A sermon preached by Canon Dr Tom Clammer, Precentor
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have to level with you and admit that the Feast of Christ the King is probably my least favourite feast day of the church’s year. I’m not wild about this Sunday, but since I write the preachers rota I’ve only got myself to blame for finding myself trying to compose a sermon for today.
I will tell you why I don’t like the feast of Christ the King. Firstly, it is quite a new invention, created in 1925 by the Roman Catholic Church and adopted into the Church of England’s calendar in the year 2000, and rather obliterating Stir Up Sunday, the final Sunday of the year for Anglican Christians since the time of the Reformation. The words of the collect, the special prayer for the last Sunday of the year, begins “stir up Lord we beseech thee, the wills of thy faithful people”, and was adopted as the Sunday on which one ought to make one’s Christmas puddings, having been reminded in church to not only stir up our hearts, but also to deploy rather more practically the wooden spoon into the mixing bowl. That prayer survives, just, as the post communion prayer of this Sunday under the new dispensation.
But, you will retort, just because something is new, Canon Precentor, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Why don’t you grow up and get with the times? Well, I have other reasons. The Roman Catholic Church introduced this feast, largely because of a growing awareness post First World War of firstly secularism, and moving away from belief in the divine, and also the proliferation of regimes around the world where authority took on, and indeed continues to take on, hallmarks of abuse, despotism and indeed terror. The idea of the Feast of Christ the King is to remind people of the authority, of the supremacy of Jesus Christ in the face of power, worldly power, as it was presented.
And that of course is a noble aspiration. The problem, I think, is that the church hasn’t really got its head around what authority means either. I think the language of kingship, of authority in that sense is really tricky, and actually rather loaded with unhelpful associations.
If we consider the word ‘power’, I wonder what images spring to mind. Just charting the last week, we have President Mugabe and his successor to consider, we have the exercise of terror as a show of power in Egypt on Friday, we have Donald Trump, we have Vladimir Putin, we have our own government attempting to negotiate the Brexit settlement. We have an advert for a new Dean of this Cathedral - job of the week no less you may have noticed! -, And of course we have the model of our own monarch, celebrating her 70th wedding anniversary. We need to recognise how fortunate we are in this country to have a queen who strives daily to embody leadership in a significantly more humble and subtle way than many others. And yet, even then, what are the images around the world that people associate with even our sovereign’s human authority? Gold carriages, pomp and ceremonial, money, deference.
There is a problem with power. We all know the saying “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, popularised of course by John Acton, though he pinched the concept from others. He himself was a Lord and a Baron! And I think we get tangled up a bit when we try to think about the exercise of authority and power and leadership because it is very difficult indeed to imagine the exercise of power in a way which is not in some sense controlling or at least which doesn’t set up a dynamic between the more and the less powerful, which doesn’t contain some sort of dominance or control within it.
And that’s why I’m a bit uncomfortable about the language of kingship in relationship to Christ. Of course I understand the motivation behind the creation of this feast. It is really important for Christians to remember that although we are called to participate actively and in an engaged way with the world in which we live, we are also called, ultimately, to locate our allegiance somewhere else. To recognise that what defines us, in the end, is being part of that family of God we were thinking about a few weeks ago. And in case we think that that is a bit insular and inward looking, it is also really important for the world to hear, articulated confidently, that there is very much more to our human existence than locating ourselves somewhere within the authority structure which begins with the most powerful up here and ends up with the weakest down here, and into which somewhere we slot depending upon our bank balance, our qualifications, or the happen stances of our birth and fortunes. It’s just not good enough to define ourselves by who we are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ when by those words we mean richer, more powerful or more influential.
All of that is really important. And that’s what the Feast of Christ the King reminds us about at the end of an old year. We don’t belong, ultimately, to this world alone. We are children of our Father in heaven who challenges us to live in a bigger world than that, with an entirely different set of criteria for identity.
But even then we fall into rather human, rather anthropological imagery to describe the sort of father in heaven we might have. So we use words like King, sovereign, and so on, words which if we’re not careful lull us back into the illusion that the reason that God is God is because he is bigger, faster, stronger, more musclebound. Lots of hymns employ that kind of language: indeed some of the ones chosen for today do. And those images aren’t wrong. They are just inadequate, and only part of the picture.
And you know the Bible is full of those sorts of images. Our epistle reading this morning from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians uses exactly that kind of language. Read back through that passage. Read the adjectives, the adverbs, some of the nouns. Riches. Glorious. Immeasurable greatness. Power, great power, rule, authority, Dominion, head. Paul uses the word power three times in three verses.
But here’s the thing. And here’s what rescues the feast of Christ the King. The gospel passages set for this feast, for the last Sunday of the year, are not readings about the ascension of Christ into heaven. They’re not stories of the demonstration of his power of healing, or of miracles. They’re not even stories of the resurrection which one might associate most with the demonstration of God’s power. In some years we hear the story of the crucifixion on this feast day. Today we get the parable of the sheep and goats. In one sense it is a story about power. It begins with the King separating the sheep from the goats, exercising decision-making power, authority, judgement. All these things Christ will do. But what of the criteria? Well they’re the works of mercy. Clothing the naked, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the prisoners. So to start with we recognise that these are the characteristics of the people who belong to this sort of kingdom. But more than that. The parable teaches us that it is in such as these, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the imprisoned, that we find our King himself. “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Kingship, our Lord challenges us today, looks like a prisoner. Kingship looks like the starving, the naked, the homeless. And to serve Christ, to be people of Christ the King, is to be people who not only recognise the falsity, the heresy actually, of the seduction of worldly power, but to be people who will resist it. To be like John the Baptist and Mary, like the patriarchs and the prophets whose stories we tell over the coming weeks of Advent, point away from that nonsense, from the attractive, glamorous world that tells you that being better than someone else is the aim of life, to reject the vainglory, and to point instead to the servant King.
William Cowper wrote, "the dearest idol I have known, what e'er that idol be; help me to tear it from thy throne and worship only thee." We need to recognise those idols in our own lives, in the life of this Cathedral, in the life of our nation, and do our best, at least, to tear them from Christ’s throne.
And before we start to do that, we might do well to remember also that we are reminded on this feast day, that Christ’s throne is more than likely not the ornate golden chair of Victorian hymnody, but rather the tatty manger of Bethlehem, the night shelter, and the hearts and minds of his people, even hearts and minds as cluttered and mired and broken as yours and mine. Even there, miraculously, Christ is King.