A sermon preached by Canon Dr Tom Clammer, Precentor
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Those of you know me well know that I have always had a fairly uneasy relationship with the Feast of Christ the King, which begins this evening. Partly that is my natural aversion to change I suppose, the feast being relatively modern, I mean in terms of the history of the Church of England of course, which moves in centuries rather than weeks or years. Part of it is that I really miss Stir Up Sunday, which just has a wonderfully and peculiarly English feel to it, a probably largely fictitious tradition building up of being reminded by hearing the Collect of the day being prayed at matins that it is time to make your Christmas puddings. That is just so quintessentially Church of England isn’t it!
But my real problem with the feast of Christ the King is that I am nervous of power and authority in general, I don’t very much enjoy exercising it on the occasions when I do, and I have tended to have a fairly robust relationship with those who are in positions of power over me. I am naturally suspicious of hierarchies and structures of control, which seem to me to very often generate a fair amount of misery and visit a fair amount of indignity upon those who willingly or otherwise participate in them.
I think language of kingship is complicated. I think that it has to be worked at quite hard to be got right. And I worry that sort of language, when not accompanied by that kind of hard work, presents an unhelpful set of images of God, and of Jesus Christ, which have the potential to weaken rather than strengthen the body of Christ.
Let me try to explain what I mean. This feast day originated in the Roman Catholic Church in the mid 1920s. It was originally a feast of the month of October, and it was instituted in the years following the Great War as a reaction against the seduction of human authority structures. You can understand exactly why that happened, and to want to restore to the conversation in the public square the principle that actually Jesus is the only person who gets to be at the top of the pyramid is not a bad thing.
It was moved to the final Sunday of the Christian year during the reforms of Vatican II, and here it sits. I think my problem with it is that the title itself is just a bit a nuanced and simplistic. Don’t get me wrong, your Precentor of the last seven years has always believed during his time here that Jesus Christ is his King. I am jolly pleased that Jesus is my King. But I question the language. I question the language because of the inevitable images of thrones, crowns, robes, power and dominance that come along with it. I am uneasy of a Christian year that ends with that sort of image. I’m uneasy of putting that rather triumphal symbol at the end of the journey.
Because actually I think we already had many, many feasts of Christ the King. Amongst them: Christmas, Good Friday, Ascension Day. And Easter. Not a bad little feast, Easter!
Because where do we find the kingship of Christ? I would like to suggest far less on a golden throne than amidst the straw and the dust of the Bethlehem manger. Christ is King at Christmas midnight when the animals kneel down around, in Thomas Hardy’s wonderful poem. Because Christ is King in weakness, in innocence, incarnate, placing his power in the arms of the Virgin.
Christ is King on the cross: when, put to the test, humanity responds to the question “shall I crucify your King?” with that ultimate evacuation of faith in what appears to be flawed and risky and vulnerable, and the pinning of hope and trust on the most seemingly powerful figure in sight: “we have no king but Caesar.” That, I fear, is the instinct. To abandon - when the work gets hard or complicated or requires of us bravery and risk - faith in the divine mystery, instead attaching our security to the biggest boy in the playground, the strongest leader in sight. But see, Christ is King at the point of absolute weakness and self-sacrifice. Christ is King at the point of death, as he inverts everything we thought we knew about power, and is victorious as the nails are driven home.
The Kingdom of God is power of a very different sort. As one of the old Collects puts it, in the Kingdom of God “no strength is known but the strength of love.” The sort of kingdom that God brings in is a kingdom in which the hungry are fed, the humble lifted high - a Magnificat kingdom, with seeds of kindness growing a harvest, and where tax collectors and sinners, fishermen and children are going into the kingdom ahead.
We do the Kingdom a disservice, and we cheapen the gospel, when we collude with the language of power which so dominates our world today. We do the Kingdom a disservice and we cheapen the gospel when we think that we can attach key performance indicators to the transformation of individual lives by the grace of God, and collapse the Kingdom into a management structure and an appraisal system. We do the Kingdom a disservice, and we cheapen the gospel, when we forget that our fundamental calling is to be kind. Is to approach every single person that we meet as Christ. To assume that we have something to learn of the gospel from them. To too closely rate our success by the delivery of projects or initiatives, and too loosely to faithful, simple love.
Of course Jesus is our king. But where we look for him matters. The manger, the cross, the person sitting opposite us. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and in prison and did not care for you?” “Very truly I tell you, whenever you did not do it to the least of these my children, you did not do it to me.”
Because it is in weakness and in humility that Christ’s victory comes. God does not bully us and beat us into submission. No, he comes to us in the mustard seeds of the Kingdom. He comes to us in a musical chord, in the kindness of a stranger, in the smile and handshake of a cathedral steward, in a street pastor having a conversation on a Friday night. He comes to us in water and bread and wine and oil, in love and kindness. In the hands which are indelibly pierced.
And it is because that love, that kindness is what true power looks like that we can sing ‘Immortal, invisible’, and not be aggrandising dominance and authority. Instead we can rejoice that though we blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree, and wither and perish - yet naught changeth the God who simply gathers up all of our desperate scrabbling for status and praise, all of our inevitable and mostly frustrated hopes for our own preferment, and loves them into glory, meeting us where we are, as dust and ashes, and reminding us that we can exalt, because we are already children of God.
When I was at university I used to have a poster on my wall that said “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” Jesus is coming. Look busy. Busyness is not the solution. Doing more things is not what will bring in the Kingdom. Kindness will bring in the Kingdom. Steadiness, faithfulness, predictability, love. Quietly telling and retelling the story of a man who is entirely uninterested in what we achieve, and is absolutely devoted to who we are. Engaging in that privilege of a cathedral community to say our prayers, to hold the space, to have the time for the people who recognise that, dust and ashes though they be, there is glory deep inside.
The story is told of the Abbot of a monastery who would spend every day sweeping the floor, carefully, slowly, prayerfully. After five or six days on retreat someone came up to him and said, “Father Abbot, what would you do if you knew you only had five minutes left before Jesus returned?” The Abbot thought for a moment or two, leaning on his broom, and then replied, “I would carry on sweeping the floor.”