Sermon - 22 November 2015
Christ the King
Scripture - John 18:33-37, Revelation 1:4-8
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
“Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam...”
“Blessed are You, LORD God, King of the Universe…”
These words begin many of the regular prayers used by Jewish believers, acknowledging God’s Kingship not only over Jews or their nation, but of the whole earth and the universe in its unfathomable, resplendent majesty.
This Sunday is called “The Feast of Christ the King”. It is always celebrated 5 weeks before Christmas and it is the newest festival in the global church’s calendar, introduced exactly 90 years ago in 1925 by the then Roman Catholic Pope, Pius XI, and adopted by most Protestant churches, to remind Christians that our allegiance is to our spiritual ruler in heaven as opposed to earthly powers.
Writing in the years after the horrors of World War I, Pius XI noted that while there had been an end to the fighting, there was no true peace. He wrote:
“Since the close of the Great War, individuals, the different classes of society, the nations of the earth have not as yet found true peace... the old rivalries between nations have not ceased to exert their influence... the nations of today live in a state of armed peace which is scarcely better than war itself, a condition which tends to exhaust national finances, to waste the flower of youth, to muddy and poison the very fountainheads of life, physical, intellectual, religious, and moral.”
In the past 90 years, we have experienced the rise and fall of Fascism and Communism, a second World War, the Cold War, wars in the Far East in Korea and Vietnam, never-ending conflict in the Middle East, barbarous acts of genocide killing millions of innocent people, and the rise of terrorism, exemplified in Paris 10 ten days. It seems that the clouds of war are once again gathering, as political leaders around the world are putting aside their differences and are seeking to work together. Pope Pius XI’s words written 90 years ago are still as true today as they were then.
Today’s Feast of Christ the King calls us to reflect on this particular aspect of God. When we consider the title “King”, we rely upon our human experience and understanding. For almost all of us here today, our understanding of King is rather more one of Queen. Elizabeth II is our monarch: while she is head of State, she has no real power; for centuries, that power has been devolved to the democratic institutions of government.
There are still some absolute monarchs in the world, where the very word of the king or queen is law, but as far as we are concerned in the UK, to have such power in the hands of one person is confined to history. Indeed, the concept of us being sub-servient to another, allowing another to have dominion over us and for us to obey them, flies in the face of 21st century Western self-determination. The marriage vow traditionally made by the bride was to “love, honour and obey”. The vow to obey has largely been dropped.
From our history lessons, we know that throughout history, there have been both good and bad kings and queens. In the Old Testament of the Bible, there are 6 books – 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles – which document Israel’s desire to have a king, the first being Saul, followed by David and then his son, Solomon. It makes for dark reading: instead of having God as King, Israel craved to be like other nations of the time and be ruled over by a king; however, the earthly substitute kings were, for the most part, godless and cruel.
Let’s imagine for a moment that tomorrow, we receive a phone-call telling us that the Queen wants to visit our church next Sunday, to look at the community work our church and its two congregations are doing. What preparations would be made? I am sure there would have an emergency meeting to discuss what would happen and what would need to be done and who would do what. The Police Special Branch would check out the building and the royal liaison would ensure that all who speak to the Queen are briefed on etiquette in how to speak to Her Majesty.
Would we run our service as planned with the people on the rota? Who among us would go out and buy a new outfit for the occasion? Would we get our hair done specially? What time would we arrive at Church next Sunday? I am sure we would not want to be late! How many people would attend the service – more than on a ‘normal’ Sunday? Would we scrub and polish every part of the building? It is said that wherever the Queen goes, she smells fresh paint!
Today, we celebrate Jesus Christ as King: How do we acknowledge his Kingship as Christians in our daily walk with Christ and the people whom we meet, in our worship and church attendance?
Every year, in her Christmas message, the Queen speaks of her faith, pointing towards her God and our God. She maybe the most important person in our country, but she points beyond to Jesus.
This brings us to today’s first reading, a reading with which we are more familiar at Easter: the Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, questions Jesus following Judas’ betrayal and arrest by the Jewish authorities.
Pilate really only has one question for Jesus: “Are you a king?” In the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – Jesus’ response is minimal; only in John’s Gospel is a longer conversation between the two men reported.
Jesus did not give – to Pilate’s mind – a satisfactory answer. Pilate said that he was not a Jew. Why did he say this? Maybe it was an attempt to gain more information from Jesus by starting from a point of ignorance.
More than likely, Pilate was expecting Jesus to proclaim Himself “King of the Jews” as a revolutionary, political leader against Roman occupation. Pilate was concerned for the earthly kingdom over which he was governor, but Jesus tells him that His Kingdom is “not of this world”. Pilate found himself suddenly trapped in an unexpected situation that was running out of control. Pilate was seeking understanding, wanting to know where Jesus fitted into things. Turning that on its head: the Feast of Christ the King challenges us to ask ourselves where Jesus fits in to our lives.
The 20th century German liberationist theologian Dorothee Sölle in her book “Beyond Mere Obedience” had this to say about Jesus’ Kingship:
“We not only accept responsibility for the world around us but seek to be a part of God's transformation of the world.”
At the end of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus reveals to Pilate the reason for His coming:
“I was born and came into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me.”
The concept of truth is one of the main themes in John’s Gospel. Frequently the phrase “I am telling you the truth” begins many of Jesus’ reported words. An older translation of this phrase is “verily, verily” which is closer to the words used in the original Greek: “Ἀμὴν Ἀμὴν” (Amen-Amen), the word originally coming from the Hebrew, meaning “so be it”.
The American theologian, Emilie Townes, wrote this statement about how Jesus’ Kingship and truth make God’s Kingdom real in our lives:
“Truth can be transforming if we seek it through discerning obedience that asks us to look deeply into who we are and what we have become, to try to live into what we can and should be. By looking deeply, we must look at what is right and wrong in our actions and attitudes toward others and within ourselves.”
The military governor Pontius Pilate had lost control of the situation: the religious leaders had stirred the people up into a riotous frenzy. The crowd roared: “We have no king but Caesar”, an extreme irony given their opposition to the Roman occupation. Pilate went along with the un-truth the religious leaders had told him about Jesus, and this led to the Cross.
One of the problem people have with truth is the whole truth. Some might say that in this increasingly post-Christian era, the fear of losing members and thus losing influence in the community, causes the church to temper (or water-down) its message and its mission in a desperate effort to maintain position. If the church does this, Christ’s Kingship is denied.
As individuals, if we deny who we are to others, concealing our sexual orientation or gender identity, we hide our true selves, sometimes feeling forced into doing and saying things in order to maintain the feeling of staying in control. If we do this, again, Christ’s Kingship is denied. But to acknowledge and accept Christ’s Kingship means facing the truth about our lives and the truth Jesus holds up before us.
In closing, some words about our second reading: we do not often have a reading from Revelation, the last book of the Bible, which scholars date to have been written in 96CE. It is a book full of imagery and symbolism, but essentially, it is a book about hope. Again, the word “Amen” is used, emphasising Christ as King of truth.
The large window in our church depicts the Risen Christ, ruling as King. The reading from Revelation reminds us that Christ’s presence is always with us: the One who is, who was, and who is to come.
- We are reminded that Christ is the first to be raised from death: in Him we have our hope and assurance of eternal life.
- We are reminded that it is Christ who has loved us from our beginning and who freed us from our sins by His blood.
- In the darkness of our world, even in these times of gathering war clouds: we are reminded that Christ is the ruler of the kings of the world.
Blessed are You, LORD God, King of the Universe.