It’s the last Sunday of the Christian year, sort of a New Year’s Eve for the church. We call it “the Feast of Christ the King” and we celebrate it by remembering his enthronement. Each year on Christ the King Sunday we read some part of the crucifixion story. As Pope Francis reminded the faithful in his Palm Sunday homily a few years ago, “It is precisely here that his kingship shines forth in godly fashion: his royal throne is the wood of the Cross!”
My friend Malcolm Guite, a priest of the Church of England and a remarkable poet, has written a lovely sonnet for this feast:
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
As we consider the crucifixion, I wish I could think in the terms of Malcolm’s beautiful poem, but I seldom do. This year, for example, we get the story of Jesus’ surprisingly calm conversation with the thieves crucified next to him; these three men hanging in agony on crosses carry on a remarkably clear and lucid discussion. It’s probably my own sinful nature or my warped sense of humor or my attention deficit disorder or something, but I cannot read this gospel lesson with flashing to the crucifixion scene at the end of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian in which a chorus of two or three dozen crucified men, led by Eric Idle, address the lead character (who is also crucified) in song:
Cheer up, Brian. You know what they say.
Some things in life are bad.
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle,
Don’t grumble. Give a whistle.
And this’ll help things turn out for the best.
And . . .
Always look on the bright side of life.
If life seems jolly rotten,
There’s something you’ve forgotten,
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you’re feeling in the dumps,
Don’t be silly chumps.
Just purse your lips and whistle.
That’s the thing.
And . . .
Always look on the bright side of life.
A few stanzas later, the chorus sneaks in the line “Always look on the bright side of death.”
That scene, indeed the whole movie, is disrespectful, sacrilegious, and very funny . . . and in that particular scene it is theologically profound. Because that is precisely the meaning of Jesus’ words to the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That is precisely the meaning of the Christian faith, that beyond the darkness of death, beyond the darkness of the tomb, there is a brighter side, there is paradise and resurrection. On the other side of human decisions that sometimes produce bad consequences or unacceptable results, whether intended or not, there is the reign of God.
Growing up, as most of us have, in a constitutional republic without a monarch, the American idea of kingship is somewhat distorted, probably something of an amalgam of our history with Mad King George, Disney cartoon movies, and news coverage of the late Queen Elizabeth of England and her heir, King Charles, somewhere between fairytale and figurehead. Today, we democratic Americans probably conceive of kingship as a life of luxury were everything goes reasonably well and people write books (or tabloid headlines) about you.
Well, Jesus, Christ our King, is not that sort of monarch (or ruler or president or whatever). Instead, he is something utterly different, a king who ushers in an entirely new order, an order founded (as Jeremiah the prophet says) on wisdom, justice and righteousness, and characterized by new life, hope, grace, and above all love – the kind of love that never wearies pointing to and inviting beyond the darkness to the brighter side, to paradise and resurrection.
That seems to be a message a lot of people need to hear today; it’s the message that we as the church need to speak to our society loudly and clearly because the gospel message in this nation has been coopted and deformed into a monstrous parody which calls itself “Christian nationalism,” a philosophy (if one can dignify it with that title) which warps both religion and patriotism into something some take as permission to say and to do some very unpleasant things.
If Christian nationalism stands at the fringe of our nation’s political right, then at the opposite extreme are, perhaps, the militant atheists who condemn religion as “superstition” with “nothing to say about the world,” who refer to belief in God as “primitive supernatural myth” and to prayer as “wishful thinking,” and who seem willing to litigate, at the drop of a hat, any participation of religion in the political or social life of the country.
We have just been through (and in some places are still enduring) an election cycle in which the Christian nationalists and their allies on the political right expected a “red wave” to sweep them into power in the national legislature and in local offices across the country. It didn’t happen. But neither was there a “blue wave”! Perhaps more than ever the political life of our country seems to be trapped in conflict between conservatism with its loud and noisy radicals, and progressivism and its vociferous fringe elements.
I have seen many commentators quote the opening lines of William Butler Yeats’s poem The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
But I think Yeats is wrong about the center; I think the center can and will hold because that is precisely where our king is. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed
Jesus Christ, as the crucified and risen one, stands at the nexus of humanity, history and nature. First, Jesus stands at the center and at the margins of humanity. He stands at the margins, because he is the fulfillment of the law, the judgment of man and the justification of man. Thus, he is the boundary by which humanity is judged. But he is also the center of humanity—he stands in our place, where we cannot stand ourselves, and becomes our rediscovered center.
Second, Jesus stands at the center of history. Bonhoeffer argues that history lives between promise and fulfillment — between historical reality and the hope of the future. Jesus Christ stands at the center of history as the destroyer and fulfiller of all messianic expectations of history.
Finally, Christ is at the center of nature — it finds in Jesus Christ its redemption. A sign of this Christ at the center of nature is the sacraments, especially the Eucharist — where elements of the old creation are become elements of the new.
And in that center is precisely where we, the church of Christ the King, find our strength and our mission, especially on this day as we gather round this altar to celebrated the sacrament of the Eucharist.
It is here that we are commissioned to proclaim to the world, regardless of what side anyone may have been on in the election just passed, regardless of its outcome, regardless of whether they or we consider ourselves right or left, red or blue, or purple, that Christ the King, crucified, risen, and ascended, reigns! The center can and does hold, and on the other side of every human decision, including our elections, there is the bright side, where Christ’s “kingship shines forth in godly fashion,” in paradise and resurrection.
In 1930, then Archbishop of York William Temple preached at the opening of the seventh Lambeth Conference, assuring his episcopal colleagues:
While we deliberate, [God] reigns;
When we decide wisely, He reigns;
When we decide foolishly, He reigns;
When we serve Him in humble loyalty, He reigns;
When we serve Him self-assertively, He reigns;
When we rebel and seek to withhold our service, He reigns
–– ?the Alpha and the Omega, which is, and which was,
and which is to come, the Almighty.
We decide however we decide . . .
but Almighty God will always reign!
The center can and does hold!
That is the meaning of this day and that must always be the message of the church: “Our King, the Anointed One who said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ reigns!” Amen.
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on November 20, 2022, the Feast of Christ the King, to the people of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Canton, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest preacher. This is an updated version of a sermon preached at St. Paul’s Parish, Medina, Ohio, on November 20, 2016.
The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for Proper 29 in Year C: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46 or Canticle 16 (Luke 1: 68-79); Colossians 1:11-20; and St. Luke 23:33-43 These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Homily of Pope Francis, Celebration of Palm Sunday of the Passion of Our Lord, 24 March 2013
 Malcolm Guite, The Feast of Christ the King: a Sonnet, Malcolm Guite Blog, 23 November 2014, accessed 12 November 2022
 Terry Jones, director, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Cinema Int’l Corp., released 17 August 1979
 Eric Idle, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, Life of Brian Soundtrack Album, Virgin Records, released 16 November 1979
 Luke 23:43 (NRSV)
 Jeremiah 23:5 (NRSV)
 Steven Weinberg, Free People From Superstition, Freedom From Religion website, November 1999, accessed 12 November 2022
 In Defense of “Godlessness”, Freedom From Religion website, copyrighted 2004, accessed 12 November 2022
 See, e.g., Margaret Renkl, What Has Happened to My Country?, The New York Times, 7 November 2022, online, accessed 12 November 2022
 W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (Scribner’s, New York:1989), Poetry Foundation website, accessed 12 November 2022
 Ron Sanders, Review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (Harper, San Francisco:1978), Moral Imagination Blog, 23 June 2009, accessed 12 November 2022
 William Temple, The Majesty of God: Sermon Preached by the Archbishop of York at the Opening Service of Lambeth Conference Held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, July 6th, 1930, (Harvard University, Cambridge:1930), p. 22
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