St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Christ the King 2018

Christ the King

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, ‘Christ the King’ Sunday, 25th. Novem­ber 2018

Read­ings: 2 Samuel 23. 1–7; Rev­el­a­tion 1. 4–8; John 18. 33–37.

The feast of Christ the King is fairly new cel­eb­ra­tion in the litur­gic­al cal­en­dar, hav­ing been insti­tuted by Pope Pius XI in1925. Pius was wit­ness­ing the rise of non-Chris­ti­an fas­cist dic­tat­or­ships in Europe, as well as a grow­ing sec­u­lar­ism that had no place for the author­ity of Christ or his church. Stal­in had taken over a lead­er in Soviet Rus­sia, Mus­solini and his black shirts had assumed power in Rome, Adolf Hitler had just pub­lished Mein Kampf and the Pope rightly per­ceived that the age of the dic­tat­or was threat­en­ing Europe. By pro­claim­ing a new feast to cel­eb­rate Christ’s king­ship, the Pope hoped to show the world that the church was sub­ject to a high­er author­ity than the state and he wanted the faith­ful to be reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts and minds. His motives were good and I believe it is a feast worth cel­eb­rat­ing even though only a hand­ful of par­ishes in our dio­cese will acknow­ledge this fest­iv­al today.

There are some people who are uncom­fort­able with the name, ‘Christ the King’. They argue that the word ‘king’ car­ries con­nota­tions of oppres­sion and coer­cion and that the notion of king­ship is out­moded any­way. They prefer to speak of the reign of Christ. How­ever, I am happy to stay with Christ the King as we are not cel­eb­rat­ing the feast of Christ our demo­crat­ic­ally elec­ted lead­er. The king­dom of God is not a demo­cracy and Christ is not the king by pop­u­lar vote. What is true is that Christ turned all pre­vi­ous notions of king­ship on their head and indeed that is part of what we cel­eb­rate today. But it is also import­ant to reflect on the ques­tion: what does it mean for us to make the con­fes­sion that Jesus Christ is King or Lord today? How do we express our alle­gi­ance to him in a mod­ern sec­u­lar soci­ety? We turn to today’s read­ings to see what light they shine on these ques­tions.

Our Old Test­a­ment read­ing today is in the form of a poem or song and pur­ports to be David’s last words. The song makes three major claims about God and about king­ship. First, the king is ordained by and answer­able to God. Dav­id did not come from a roy­al lin­eage: he was the young­est son in a fam­ily of many sons and was from the insig­ni­fic­ant town of Beth­le­hem. Yet, he became the best loved king of Israel. But he did not achieve great­ness by his own strength – he achieved it because God anoin­ted him and exal­ted him. There was nev­er any sug­ges­tion in Israel that the king him­self was divine. God was the true sov­er­eign of Israel, a fact that many of the kings seemed to for­get.

Secondly the song affirms that a king who rules justly is a bless­ing to his people. So Dav­id sings that such a king is ‘like the sun rising on a cloud­less morn­ing.’ Dav­id as we know was a very flawed king but at his best he did bring bless­ings to Israel, giv­ing his people both peace and prosper­ity and the rule of law. A good king, a good prime min­is­ter or a good pres­id­ent are gifts of God. Sadly in our world at the moment they seem to be in short sup­ply. We need to pray for good lead­ers.

The third claim made in the song is that God has made an ever­last­ing cov­en­ant with Dav­id. This claim is based on God’s prom­ise to Dav­id in 2 Samuel 7 where God declared: “Your house and your king­dom shall be made sure forever before me.” The theme of God’s cov­en­ant with Dav­id rever­ber­ates through­out the Scrip­tures. But it is also made clear that this cov­en­ant did not depend on David’s wor­thi­ness but rather it rests on God’s faith­ful­ness. When the Baby­lo­ni­ans came and des­troyed both city and temple and took the last Dav­id­ic king in chains to exile into Babylon it seemed as though the prom­ise was rendered null and void. But faith­ful Israel­ites began to under­stand that this prom­ise looked for­ward to the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah and the estab­lish­ment of God’s new king­dom. The exper­i­ence of exile gave rise to a future hope groun­ded in God’s faith­ful­ness. So the 2 Samuel text reminds us of what true king­ship or lead­er­ship looks like and at the same time it looks for­ward to the ful­fil­ment of the Dav­id­ic Cov­en­ant, in the com­ing of Jesus, the ser­vant King, born in a manger. God remains faith­ful to his word.

The theme of faith­ful­ness, is also evid­ent in the pas­sage from Rev­el­a­tion. This rather puzz­ling book was not giv­en as a blue print for the end times but as a word of encour­age­ment for Chris­ti­ans liv­ing in a hos­tile world where the power of Rome was abso­lute. How we ought to live in a broken, often baff­ling world is the ques­tion that drives Rev­el­a­tion. It was rel­ev­ant in A.D. 95 and it is still rel­ev­ant today. In these open­ing verses the writer reminds us of the char­ac­ter of the God we wor­ship. He is the one “who is and who was and who is to come.” God is the Alpha and the Omega-he is the begin­ning and the end. In oth­er words, God is both the ori­gin­at­or and the goal of human his­tory and by implic­a­tion in con­trol of everything in between. This God has revealed him­self in Jesus Christ who is described as: the faith­ful wit­ness; the first­born from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Neither death, nor rulers are bey­ond the con­trol of Jesus; he is already rul­ing over them so his fol­low­ers need not fear them. John then launches into a hymn of praise to Jesus who he says: loves us, freed us from our sins, and made us to be a king­dom, priests serving his God and Fath­er. The mes­sage is clear-earthly king­doms will rise and fall, kings, emper­ors, and pres­id­ents will come and go, but God’s king­dom will remain forever. Rev­el­a­tion is a word about God for us today. It is about see­ing God at work in the seem­ingly ordin­ary and unre­mark­able events in our lives.

The ques­tion about the nature of Christ’s king­ship is put in sharp relief in today’s Gos­pel. Jesus stands before Pil­ate and is asked dir­ectly: “Are you the King of the Jews?” For Pil­ate this ques­tion is of fun­da­ment­al import­ance for if Jesus claims to be a king then he is clearly an enemy of Rome and a danger to soci­ety. Jesus gives an ambigu­ous answer to the ques­tion which can be para­phrased as: ‘Who wants to know, you or some­body else?’ Jesus then goes on to affirm that his king­dom is not from this world. That seems pretty obvi­ous for as Jesus points out to Pil­ate, his fol­low­ers are not out there fight­ing to res­cue him. (In fact the male dis­ciples have all fled for their lives but Jesus is too kind to men­tion that.) What kind of king­dom does Jesus rep­res­ent? Unlike Mat­thew, Mark and Luke, king­dom lan­guage is rare in John’s Gos­pel: we only find it here and in Jesus’ con­ver­sa­tion with Nicodemus. On both occa­sions Jesus is in dia­logue with those who rep­res­ent the king­doms of Jesus’ present day world. As a Phar­isee, Nicodemus rep­res­ents the king­dom of the reli­gious estab­lish­ment and as a Roman pro­cur­at­or, Pil­ate rep­res­ents the author­ity of the Roman Empire. The king­dom Jesus spoke of was not just a reversal of earthly king­doms but a dif­fer­ent spe­cies alto­geth­er. We are con­di­tioned to think that a king­dom implies some loc­a­tion, so we think of power struc­tures, nations and land. But Jesus’ king­dom is a state of being, a way of liv­ing and a com­mit­ment to a dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at our world.

Jesus’ king­dom is primar­ily about rela­tion­ship. His king­dom is not from this world but it has everything to do with this world because broken rela­tion­ships are at the heart of this world’s prob­lems. To be part of Christ’s king­dom means to work and pray for his king­dom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heav­en. In our broken and divided world and in the face of mind­less viol­ence and destruc­tion this often seems to be a futile exer­cise but in God’s king­dom there is no oth­er response. Pil­ate struggled to make sense of what Jesus was say­ing, a king­dom not from this world was a mean­ing­less concept to him. Eugene Peterson’s para­phrase of the remainder of Jesus’ dia­logue with Pil­ate puts it well:

Pil­ate asks: “So are you a king or not?”

Jesus answered: “You tell me. Because I am King I was born and entered the world so I could wit­ness to the truth. Every­one who cares for truth, who has any feel­ings for the truth, recog­nizes my voice.”

Pil­ate said: “What is truth?”

In con­trast to the cyn­ic­al Pil­ate we dare to affirm that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and that he alone can give our lives mean­ing and pur­pose. So on this final Sunday of the litur­gic­al year we remem­ber that our first and fore­most alle­gi­ance is to Jesus, not to nation, tribe or even bio­lo­gic­al fam­ily. For He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the begin­ning and the end.

Philip Brad­ford