Christ the King – Jesus in majesty and poverty
Christ the King – Jesus in majesty and poverty, 26 November 2023
A sermon preached by Canon Treasurer Kenneth Padley
It is easy to be a little cynical about today’s Feast of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI invented it in 1925 as an antidote to the political trends of his age. The aftermath of World War One had left Europe economically devastated and politically febrile. In Russia, the Tsar had been executed and replaced with communist dictatorship. In Italy – a region of immediate interest to the Pope of course – nationalism was rampant. Pope Pius saw in Jesus a kingship which challenged these new expressions of power and their threats to the temporal and spiritual influence of the Vatican. Christ’s authority was personal, monarchical and absolute – which was rather convenient, because that was the sort of rule to which that Pope himself aspired.
At one level, Pius was spot on. Christians believe that Jesus is Lord. He is an absolute and all-powerful ruler. We believe on good grounds that Jesus is God, and that God can do anything logically possible. And you can’t get more powerful than that.
It is a theme which has been captured in Christian iconography down the ages:
- Think of eastern Orthodox churches, the inside of their great domes lined with mosaics of Jesus as Pantocrator, the Ruler of All.
- Think of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, arms lifted powerfully on either side.
- A few years ago an imitation of the Rio statue was unveiled in Swiebodzin in western Poland. This image of Christ the King is the tallest statue of Jesus in the world. Like its Brazilian forebear, it is intended to convey an overwhelming sense of Christ’s majesty.
These images of Jesus as an all-conquering potentate go back to the Bible itself.
- We are told by St Paul and the book Revelation that Jesus is ‘King of kings and Lord of Lords’ (I Tim 6.15; Rev 19.16), words made memorable by Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.
- Jesus is described in the Letter of Jude as a ‘despotês’. You don’t need to attend Jan Larkin’s wonderful New Testament Greek class to grasp the English translation. Jesus is despotês. He is master.
- And Jesus is given royal epithets in today’s gospel, that famous separation of the sheep and the goats, a portrayal of the Last Judgement.
- Jesus is in authority. He is said to be seated ‘on the throne of his glory’ (v31).
- He is engaged in the royal task of arbitrating justice, determining right from wrong.
- And he is accorded two regal titles.
- He is called a King (‘The king will say to those on his right hand’ … vv 34, 40). Kingship in Jewish culture was particularly associated with the legitimate and godly line of rulers descended from David.
- And Jesus is called ‘Lord’ (‘Lord when was it that we saw you hungry, or thirsty or naked,’… vv. 37, 44). ‘Lord’ is a loaded word in the New Testament because it was not only used for social and political superiors, but it was the Greek rendering of the Jewish name for God, Jahweh. Consciously or subconsciously, the sheep and the goats acknowledge that Jesus the Lord is Yahweh Praise be. A cause for much rejoicing.
I believe all this of Jesus to be true and wonderful and praiseworthy. And yet… Today’s gospel is clear that the kingship of Jesus not only perfects and transcends earthly understandings of governance. It also confounds those understandings too. We see this in the way that the sheep and goats react to the king’s judgement. Neither recognise the judge from his own self-description. When was it that we saw you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, etc?! We can’t recall having met you. When was it? Who are you?
The answer of the king is that they are to recognise his face not on a pedestal but in the needy. When we encounter the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner we look on Jesus in all his earthly weakness. When we see sadness and misfortune, we are drawn up short, face-to-face with Christ’s identification with humanity, walking alongside us. ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did (or did not do) it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me. (v.40, 45)’
It is implicit that this arresting spiritual gaze works in both directions. Not only do donors look into the eyes of Christ when they encounter the needy – but the needy who look on those who help them in faith, may encounter our loving and generous Lord. Jesus is to be found in the godly giver as well as in the needy. Here is the basis for the very practical prayer of St Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now on earth but ours,
No hands but ours, no feet but ours;
Ours are the eyes through which to look
at Christ’s compassion for the world,
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good,
And ours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.
The fundamental failure of recognition in today’s gospel is that neither the sheep nor the goats appreciate the full identity of the One who is judging them. But in addition, I think that neither the sheep nor the goats fully appreciate who they are themselves. When was it that we saw you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, etc?! There is something that the animals have yet to understand about themselves. I read from the way that the story is told a sense of innocence on the part of the sheep and a sense of ignorance on the part of the goats.
- I’m sure we can think of those who radiate goodness but who are too self-effacing, conscious of their many weaknesses while not acknowledging their strengths.
- Conversely, perhaps we know those who think they’ve got it all sorted but who mask their faults with overweening self-confidence.
So the judgement of the king shines a light onto the defendants, just as much as it illuminates the fullness of his own identity.
Jesus is the best of what it means to be human. We meet this king in humility and service as well as in majesty and splendour. It is not an either/or; it is a both/and. And this is why the Feast of Christ the King is – actually – a rather apt way to conclude the Christian year: Christ is the culmination of all things, yet we are taken right back to the beginning and reminded of the truth of Christmas, that in the incarnation of Jesus the best of what it means to be human is wedded to the fullness of what it means to be God.
Christ’s kingship is a kingship of glory and humility. He is surrounded by a splendour of which Pope Pius could only dream, but he is met in our encounter with everyday suffering. Amen.