to us. And in our End, we truly do find our beginning. What a glorious King we have.

“To him be glory and dominion forever and ever.” Amen.

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