SERMON 20 NOVEMBER 2016 Christ the King
I wonder if, as you got ready to come to church this morning, you realised that this was not just another Sunday. This is a big day! There is a lot happening on this day, not just here, but in churches everywhere. Some of it is quite demanding because it asks us to stretch wide our minds and our hearts to deal with one of the biggest paradoxes of the Christian faith. This is the last Sunday of the Christian year, so it is a kind of climax, though under the growing energy of Christmas preparations it doesn’t seem at all like that. This Sunday we take our leave of Luke’s gospel. We have journeyed with him since last Christmas. I feel quite sad about that. Luke has drawn us to think about the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom, as we have often mentioned during this year. The song the Magnificat will now fade away, though of course, it does not die out. Luke has also given us several stories about women, often balancing those featuring men with one of a woman. He has also given us well-loved parables: the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan that are only in his gospel. After today we will travel with Matthew. I will warn you now, there are not supposed to be any shepherds this Christmas! It is Luke who tells us about those. But this is clearly a very unpopular thing as the lectionary gives them back to us by calling Luke back for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I haven’t decided if I am going to do that here or not. I actually feel quite strongly that each gospel writer has shaped his account in a particular way for good reason and that playing about with the texts is not to be true to those early writers who gave us their accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry and death. So there is my little rant! It remains a fact that this is our last week with Luke as our gospel for the next 3 years.
So that is one thing that is going on today. This last Sunday of the Christian year is called “Christ the King”. Clearly that indicates an important feast day of the Church. There are many paintings depicting Jesus, crowned and in glory, often sitting at the right hand of God. A king surely indicates power, wealth, gold, jewels, thrones and palaces. When we hear the title “king”, we may think of protocols about bowing, or curtsying, as the case maybe, or having to walk backwards when leaving the royal presence. If we were Catholic we might well have come into church and bowed our heads and knees before we walked to our seat. Here there is no gold decoration or paintings, or even lots of candles around the altar. We did away with those things at the Reformation. They were regarded as part of an institution which had come to glorify itself more than God, who does not need such trappings of wealth and richness. So they have been seen as a distraction. It still causes unease in Protestant hearts when churches, like us here, light a candle to symbolise the presence of Christ with us. Likewise there can be uncertainty about having a coloured cloth on the communion table. I have to say that I do like the complete simplicity and lack of adornment in churches like the one I went to on the Isle of Lewis. But I also relish touches of beauty and colour and things that recognise the richness with which life is gifted. You see, we are getting into difficult territory, this Sunday of Christ the King.
What this points us towards is one of the great paradoxes of faith: Jesus the man, part of human life, and also Christ the King, the post-resurrection Jesus, who thereafter becomes the one who is then, and now, not only human but divine. We hold onto Christ, the Son of God, to whom we owe everything because he enables us to be drawn into the open heart of God. This Christ is part of God and also part of the whole of God’s creation. So his kingship is more. St Paul understood this clearly. He had personally encountered the presence of the risen Jesus, an event that turn his life around completely. He also understood the Christ who was far more than a man resurrected. We could have read today from the letter he wrote to the people at Colossae when he was in prison in Rome. In it he says “The Son is the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” Christ the King is not just a human kind of king. Christ the King is rightly owed our obeisance, our humble devotion and obedience. He is also one who has been and always is, part of the power and authority of creation. This is the King before whom we bow down and whom we worship. We have already sung this: “O worship the king, all glorious above”. Today we are asked to hold together the King beyond our humanity and the very human understanding we carry of Jesus. The earthly seems easier to deal with. We know about having an earthly monarchy in Australia. A lot of people love to hear news of the royal family, to see pictures, to wait in crowds at the roadside on special occasions, to celebrate a royal wedding and to keep watch before a royal birth. Our present-day royal family may seem to be not quite so far removed from us nowadays and don’t live quite such mysterious lives inside their palaces, but they still carry a very long tradition of being special and powerful. Where else would we see golden carriages drawn by 8 horses, or diamond tiaras and even, occasionally, a crown?
But that royal power that was once yielded often brutally, has always been an issue. We are, rightly, very wary of such power today. We have seen enough dictatorship in the last 100 years to know the terrible cost of power abused. Who was it said “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? If we look at the reading we heard from Jeremiah this morning we hear of how this has happened for the people of Israel. Kings had come and gone, the kings that Israel had pleaded with God to allow them to have, as their neighbours had. There had been misuse of power. The prophets, like Jeremiah, were called out to warn God’s people about their failures, their self-seeking and forgetfulness. Jeremiah is always a voice that calls people to repentance, and also reminds them of God’s restorative justice. Today, through him, we hear of God’s warning to the leaders, “shepherds” of the people, who have failed in their calling. The sheep have been driven off, scattered in all directions. They have not been cared for, and that is the bottom line. So God says that he will gather up the remnants and bring people back together again and give them shepherds who will tend them so they need not be afraid any longer. I wonder to whom might you like to send this message today? I can think of a few leaders. Jeremiah also points the people forwards to a time when God will raise up a King for them from the family of David, a righteous branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is right and just in the land. He will be called The Lord Our Righteous Saviour.
So the lectionary connects us back to Luke’s gospel for this day. And what do we find? We find the story of Good Friday. This brings us to the heart of the paradox in our faith. Christ crucified. Christ the King. It’s as if we are being pulled in opposite directions. We cannot turn aside from one and face the other. We need both of these at the same time, however hard it maybe to hold. Christ who belongs within the Trinity that is God, whom we best understand as Love. Jesus the man who struggles along to the place they called the Skull, following Simon of Cyrene who carries the cross whose weight Jesus’ own bruised and beaten shoulders could not bear. Jesus who is ridiculed and sneered at, stripped of his robe, nailed to a cross between two criminals. Jesus who asks God to forgive his executioners because they had no idea what they were doing. Jesus who hangs there with a mocking sign fastened above him that says “The King of the Jews”. Christ the King. This is something that is, as Paul says, a stumbling block because, for some, it is impossible to believe. Yet, for more, this is also what makes it possible to withstand the depths of darkness and depravity we know in life. How much deeper could God go? We get the humanity in this because of the terrible suffering that is so vividly described, however briefly. But do we also grasp what makes this Christ the King for us? I wonder if you noticed how often the word “save” appears in this text. Sometimes it is used mockingly, as by the onlookers and the soldiers. It is used by one of the criminals because he wants to be saved from this punishment for crimes he has committed. The other criminal recognises that this is not about being saved from their penalty but is about who, indeed they are as individuals. And so, by not asking to be saved but to be remembered by Jesus when he does come into his kingdom, he is gathered up by God’s grace. He stumbled into salvation.
The push and pull of the paradox that is Christ crucified and Christ the King is brought to a point of meaning by this word “saved”. It is the same word in the Greek of Luke’s writing that is used when Jesus earlier raises Jairus’ daughter from her deathbed. In its sense then, she is brought back to life. As Jesus submits to all the injustice, mockery, misunderstanding and condemnation, all along this tortured path to execution; as he submits to pain and prays for the forgiveness of those who are inflicting this; as he turns aside from the hatred and power struggles, Jesus shows what indeed he is king of – Love. And it is that love that is the power of life, salvation, healing and wholeness for us all.
If we are to hold together the Jesus whose life and death carries such hope then we must honour this Love, and we do that by honouring life in all around us. This is a king before whom we can and must humbly bow down. This is the king whose power of love is the only thing that can being peace into a world where there are so many of these dark and hateful things that Jesus knew on his path to crucifixion. These things are around us in our present time too because the powerful leaders do not often tend their scattered flock. Jeremiah would have words for them and for all of us today. But here are some other words from Malcolm Guite’s poem “Christ the King” Malcolm Guite Christ the King
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
While we are cruising through 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 is 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.
It is quite right that we that we should stand and sing our praises, but we should do so open hearts and minds to uncover where he may be hidden, because otherwise our homage to the King is in danger of being two-faced and we are no longer holding the paradox that is Jesus the Christ.
There is a glory to this day of celebrating Christ the King. It is the glory of the power of love. That love is the presence of God among us and around us. It is love that is woven through the whole of creation. So, I think, there is nothing wrong with celebrating love with colour and beauty and light, because, in our world that is so full of negativity, we should do what we can to live out the goodness and glory that is God-with-us in Jesus, in Christ the King. That is the gospel we proclaim.