Feast of Christ the King, Sunday 24 November 2019
Picture: Christ the King window in the Morning Chapel
‘Back Boris!’ ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!’
Slogans in support of a leader have a long tradition, and long predate the sound-bite culture. ‘Slogan’ is the Gaelic word for a war cry, shouted as your chieftain led you into battle, to proclaim whose side you were on. The early Christians had their own slogan – ‘Jesus is Lord’ – a pithy statement that they were not available, in Terry Eagleton’s words, to ‘grovel before the idols of, state, tribe [or] nation’. This Evensong for the feast of Christ the King is another, more stately way of proclaiming that.
Christianity has in its history adopted different attitudes to human authority, but it has rarely been anarchist, preferring instead to see the need for earthly leaders, while being sceptical – heeding perhaps the prophet Samuel’s warnings – about how much we should expect of them. Today’s leaders wear well-cut suits – or occasionally, military bling – rather than actual crowns, but the Christian rule still holds: pray for them always, support those you can – perhaps work to get one elected if you are blessed to live in a democracy – but never forget to whom your final allegiance lies. Jesus is Lord.
That might suggest that the first followers of Jesus saw him as just another, better version of a political leader. But he is quite unlike any of those, and that is what puzzles Pontius Pilate when he interviews him in our second reading. We shall return to that.
In his devastating review of Richard Dawkins’ best-seller The God Delusion, Eagleton asks at one point why Judas handed Jesus over to the authorities. He suggests it was because Judas realised that Jesus was not the messiah he had ordered: Jesus was not a gutsy commander who would fight his battles (as the people say to Samuel) and drive out the armies of a pagan emperor; he was not someone worthy of a true slogan. After all, says Eagleton,
Messiahs are not born in poverty; they do not spurn weapons of destruction; and they tend to ride into the national capital in bullet-proof limousines with police outriders, not on a donkey.
By contrast, Jesus was
a joke of a Messiah. He was a carnivalesque parody of a leader who understood, so it would appear, that any regime not founded on solidarity with frailty and failure is bound to collapse under its own hubris. The symbol of that failure was his crucifixion.
And that for Eagleton is the crux. The Christian faith holds, he says,
that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection.
That word ‘truth’ takes us back to Pontius Pilate’s office, and the dishevelled figure standing before him, who, according to his briefing notes, claims to be a king. What does Jesus say to Pilate? He does not say, ‘Every subject in my kingdom obeys my will’. He says, ‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’. Strange.
Among the criticisms levelled at Christianity by Professor Dawkins and his disciples is that believing in the God of Jesus means submitting to a moral autocrat: all those ‘thou shalt nots’ - where’s the freedom in that?
True freedom, however, is the freedom to explore what is true. To create your own world of meaning – to live in an echo chamber, whether religious or political – is not true freedom: it is a failure to honour what the Archbishops’ General Election message calls ‘the gift of truth’.
The kingship of Jesus, his rule, which is not from this world but profoundly shapes how you live in this world, depends on listening to his voice and deciding whether he is true or not, whether the world is or is not as he claims it to be: a place for the risks of love and trust and forgiveness.
If you decide it isn’t, then you must conclude that Jesus is a false pretender who has no authority over you. But if you decide that Jesus’ world is the real world, then he will have final allegiance in your life, he will shape how you speak, how you behave, how you vote; not because he is a tyrant, but because he is true.