A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 21 November 2021,10:30
Revelation 1: 4b-8 and John 18: 33-37
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The left wing politician Tony Benn, who died in 2014, once admitted in an interview that, although motivated and inspired since childhood by the narratives of faith- the great heroes of the Scriptures, like Daniel, that nourished him as he grew up-, one thing that put him off Christianity was its hierarchical language. When challenged about this by an angry Evangelical, who asked “But do you believe that Jesus is our Lord? Do you believe in the kingdom of heaven?” Benn replied, “Well, I am in difficulty because I don’t believe in lords!... The problem is that I’m a Republican”. Had he been asked whether he followed Jesus as our teacher in the commonwealth of humanity, Benn maintained, then he would happily have answered yes, of course I do.
What do we do with the language of kings and lords running through our sacred texts, that we reflect on today, as we celebrate the kingship of Christ? The Feast of Christ the king is a relatively new one in the Church, introduced into the Roman calendar in 1925, and given added prominence with its peak position on the last Sunday in the Church’s year, before we begin afresh with a new year next week on Advent Sunday. There have been various debates in the Anglican Church as to whether it is something we want to keep or not. It could seem odd to start drawing attention to Christ’s kingship at a time when- many people (in wider society, if not in the church) would argue- the concept of monarchy is becoming increasingly outdated.
The concept of kingship, many instinctively feel, is at best quaint, at worst hopelessly archaic. It could be seen to promote inequality, because even if most modern monarchies have no real power, their image creates a barrier and distances them from the rest of us. Throughout history, fine robes and glittering crowns decked with jewels have signified rank and status, a way of attracting attention and flaunting one’s importance. And while we appreciate them as celebrities, this image of royalty isn’t something most of us can easily relate to- even if we are the sort of person who enjoys dressing up in funny clothes and processing around Cathedrals!
The image of kingship and the values it represents promoted in our Gospel reading the morning, however, is very different. Pilate, the Roman governor, faces Jesus after his arrest, and asks in surprise, “Are you the king of the Jews?” In the ancient world, kings and queens did rule in an autocratic, dictatorial fashion; they ruled according to their own wishes and whims. They could promote one person and demote another. They were all-powerful. This Jesus, a poor man from the wrong part of the country, with a small band of followers, all of whom appear to have deserted him, in Pilate’s judgement, makes for an unlikely king. And yet Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Jesus is claiming to be a king, but not a king like Herod or Caesar. He has come, as the rest of the passage after this section will explain further, to speak and bring the truth. Truth isn’t an idea we can easily grasp, or own. It’s a gift, a strange gift that, like Jesus’ kingdom, comes from elsewhere but implants itself, and takes up residence in this world. Jesus has come to give evidence about this truth. He himself is the truth.
At this point of transition in the year, we begin to think of Jesus not as a powerful king but as a vulnerable baby, born into poverty. Soon we will see him presented with gold by the Magi, but few members of royalty would willing choose the degradation of being born as a refugee, with a teenage mother and no money or position in society. When we read about Jesus wearing a crown, it is the crown of thorns. That vulnerable baby becomes a powerful political figure of his day, but humbles himself for us and accepts the mockery of the sneering soldiers who surround him as he dies a cruel and humiliating death at the hands of the Roman Imperial power.
The author of the book of Revelation talks about Jesus in exalted terms, “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth,” full of “glory and dominion” and “coming with the clouds, title upon title heaped upon him. Yet he chooses to accept the agony of the cross. Far from being about glory and victory and rank, the kingship of Jesus- in the words of William Temple- is about “power in complete subordination to love”.
The language of kingship and lordship is alienating for some, and we would do well not to speak of Christ narrowly in these terms all the time. The language we use does affect the way we think, and we can and should make more use of the richer imagery of scripture and find other ways to talk about God in our liturgies. But the Feast of Christ the King reminds us of an alternative type of kingship, that has nothing to do with indulging our taste for the glamour of royalty or the side of our personality that craves attention.
The kingdom of God isn’t a distant place, somewhere far off to aim for. When, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world,” he’s not saying his kingdom is not of this world, as some translations have it. That would imply that it was something altogether other-worldly, a spiritual or heavenly reality that has nothing to do with the present world at all. The kingdom is emphatically for this world, if not of it: a set of attitudes and way of living in response to the love that we have received, as Jesus- having come into the world himself- sends out his followers to be his kingdom presence in the world. Earthly kingdoms have to do with geographical location, but the kingdom of God is known not by its borders but by its fruits. It’s about the action of Christ in the world among the poor and excluded.
So today is a day to recommit ourselves , as disciples of Christ, to go out and carry on the work of the Kingdom, to pray the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your Kingdom come”, and to know what we’re praying for. Because the kingdom of God isn’t far away in space or eternity; it has and must have, its beginnings within each one of us. Today is a day to reflect on the power we all of us have in at least some of our relationships, and to make it subservient to love, to make a conscious decision to use it, not to lord it over other people, but for good, stirring ourselves into action, in the words of the traditional Prayer Book collect, and encouraging one another to bring forth the fruit of good works, as we thank God for all with which he has richly rewarded us.
In looking to Christ as our King, then, we do not look to glittering crowns and servile obedience; we look instead for signs of the activity of God in the world. Our small acts are both prayers that the Kingdom may come among us and the speaking of God’s word that brings it closer. They are signs that speak our hope that we are open windows for God’s transforming grace in the world.
As we pray for Christ’s realm to take shape in our lives both individually and as a community, may we celebrate the presence of Christ our servant King among us. As we share together in this service, may we give thanks for all his blessings, and may we receive his forgiveness, healing, love and strength, in order that, in response, we may go out from here to live and spread the Good News of Christ the King in the world.