by Elle Dowd
Note: This post was updated to correct the link to the Jeremy Bearimy video. Our apologies for that mistake.
Christ the King Sunday, sometimes known as Reign of Christ Sunday, is a relatively recent holy day in the church calendar, established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to the increasing threat of the rise of fascism. Authoritarian leaders of fascist regimes were being lifted up as all powerful demigods, and the Roman Catholic Church created this holy day in an attempt to reclaim power for the church as opposed to the secular nation-state. Unfortunately, a Christian message of anti-fascism and anti-nationalism continues to be more and more relevant as fascist leaders gain power in many countries around the world. There are government officials within our own country with documented ties to White Nationalist Groups, the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes continue to rise, and President Trump proudly says, “I am a nationalist.”
The theme of this Sunday has been and should continue to be the Good News that there is no earthly leader or Empire that is higher that Jesus Christ, the Servant-King. As we continue to get notifications on our phones of more and more news of impending doom, there is one thing that is constant: The God who was, and is, and is to come.
Before we brainstorm ideas and play with the readings, there are a few things of note that I think is important to pay attention to in writing your sermon this week, lest we accidentally undermine the core message of the Reign of Christ.
Watch out for anti-Semitism
This is a good basic life rule for preachers and humans in general, but particularly on a Sunday when we are pushing back against fascism, it is especially important not to undermine this message by propping up a major tenant of the Nazi platform with casual anti-Semitism.
One way that Christians unwittingly fall into this is with supersessionist theology, which implies that Jewish theology in the Hebrew Bible is not complete and whole as it is. We do not need to read Jesus as the main character of every reading in the Hebrew Bible. The readings would not have been interpreted that way by their original audience, and they are a powerful rebuke of Empire in their own right without reading Jesus as the center of it all.
Secondly, the Gospel reading from the Book of John has been used by literal Nazis to blame Jewish people for the death of Christ. For Lutherans who are reading, we have an even greater responsibility because of the anti-Semitism of Martin Luther and the way his hatred for Jewish people paved the way for the Holocaust. We have to deal with that passage. There are two ways you could go about doing that:
Watch out for White Supremacy
Again, another good life rule for preachers and humans in general, but particularly when we are preaching against nationalism and fascism, it is important to be clear. In the Daniel reading, the Ancient One is clothed in a white robe. Using white as a symbol for purity and goodness (and therefore setting those things up as the opposite of blackness) can send the message that whiteness is supreme. Furthermore, in the recent history of the United States, white robes can take on a very different meaning when they are worn with hoods by those who burn crosses. You can choose to call this out and make your sermon centered around anti-racism (which is inherently anti-nationalistic in a country like ours built on racialized capitalism), or, in your preaching, you might choose to very clearly emphasize another part of the description of the Ancient One: his wooly hair. Womanists and other Black liberation theologians have lifted up this description as an example of the ways that God is Black. Emphasize God’s curl pattern, help your folks to recognize that God might have type 4C hair.
Symbols and Themes
Below are a few ideas for sermon prompts. You could choose to incorporate one theme or you could combine several of them based on your context.
1) The Reign of the Ancient One is a country without borders – In verse 14 from the Daniel text we see that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him (sic)” and that God’s “dominion is an everlasting dominion” that unlike other Empires “shall not pass away” and “shall never be destroyed.” Additionally, Jesus tells Pilate in the 36 verse of the Gospel reading that his kingdom is “not of this earth.” Fascism relies on xenophobia, so preaching a sermon about the borderless reign of God is an anti-fascist, anti-nationalist sermon.
2) Christ the Kween – The Reign of Christ is queering the world. This is especially poignant because Christ the Kween is in close proximity to the Trans Day of Remembrance, the day that we mourn the transgender people (mostly Black and Brown trans femmes) who were murdered this year. The cis-hetero-patriarchal world expects kings to be backed by military might, not to be executed by the state. The world expects kings to be authoritarian, not willing to serve. Yet the Reign of Christ turns all of that upside down for a new understanding of true power, a power that subverts the power of Empire where the weak are lifted up and the mighty are cast down from their thrones. This transgression of power is very, very queer. Plus, fascists hate LGBTQIA+ people.
3) Christ the Criminal King – In the Gospel reading, the dialog between Pilate and Jesus takes place during a trial proceeding. At this point, Jesus has already been arrested by police, experienced police brutality, and gone through the first part of a sham trial. This hearing before Pilate is another example of Jesus being railroaded in court in a kangaroo trial that is set up to cast him as a criminal for resisting the Roman Empire. We know that after this trial, Pilate will hand Jesus over to be crucified- a public execution, a lynching, reserved for insurrectionists to scare other oppressed people in the Roman Empire and remind them of their place. Fascism uses similar methods to repress those who resist its power. Nazi Germany cast the Jewish people and other targets of oppression as criminals and outsiders as a way to justify the atrocities against them. White nationalism in our own country today has successfully created a criminal underclass of Black and Brown people through racial profiling, unequally applied laws, unequal sentencing, and more in an attempt to make Blackness and Brownness synonymous in popular imagination with the word “criminal” so that prisons are justified in enslaving people of color for the benefit of corporations and the white elite. What does it say that the God we worship was man of color sentenced to a criminal’s death by the Roman Empire? What people are our Empires criminalizing – and crucifying – today?
4) A teaching sermon on narratives of resistance – Oftentimes when we are having conversations with people about scripture, we have to have the conversation before the conversation. What many differences in interpretation, and therefore, theology, ultimately come down to is a difference in how we read scripture. You might want to explain the apocryphal texts of Daniel and Revelation, as well as the actions of Jesus in John, as narratives of oppressed people resisting Empire. This can give you a foundation for preaching texts with a more liberative lens.
5) What is Truth? – The next verse in the Gospel reading (which got cut off at the end of this pericope but you may choose to include it) is when Pilate asks Jesus what truth is. This is a timeless question, still relevant today, especially when talking about fascism. Propaganda is a tool of fascism in order to promote a dominant narrative that dehumanizes people so that it is easier to oppress them. You might choose to talk about how important it is for our leaders to tell the truth, and that those who do not are in opposition to Christ’s reign. You might point to examples of “fake news” (or examples when things were called “fake news” by those in power but are actually verifiably factual reports) as contemporary examples of this propaganda. You may use the doctored video of Acosta promoted by the White House as a recent example of propaganda used to try to suppress journalism and the free press. Targeting the free press is another hallmark of fascism.
6) Jeremy Bearimy – Christ’s Reign is unbound by time and space, more constant and eternal than even natural law. God’s reign is ancient. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, who is and was and is to come. Plus, clips from The Good Place are just fun.
I invite you, in the spirit of this holy day, to be bold in your preaching. However, if none of these ideas are quite right for your context, you can rest in the knowledge that the Gospel itself challenges fascism and Empire. The “good news” of Jesus Christ is greater than that of Caesar. Period. Preach some version of that, and you are well on your way.