On any given Sunday morning in America words like “power” and “glory” are likely to be heard across a wide spectrum of churches. In some of those churches, however, the focus of these words may not be on Jesus Christ; instead, they talk about the “prosperity gospel”. That is where you find sermons that promise to help you achieve all your desires and your dreams. Here God is the source of a new life where happiness, material gain, and popularity take the place of grace and forgiveness. These are places where worship is not about God and people want to know: “What’s in it for us?” Please forgive me if I sound like I am picking on anyone in particular or if it seems that I am talking badly about somebody else’s church. That is not my intention this morning. My intention is to be sure that we are focused on Jesus Christ and that we understand what we mean when we proclaim Christ as King. Today is Christ the King Sunday on the church calendar. I believe it is important for us to have this conversation today because I think much of the decline in the contemporary Christian church is caused by misunderstanding who Jesus really is. I believe that people are seeking to know the real Jesus and they are not finding him in many places labeled as Christian churches.
The portion of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we read this morning is called, “Paul’s Prayer for the Ephesians”. It is a beautiful prayer that praises the church for its faithfulness and asks God to bless them with wisdom and hope. It is a prayer for and about a community of faith. This is not about what’s in it for us as individuals; it’s about what might be in store for us as the church, the Body of Christ. So, let’s talk about what Paul asks for in this prayer and the hope that he tries to instill in the church. Paul says: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.
He is asking God to give the church “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that they might understand what God’s promised kingdom is really about. He talks about God’s power in Christ that raised him from the dead and placed him over all things now and forever. This is not just a prayer for the church; it is a proclamation of the lordship of Christ. This is typical of most of Paul’s letters. He often begins with prayer, talking to God on behalf of the church. Then he shifts to talking about God and how “the church” fits into the grand scheme of God’s kingdom.
In this case Paul speaks in the present tense as if Christ’s reign is an accomplished fact. Today we come to worship on Christ the King Sunday from within a reality that looks to a hoped-for future. At the same time we worship as if the future is already here. We find ourselves in a curious dichotomy of a kingdom that is both “now” and “not yet”. It is hard for us to deal with the distinction between the triumphant images in Paul’s prayer and the messy realities of the world in which we live. With so much brokenness in the world, it is hard for us to see the glory and triumph promised with the Reign of Christ. This world seems to spin on an axis of self-centeredness and the ever-present question: “What’s in it for me?” There is friction between the images of high ideals found in this beautiful text and the overwhelming resistance of the forces that contradict those images in real life.
Paul wants the Ephesians – and us – to understand that Christ breaks down the wall that divides the now from the not yet. “God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything…” Jesus came as a reconciling agent, seeking to re-unite all peoples with God. Never once did the gospel promise us that life would be easy or that we could have everything our hearts desire. The gospel has always been about denying our selfishness and following Jesus’ example of sacrificial love for others. The gospel never told us to exclude certain people because they are different from us; it has always been about including as many people as want to be part of the family. Because of Jesus, one community of God’s people is created to be inclusive and generous, not exclusive and inattentive. What separates God’s kingdom “now” from the kingdom “not yet” is humanity…US. Human barriers divide us and it takes the power of God to break them down. Building a world where people love and care for one another is no small task.
As I approached Christ the King Sunday this year I had to ask the question: “What really IS in it for us to proclaim that Christ is King?” In our culture where a lot of people have a problem with authority, is it worth it to proclaim Jesus as Lord? What do we gain by fighting this uphill battle that pushes back with relative truth and “it’s all about me” sensibility? In her book, The Misunderstood Jew, Rabbi Amy Levine suggests: “The kingdom is not, for the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth, a piece of real estate for the single saved soul; it is a communal vision of what could be and what should be. It is a vision of a time when all debts are forgiven, when we stop judging others, when we not only wear our traditions on our sleeve, but also hold them in our hearts and minds and enact them with all our strength.”[i]
The kingdom over which Christ is King is fulfilled now where the people of God are willing to see what could be and step up to what should be. This is a kingdom where forgiveness prevails and retaliation is a dirty word. It is a kingdom where judging others is left to God and we are warm and welcoming to all others, even when we disagree. It is a kingdom where we are honest with ourselves about these issues and admit that every one of us has failed to forgive and that we all continue to judge. The “not yet” kingdom of God is that hoped-for time when Christ’s reign will no longer be a “surprise” to anyone. The way of the world will conform to God’s will; God’s plan will be realized and the righteous will prevail. As much as that hoped-for eternity appeals to us, it must not cause us to think that the “right now” kingdom is unimportant. Jesus came to build a community reconciled with one another and reconciled to God – NOW. He came to break down walls that divide people and show us how to treat one another – NOW. Our job is to continue this work and find ways to break down the ideas, the conflicts, the misunderstandings – all the things that divide us. Our job is to proclaim the kingdom now as a place where God’s people set the example that other people want to follow. It IS worth the trouble to proclaim Christ as King because it is worth the trouble to be like Christ in the way we live each day.
What’s in it for us? – A world where people learn to love each other the way God loves. Is it easy or even guaranteed? – Absolutely not. Is it worth the effort? – Absolutely! Just imagine what could be and what should be. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Levine, Amy-Jill, THE MISUNDERSTOOD JEW: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., © 2006, Page 51.