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.