A sermon for Christ the King Sunday
Oh say can you see, by the waning evening light
What so timidly we followed, from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Whose broad stripes and livid scars, wake the fear in our heart,
That our Lord was a lie, and his death kills our hoping.
From the top of Calvary hill, a place called Golgotha, meaning “the Skull” a flag waves. Planted by centurions, and raised up a staff it declares to the world in Hebrew, Greek and Latin: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.
It is a cruel joke. A taunt to the followers of the man crucified under that banner, who had considered him much more than King of the Jews. They had believed him to be the King of the World. They followed him here expecting a great victory, and now they are reduced to weeping, and hiding for shame, for fear. Their victory has become a bloody execution. The King is dead. The war is lost.
And now they have to ask themselves whether they are still loyal to that banner: Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews. Were they ever loyal?
Banner Fealty is an ancient practice. Leaders assembling their army plant a banner, a flag, a symbol on a high place and summon their subjects to swear their allegiance. Those willing to risk their life in battle pledge their “fealty” an oath of service and loyalty to the banner. In ancient warfare fought on a field face to face, the Banner is how you organize and direct the movements of your troops. The banner goes first into battle, leading the loyal warriors against the banner of the enemy. Every soldier hopes that he will follow his banner to victory. That at the end of the day his own banner will be standing tall, while the enemy’s flag is buried with the dead.
This is what a flag is – that symbol you pledge and promise to follow into danger. The thing you hope will lead you to victory.
This ancient practice has not varied to this day. We no longer have kings, but we still have banners. We still swear our fealty to the symbols of our national pride. We pledge allegiance to the flag. And the meaning of this allegiance is precisely the same – it is a promise that if we were to go into battle we would fight for our flag against the flag of our enemy. It is the hope that our flag will be flying high when the flag of our enemy has been brought low. It is a bloody reminder of our commitment to tribal divisions – that we are willing to kill other people to protect those in our clan.
Loyalty is a powerful and dangerous thing. It cannot be divided and remain true. You cannot serve two kings. You cannot follow two different banners into battle. You will either walk with one or the other and either uphold one or the other. Even if you believe these two kings are allied, you must still choose which one you will march with. Which one you trust to lead you to victory.
Flying from the top of that hill in Jerusalem, a lonely flag, which read: Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews. And those who had sworn their allegiance to that banner wondered whether they had won or lost. Caesar believed he had claimed the field, and won the day. The cross is a stand in for Caesar’s banner, a warning to those who march with other kings “this will be your fate.”
But Caesar could not predict, because Caesar could not comprehend, the nature of Christ’s victory. Jesus is a king like no other whose battle plan the enemy cannot defeat, because even in defeat, especially in defeat, the banner of Christ is raised most high. The army of Christ marches unarmed. It bears all cruelty and returns good for evil and so disarms the foe. For you cannot destroy that which is under God’s promise of resurrection and you cannot overcome love with hatred. If I am willing to die for your soul, then you cannot take my life from me. The path of the cross makes the walker invincible.
Invincible. If you have the courage to walk it. Because you cannot follow the banner of Christ and the banner of Caesar both. You cannot pledge allegiance to a flag of blood and warfare and nationalism, and be loyal to the prince of peace. You either put down your sword and accept the cross, or you live by the sword, and die by it also.
Therefore, we have a sanctuary divided, and we will as long as we have both the flag of the United States in the corner, and the cross hanging over the communion table. We are hesitating to commit. It is understandable. We are human. Our affections pull us in different directions. We have always been prone to idolatry. Our idols are subtle and cunning and they tell us that we can serve both masters. That we can worship at the base of both flags. That we can trust our lord and savior, but also put our trust in our military, and our political leaders. There has most likely never been a time in your life when you were asked directly to make this choice. I will understand if you reject what I am saying to you now, therefore.
Jesus, the Nazarene, King of the Jews. That is what the banner said which they hung over his head on the cross. By the light of the resurrection the Church came to understand that the banner actually read: Jesus, the Nazarene, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace. His banner will never fall, but will be raised higher every time one of his disciples has the courage to follow him to the cross, rather than march behind Caesar. And for the rest of us Jesus offers these words: Father forgive them for they know not what they do.