Priests in the Midst of a Kingdom

Ignacio Gama asked me to preach at his ordination to the priesthood; since the event fell on the eve of the Sunday commonly called “Christ the King,” my thoughts turned to the distinction kingship and priesthood, two offices that are united in Christ but differentiated in us.

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We have a hard time with kings. The Declaration of Independence is a bill of indictment enumerating the egregious burdens laid upon us by the king of England. On top of this historical antipathy to kingship is a contemporary distrust of all things political. Politics, for Americans today, is a realm of rent-seeking, of hidden deals, of payoffs—a vicious realm of power-seeking. Politicians seem to be in the business for the thrill of touching the levers of power. They speak of serving the people, but (so we say) they do nothing to lead the people towards their higher ends or greater good; to serve the people means to provide bread and circuses (properly updated from imperial Rome to social media and mass communications).

We are wrong in almost every detail of this. Bad kings do not make kingship a bad thing. Politics is necessary for human flourishing. We are social animals; we thrive best in organized bodies under responsible government. In his magisterial Desire of the Nations, the frankly genius Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan categorized true political authority as involving three functions. First is the wielding of power to secure the existence of a political society against its enemies. Second is the pronouncing of judgment to distinguish wrong from right. Third is the provision of law whereby a people has a secured identity that continues over time. Power, judgment, and law are the constituents of political authority, and we need competent government in order to flourish as a people.

Jesus is a king because he does those three things. He fought against all that opposes human flourishing and emerged victorious, triumphing over death itself. Having ascended and taken his seat at the right hand of the Father, Jesus rules over all people, all peoples, and all governments, a rule that entails judgment between wrong and right and which will, at the end, be universally obvious. And he has promulgated for all eternity the law that gives true identity to everyone within his kingdom. That law is the Holy Spirit who, transforming our hearts from within, makes them into hearts of flesh that palpitate in amazing harmony with the eternal law of God. 

The feast of Christ the King was established in the Roman Catholic Church about a hundred years ago, at a time of rising totalitarian and authoritarian ideologies—particularly fascism, naziism, communism—as a reminder to all rulers and to all people that there is a king above all kings, one who is Lord over all lords, and it is to him that all human beings and all nations owe their ultimate allegiance. For a half century now, we Episcopalians have joined in this annual reminder of Jesus’ kingship on the last Sunday after Pentecost, the final Sunday of the church year. 

Jesus’ kingship is not a metaphor: it is real. It is the reality of which all earthly government (whether monarchical or not) is an image, albeit often in a glass darkly. As a real king, Jesus has a real kingdom. One of the thieves who was crucified alongside Jesus recognized this: he understood that he was being crucified alongside a true king. And famously, he asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom.

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Besides being a king, Jesus is also a priest. But priests in the church are not kings. A king has a throne: Jesus reigns from the cross, and he reigns from heaven. By contrast, a priest lives and moves in the middle of things. 

This was visually shown in the traditional arrangement of a church with the altar on the east wall and the priest on the congregation side of it, standing as it were at a boundary line, one of those mystical, liminal lines, representing the people to God in prayers of supplication and thanksgiving, and (turning around) representing God to the people in proclamation and blessing. But it is not only in the church that the priest is in the middle.

For one, we priests are sometimes pulled into the middle of conflict. Sometimes people want us to affirm that they have been wronged by someone else, and sometimes they want us to go and tell the other person so. This is an uncomfortable middle place.

But a person can share with us a genuine divide of loyalties, a genuine perplexity. I remember a young father. His first child was recently born. Asking for baptism, he was caught in extended family conflicts. I explained that his primary loyalty was to his wife and daughter, not to his parents, giving simple biblical teaching (it goes back to Genesis 2): this strengthened him and led to other godly transformations in his home.

Once I had to phone a high school counselor on account of receiving a report of sexual abuse, and then go to the school. This was the middle of something much bigger than I; one has nothing to cling onto but the Lord.

I remember a home visit: I was still a very new priest; there was, in the living room, a hospice bed; it was there, the family was there, in the middle of love, the middle of many inconveniences, much tenderness, medicines, sponges, the mostly sleeping father on the bed: the middle of waiting, of praying with.

Father Donald Campbell (the Santa Fe priest who sponsored me for ordination) spoke of the wonder of being a priest. To an extent way beyond that permitted other professionals, priests are invited into people’s lives at the beautiful and awesome times: not only marriages, but births and deaths. I remember him knocking, unannounced, at our little apartment door, shortly after our first child was born: not to linger, not to intrude, but to be there, check up, see us, see the little one: to smile, to bless. I had not known then that a priest would do that, and the memory of it is almost unspeakably sweet. The tables were turned much later: while my wife was in a dreadful New York City nursing home, I was on Lexington Avenue: and coming towards me were two of my parishioners, out walking not long after they had brought their baby son home. We talked, we smiled, I peered inside the bundle and gave him (as it happened) his first blessing.

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God himself lives and moves in the middle of things. He did not have to do so: he could have made the world like an intricate watch, wound it up, stepped back and let it go: but instead, God loved the world so much that he wanted to be in it, to walk beside his strange bipedal creatures who told stories and carried children and covered, to a vaster extent than any other creature he had made, this beautiful earth. God has loved us and talked to us and given us ways to walk in and reprimanded us and guided us and fed us with daily bread and spurred our intelligence and confronted us with our sins and warmed our hearts, lured us, desired us, courted us, haunted us, pursued us, surrounded us, until, in the absolute fulness of time, he became one of us. Our great high priest, as we will soon commemorate, was a baby. He lived and moved in the middle of things. He was a complete human being, without any subtraction of sin (for sin is ever a subtraction, never an addition), and so of course he was killed. Fallen sinful man cannot stand the implicit rebuke of a person who lives entirely by love. 

This great high priest, Jesus, you, Ignacio, will represent in a special way, as do all who are called to the priesthood. You will not represent his kingship; priests are not rulers in the kingdom of heaven. Nor, for that matter, is the church the kingdom. Priests do not have thrones, and apart from exceptional cases they have not had direct political power. Ignacio, your special way of representing Jesus, as is true also for me, as is true for every priest, is to be Jesus’ representative in the middle of things, the priestly presence of God-amidst-us. And on this November evening in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty-two, I do not think it too much to say that even angels are watching hopefully, prayerfully, eager to see how this will turn out.

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Out & About. I am to preach at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas on Sunday, December 11, at the traditional services: 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.

 

Against Sudden Death


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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: