Jeremiah 23:1–6, Colossians 1:11–20, Luke 23:33–43
The readings given to us this day are for Christ the King Sunday, a festival that concludes each church year at the end of November. This means that next week we begin Advent and a new year. This year we have been reading from the gospel of Luke. Beginning next week, most of the gospel readings will be from Matthew.
The Festival of Christ the King is not an ancient tradition. It was founded in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in an effort to counter growing secularism and hyper nationalism which were setting the stage for another European conflict which would become World War II. Pius was in his own way attempting to move people away from the distrust, hate, and extremism of the 1920’s and 30’s in Europe. Christ the King Sunday reminds us that we are humans together, beyond the grip of ideologies and various allegiances; and that our differences pale in the light of the love we share in God.
These assigned readings say some things about the kind of king Jesus is, and what is important for leadership.
Jesus is a shepherd who cares for the flock with compassion and justice.
Jesus is the first born of creation, whose identity is wrapped into God’s love for creation.
And in the mystery of shared suffering on the cross, Jesus moves us into something called paradise.
These readings point us to God in Christ. At the same time they illumine the shape of leadership in our life together and human endeavors. They say something about how leadership works.
In the first reading the image of a king or any leader really, is a good shepherd. The good king of Jeremiah or the good leader is a shepherd cares for the sheep and watches over them, tending to their needs. The shepherd is not one of the sheep. The shepherd is someone who provides protection, direction, and guidance. The theme of this shepherd leader role is that of guidance and protection being offered, given, and accepted.
Sometimes in our relationships, in families, at work, in school, in church, community and nation we are called to give and receive guidance and protection for or from someone who is different from us. Much more could be said here about the sources of guidance, and how it is shaped, best given, and received in good faith. And more could be said about the responsibilities of the guide or shepherd to hold the welfare of the sheep as sacred. But the reading reminds us that without the honest desire to protect, guide, and defend; the flock suffers.
In the second reading the Christ is extolled in a first century hymn in lofty phrases piled one upon another. On a day like Christ the King, this is a good reading. The hymn describes Jesus as the first born of creation, embedded in creation, as that one creature that moves all creation back to its creator. For all its lofty language, Jesus in this ancient hymn is a creature, the first born of the created. In this hymn, the Christ is not distinct from creation, but part of it, embedded in its movement back to God. The theme of leadership here is solidarity: solidarity with creation and with all its creatures.
Sometimes in our relationships, in families, at work, in church, and communities leadership is achieved not by guiding or protecting, but by standing in solidarity, being with others, being a part of the group. This capacity to stand in solidarity is not only for those we call leaders, but for all of us as we go about our daily lives. Sometimes it is good to simply stand with someone. When we accompany in community we are building the common good of the community. Much more could be said here about the sources of solidarity and accompaniment, and how it is shaped and received. And more could be said about our responsibilities as we stand with each other. And more could be said about how Jesus is in solidarity with all creation and creatures. But without solidarity, groups dissolve as affection wanes.
In the third reading, the dying Christ moves far beyond guidance and solidarity, into a mystery; into another way in which leadership is shaped in life together. Jesus interacts with the thief on the cross. The two are connected to each other in the mystery of shared suffering. Here we encounter the deeply shared experience of pain and sorrow as leadership.
Sometimes in relationships, families, work, church, and communities, the good is achieved not by guiding or leading others, nor by standing in solidarity, but through the deep mystery of shared suffering that brings to light the good even in adverse circumstances. This capacity to share pain and sorrow, even on the cross leads us into the deep mystery of God’s goodness. The mystery of God’s goodness is called paradise. Much more could be said here about the nature of shared suffering, how it is shaped, and how it is felt. And more could be said about our responsibilities as share our common burdens. But without the deep sharing of our pain, hope withers.
So today, these readings call us to think about leadership in life together and those times when we give and receive guidance or protection, when we stand in solidarity with one another, and when we share in common sorrow. We will discover that all of those things happen in life together, as God moves us along the path to the good even on those days when we are feel like all is lost.
Let me share how this works for me. As a pastor, at work, I am sometimes called by situation or circumstance to guide and to protect this group; holding its welfare as sacred. That is an important part of pastoral leadership. But then there are other times when not I but someone else should guide. And instead I stand in solidarity with the vision of others as we try to be the church together and as we consider a course of action in our families or congregation. I don’t know how many times I’ve been with people and families as they have faced decisions, not wanting me to make the decision, but simply standing in solidarity with them as choices are made. But then there are other times when as a pastor I am called to suffer together with someone, sharing the deep sorrow of loss or death. In that shared suffering the mysterious God joins us, and helps us to hope again.
And this is how life is. A mother, dealing with the bullying a child faces at school, a family facing financial crisis, a person facing the end of an important relationship, all must blend guidance with solidarity with shared sorrow, sometimes following, and at other times in the lead.
Today, we read about Jesus, this strange king, who in our life together guides us, who stands with us and all creatures, and who shares in the sorrow of life. This is the festival of Christ the King.