As with a lot of people – in fact probably most people – life currently feels to me like a hybrid of house arrest and exile. Many of the choices normally available to me, and many of the normal places of my settled life, are simply not there. Just as a for-instance: my own stall, as it were my home turf in this building, is some 25 metres behind me at the east end of the choir. For years past I have sat in it most nights of the week for Evensong; but since the first lockdown began in March, I have not sat there once.
That seat affords me a particular view across the building, a vista dominated by a huge scheme in stained glass which occupies the whole of the north east transept. It depicts the Heavenly Jerusalem, and from it the massive figure of Christ normally gazes directly at me. He is twice the size of all the many angels and saints who surround him there, and stands before a cross which looks like a grand architectural ornament and not a death sentence. He is wearing sumptuous robes, and his smooth, untroubled, elegant and blondly-bearded face is topped by a large crown. And ever since I first had cause to consider that image at length, it has been emblematic for me of a particular concept of Christ the King.
It won’t surprise you that the window was commissioned in 1908, so its stately, confident and bejewelled figure has stepped into the glass of this church straight from the thought-world of Edwardian Britain, with its empire on which the sun never set, presided over by the largely inert majesty of the King-Emperor. I admire the ambition, art, and craft of that great window – but feel ambivalent and uncomfortable about its imagery.
Actually there is something apt about the tension caused me by that image. The kingship of Christ is complex, a tense and troubling notion from the start. Twice in John’s gospel Pontius Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews, and twice Pilate is given no direct answer; the best he gets is ‘my kingdom is not from this world’. The mangled body of Jesus on the cross, the crucifix image so prevalent in western Christianity, is gainsaid by the gorgeous gilded icons of eastern Christianity; and even our majestic image here from 1908 shows the hands of Christ with wounds left by the fatal cruelty of the nails. So even this most confident depiction of a heavenly monarch is riven by glimpses of weakness and torture.
Our two readings this morning echo that tension. St Paul, a man who elsewhere in his letters stresses his own sufferings, beatings and imprisonments for the sake of his message, here at the beginning of this letter dwells on the greatness of God’s power at work in Christ, on the riches of Christ’s immeasurable glory, under whose feet all things have been put into subjection. And in the story of judgement told by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel - here the central figure is referred to at first as the Son of Man, and then in the next verse as ‘the king’; and he is recognised neither by the condemned nor the justified, the sheep nor the goats; for without exception they don’t see in him the hungry, thirsty, desperate person they had either helped or ignored.
The inability to recognise the power and nature of God in commonplace experiences is known to us all. If God is almighty, if God loves us, why does he allow the innocent to suffer? why does the Prince of Peace allow countless wars to continue? Why are life and livelihoods being destroyed by this virus? The strain illustrated by such familiar and challenging questions is embedded at the very heart of faith.
Wherever there is faith, and wherever people proclaim the power and majesty of God, such questions will arise. They are nigh-on impossible to answer without being lazy or glib. They indicate some of the eternal questions which underpin our engagement with God; there is always ambivalence at its heart. But as we reflect on the notion of Christ the King, our two readings this morning are very helpful in pointing us ahead and beyond these challenges. First, the rich rhetoric of Paul points us to the completion of all things in Christ, to a glory in which we have a part and which we can ever hope for. That distant a strange glory is pulling us in. And in Matthew 25, the stark divide between the sheep and the goats is not on account of their experience – which has been identical – but on account of their response to it. They have either acted in love, with generosity, or they have not. Every day we have these chances; every day we can respond. Every day, in any encounter, however undistinguished and unglamorous, we may be meeting and serving Christ. We have hope; and we have the opportunity to love.
I come back to the window. It must have cost a fortune when it was put in over a century ago. Yet it occupies a place where it is easily missed: its glass, which to be seen depends on light from outside, faces north, and so is dull and lifeless much of the time; and the grand view of it normally afforded me from my stall, is barely caught by most people as they pass through the east end of this building. Which is an apt expression of the kingship of Christ and its challenge to us. We can be sustained by its glorious vision; but we will only experience it if we ourselves express it in the passing and unglamorous encounters of life.