By Mark Michael
And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. Daniel 7:14
Last summer’s General Convention approved what it calls an “expansive” language version of the Eucharistic texts from the Book of Common Prayer. This came as no surprise, as a number of alternative texts for worship have been issued over the last few decades. But these new texts are so similar to the ones that most congregations actually use, so there’s a chance that they may become the new normal in main street Episcopalianism. With good reason, we come to believe what we pray.
Most of the attention has gone to the way that the new texts sideline the crucial theological terms “Father” and “Son” and revert to contorted prose to avoid masculine pronouns for God. Let me take up that in another sermon.
More relevant to today’s theme is that revisers also decided to scrub out the mention of Jesus as “Lord,” a word they said is “often seen as a term of masculine domination in our society.” In other alternative liturgical texts, there has been a similar blackballing of terms like Almighty, Master, Judge and the one at the center of today’s Feast, King.
Substituted language usually focuses on God’s mercy, gentleness and responsiveness to our needs — and above all God’s love, so long as love is understood primarily as acceptance. God emerges from the transformation as a more intimate and approachable being, who is at one with a generally benevolent world, full of well-meaning people at work on worthy projects.
In a similar vein, some Protestants are renaming today’s feast “Christ the King” as “The Reign of Christ.” This avoids all suggestion of ermine and crystal orbs, and sidesteps the tainted patriarchal term. It also refocuses attention on the justice, mercy, and peace that would mark a world where the values of Jesus, at least, were shared by all people. It takes about a week of high school Latin to see that swapping out “reign” for “king” doesn’t really work. Unless, that is, the actual rule of Jesus, God and Man, returning in triumph, is just another curious ancient word picture.
Just how important is this claim that Jesus is king, that the world has an ultimate ruler, a single person who will cast down all others and reign supreme over the whole human race? Do we really need a Lord, One to whom we pledge our personal loyalty and steadfast commitment? Today’s collect looks in hope to a time when “the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.” Is that a destiny we can work out for ourselves, trying a little harder, tinkering with the messaging — or is it only possible through the work of One far more wise and powerful than any of us? Is our true plea “Amen, Come Lord Jesus” or “We’ve got this one, just give us a little time”?
Today’s Old Testament lesson, from the dramatic final chapters of the Book of Daniel, is one of the most unabashedly royalist texts in the whole Bible. Jesus also referred to it more often in the Gospels than any other piece of Scripture. For him it was an invaluable key to the Father’s purpose in sending him into the world.
It comes from a vision God gave Daniel about the end of the world. God’s people are under attack, a series of frightful beasts rising out of the sea to claim them. They are up against forces they don’t understand and can’t control. But a light shines out in the darkness and Daniel sees God enthroned, surrounded by vast crowds of angels, opening the book which is the record of all things. And then, a Son of Man steps forward to slay the beasts. He comes in clouds of majesty, and claims the universal power to rule. “To him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”
When Jesus first began to preach in Galilee, before the first disciple was called, he announced that the kingdom of God was at hand, that the day was soon to arrive when God would cast down the beasts and free his people from their enemies. He called himself “The Son of Man” — 81 times Jesus used that title for himself, and it comes from this dramatic passage with this unbelievably expansive vision for what God aimed to do through him. He told Pilate in today’s Gospel that God was establishing through him a kingdom “not of this world,” but one coming down from heaven.
Jesus had no need to raise an army or go hunting for votes. Instead, he gave his life at the Cross to break the power of sin and rose from the grave to show that death’s rule is broken. And he didn’t just leave behind a cause or a set of ideals. Instead, he promised that he will return on the clouds of heaven, like lighting that shines from one end of the earth to another. He will overthrow the forces of wickedness and beat swords into plowshares and purge this land of injustice and cruelty. The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.
For us, this is impossible. We can all see so clearly that this world is broken and troubled. Thirty or forty years ago, things might have seemed more manageable, but we now live in what seems a time of perpetual crisis. I’ve stopped counting the number of people who say to me something like, “I’d never thought I’d see something like this in America” — mass shootings, skyrocketing rates of mental illness, extreme rhetoric of all kinds, deep corruption among our public office-holders, environmental catastrophe. You name the crisis, and then count how many people actually have a good idea about how to solve it.
When the social planners call them wicked problems, they mean there is insufficient data and complex interdependencies. But perhaps they are wicked in a deeper sense. In these troubling days, are we not seeing more clearly the power of the Evil One, he who roams about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour?”
An article in The Atlantic probes the dramatic increase in requests for exorcism reported by Catholic priests across the country. The author, who doesn’t seem to be a believer himself, comments, “I started to wonder whether the two trends — belief in the occult and the rising demand for Catholic exorcisms — might have the same underlying cause. So many modern social ills feel dark and menacing and beyond human control: the opioid epidemic, the permanent loss of blue-collar jobs, blighted communities that breed alienation and dread. Maybe these crises have led people to believe that other, more preternatural forces are at work.”
The frightful beasts rising up from the sea, the overwhelming power of darkness closes in. To me, at least, Daniel’s vision seems awfully contemporary. When the forces of wickedness seem to have the upper hand, when fear and doubt beset us on every side, we give thanks that there is a Lord, an honest Judge to whom all will be accountable, a good and faithful Master whom all will serve. And we look to him in hope, and acclaim him now for what he will surely be, the world’s rightful king.
In apartheid’s dark days, Archbishop Desmond Tutu once found himself face to face with Louis Le Grange, South Africa’s Minister of Law and Order. Le Grange had been responsible, in succession, for the nation’s prisons and police force, and was then at the head of the whole brutal apparatus intended to keep the racist system in place.
Tutu stared up at Le Grange, and he said this: “Mr. Minister, you are not God. You are merely a man. And one day your name will only be a faint scribble on the pages of history while the name of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church, lives forever.”
Tutu was a man of action, a consensus builder who used all the tools available to him to combat the injustice that swamped his society. With Tutu working together with many other people of good will, apartheid did fall, and men like Le Grange were banished from the halls of power. But for Tutu, a kingdom built out of human solutions and sunny ideals was not enough. His true hope was fixed on Jesus Christ, the Lord, “who will be given all dominion and glory and kingdom.”
Here at Saint Francis, we will boldly confess Jesus as Lord, and bow before him as our true king. There will be no mucking about with the liturgy in this house. This is not nostalgia for an imperfect past, and it is surely no apology for brutality in the present. It is the good news we have been given to share in a world where evil is strong and hearts are fearful, but where the true king is coming to claim His own.
The Rev. Mark Michael is rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Md., and editor of The Living Church.