Sermon for Christ the King (Ordinary Sunday 34, Year B) - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Do we need a king?
Do we need a king? In asking this question, I am not really interested in whether we should vote in Australia to become a republic or to preserve the monarchy as a symbol. That is an important question, and when the question is raised again we should exercise our responsibilities as citizens to take part in the discussions and contribute to decisions about the Australian Constitution. I do not know if what I have to say today about whether we need a king has implications for that sort of choice; it probably does have some relevance, but I ask a different question of how it makes sense today to speak, as Christians do, of Christ the King when few people now are actually ruled by a king? Most kings and queens have very little if any real power any more, and I do wonder how relevant it is to the way that people think of authority, power and government to describe Jesus as King?
We began our worship today [see order of service] with words from the first chapter of the Book of Revelation where John the Divine greets the seven churches of Asia by giving glory to Jesus who he called the ruler of the kings of the earth.
Later in Revelation he who is described as the Word the God and the Lamb of God who shares the throne of God, is called King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev 17:14;19:16).
We sometimes sing of Jesus the King. In the words of Charles Wesley:
Rejoice, the Lord is King;
your Lord and King adore ...
Jesus the Saviour reigns,
the God of truth and love;
when he had purged our stains
he took his seat above:
His Kingdom cannot fail,
he rules o'er earth and heaven; ...
Or other hymns such as:
The head that once was crowned with thorns
is crowned with glory now;
a royal diadem adorns
the mighty victors brow. (TIS 216)
Or O Jesus, King most wonderful; or Jesus shall reign where'er the sun; or Crown him many crowns. What are we thinking of when we sing songs like this, hymns of praise to Jesus as our King? Why do we have a special day to celebrate Christ the King?
Today is the festival of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the cycle of the church's liturgical year, when we acknowledge Jesus as the ruler of heaven and earth, the Lord, the King, triumphant, enthroned in heaven yet Lord too of all the earth, the King of Kings. After expecting his coming in worship last Advent and celebrating his humble birth at Christmas, we saw at Epiphany how he was revealed to the wide world, and we travelled with him to Jerusalem; we remembered his death and celebrated his resurrection at Easter; and after studying in greater depth his life of teaching and healing in the weeks following Pentecost, we see him at last victorious over sin and death. We acknowledge him in glory now before our regular worship leads us around again to remember the highlights of his earthly life. The feast of Christ the King, sharing something of the joyful triumph of Easter Day, is a fitting culmination of a year of worship in the name of Christ.
Yet we offer this worship using symbols which are rather distant from our experience. A long time ago, in the days of the ancient kings the people of Israel used to see their king in his magnificent robes sitting on his throne with his courtiers around him, passing judgment on disputes and issuing orders, as an image of God the Creator.
So they sang
You might compare such an image of God with the hymn which young people used to sing as a theme song at "Call to Youth" in the1950s:
This, this is the God we adore:
our faithful unchangeable friend;
whose love is as great as his power,
and neither knows measure nor end. (TIS 220)
That hymn by Joseph Hart was not new in our lifetimes. It was written about 200 years before we used to sing it so lustily. It does represent a genuine part of the Christian tradition from ancient times. After all Jesus who shows us what God is like, said to his disciples "You are my friends". He was called the friend of outcasts (tax collectors and sinners Matthew 19:11) and he even said to one whom he healed, "Friend, yours sins are forgiven" (Luke 5:20). With our enthusiasm for friendship, a relationship which for us usually implies some sort of equality, we like to think of being friends, even with God. We welcome examples of the friendship of Jesus and we tend to forget that when Jesus called his disciples his friends he linked it with his right to rule, for he said,
We are his friends indeed -- if we do what he commands. So his friendship does not take away from his authority. Even when Hart wrote that verse about adoring God as our friend, he added another about Jesus, an eternal being from the beginning to the end, worthy of praise and trust, whose Spirit will be our guide:
'Tis Jesus the first and last
whose Spirit shall guide us safe home;
we'll praise him for all that is past,
and trust him for all that's to come.
So he is still the one with power as well as love, like God the Father whose love and power he showed in his earthly life. Yet again something important in the relationship between friends happened in the life of Jesus. After he said You are my friends if you do what I command you, Jesus recognized a new status for them as friends. He had used the word 'friend' deliberately.
So there is a new intimacy about the relationship between Jesus and his disciples, through which they were introduced to an intimate knowledge of God. His Word was being spoken intimately to them. It is that kind of respectful, worshipful, adoring intimacy in friendship which we enjoy when we receive the life of Christ in the Holy Communion. We know in that relationship that he is no less our Lord for all his love and friendship, and now we obey him out of love rather than fear. It is love with intimate knowledge, knowledge of his true nature, knowing the nature of God. What an enormous privilege to know God and to be friends with him through our knowledge and love of Jesus!
Love and power
When we talk in this way of our relationship with Jesus it is about faith expressed in human terms of love and trust. These terms are readily understandable. People can see that it is like the relationships of love that they know in ordinary human life. The problem is that when power is added to it, love can be difficult. At least as adults, we are much more at home where there is love between equals. For children it may be different, but we are inclined to think that any exercise of power in a relationship of love must be exploitive. So if we love one whom we call Lord and master, in our culture we may have some problems. When we speak of Christ as King, anti-authoritarian sentiments are likely to be invoked, and in some circles we might be condemned as paternalistic! Many people would rather construct an image of God within themselves and relate to Jesus like an intimate friend than they would use those images of scripture in which Jesus is pictured as a King in glory, and God is envisaged as a great and glorious King. Can we talk this way now? Are we right to allow democratic values to question our understanding of God and change the way we see Jesus?
Besides the other dimension of status and authority which might make people feel uneasy, we have a picture of Jesus in the Book of Revelation as an other worldly character. He is described in heaven, sharing the throne of God, and even inviting us to share it with him.
I suspect that most of us are not anxious to share the power and honour of the throne in any kingdom, let alone the Kingdom of God. As for the glory of God in heaven, the glorious light that is shed also around Christ the King, many today would prefer to put such a vision into earthly terms as Brian Wren did in the original version of his modern hymn Christ is alive, as published in Sing Alleluia in 1987, where verse 4 reads:
Not throned above, remotely high,
untouched, unmoved by human pains,
but daily, in the midst of life,
our Saviour with the Father reigns.
But by 1999 for the new hymn book Together in Song [see number 387 and notes], that is now changed by agreement between the author and the editors to become
Women and men, in age and youth
can feel the Spirit, hear the call,
and find the way, the life, the truth,
revealed in Jesus, freed for all.
Denial of a remote image of the King in heavenly glory is replaced by a human response showing Christ's way in every time and place. It is an example of a modern type of devotion, celebrating the influence if not exactly the reign of Christ in the world we know, and offering promise of more signs of his influence to come. The question is, are we justified in "cashing out" what we mean by the Kingship of Jesus in these earthly terms, or is there more to it? The hymn book editors apparently wished to preserve the traditional idea of a heavenly King, at least by not denying it, while giving words to celebrate the continuing influence of Christ through the action of the Spirit in the world today. Is that how to decode the Book of Revelation, which is indeed in code?
When Stephen was being martyred he looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56). Are we expected to understand that vision only in terms of the kind of influence Jesus was to have in human life and history; or are we to understand it in the way that Paul wrote to the Ephesians when he said
Surely that cannot be limited to human history and experience. Those who wrote these things in the canonical books of the New Testament believed that Christ the King had power and existence beyond this world that we know. As we have been reading lately from Hebrews, it is part of the faith of the apostles that he lives now in the heavenly realm where he continually prays and intercedes with God for us. It is very difficult, without doing violence to the obvious intention of the writers, to reduce this understanding of the risen Christ to the dimensions of our physical and social world. I don't suppose either that we have to put it in terms of the kind of three-decker world view which was commonly held by people of the Greek and Roman world 2000 years ago, but we would be poverty stricken in our spiritual lives if could not retain, in some way, the glorious transcendent other-worldly character of Christ the King, who will some day also be revealed as Lord over all the powers of this world. Friendship, immanence and this-worldly understandings in terms of love and justice are not enough, important and absolutely necessary as though they be.
What kind of king?
There may be something we can learn about this from the encounter of Jesus with Pilate. The Roman governor needed to know whether he was a king in the ordinary earthly sense. That it was a real political question which Pilate needed to answer is clear from all the gospel accounts. He could not afford to have any rebellious leaders running around the country and being called by people their king. That would be a challenge to the authority of the Empire which he must uphold. It seems that something like that had been suggested to him about Jesus, so in John's version he said to him, in the gospel for today:
You know how it went. Jesus had to deal with Pilate's attempt to understand his kingship in the ordinary way and Jesus argued that if he was that kind of king his followers would be fighting to defend him.
Do you see the implication? What are people doing if they try to understand Jesus in terms only of human power and influence, even if it is not with violence but by humble service and example? To see his kingdom only in terms of political and social action in the world today, is to make the same mistake that Pilate appeared ready to make, and which in a strange self justifying way he later insisted upon perversely when he wrote "King of the Jews" on the sign attached to his cross, even though he suspected there was more to it. As Jesus plainly said, his kingdom was not of (or from) this world. Of course he was a king in a way, for that is what it meant to say that he was the Messiah, so Jesus could not deny it entirely and we have that play on words about the kind of king that he claimed to be. So Pilate persisted, not knowing what he could mean about where his rule came from.
There you have it. That was the purpose of his life in human history and the basis of his authority, to be a witness to the truth, who had come from God who was able to testify to the truth about God with the authority of a first hand witness. It is not a matter of one man's vision of the truth which might be compared with the views of another, nor a question of whose truth we are talking about, as Pilate (postmodern Roman governor!) implied when he added cynically, "What is truth?" It was and it remains a question of genuine authority, of knowing what you are talking about. That is where the authority of Jesus the King comes from, his ability to bear witness to the truth because he had come from God, not from this world, just as he was going to God to rule both earth and heaven. So Paul sang his praise as the cosmic Christ in whom the early Christians came to believe, the same Christ as the suffering servant who emptied himself, even to the point of death, death on a cross, and was also highly exalted as he had been from the beginning:
For Christ the King is the same Lord he has always been and ever will be, the Lord of all creation. The ancient hymn, the Te Deum [part 2, ELLC translation1988], reminds us of how believers in Christ the King celebrated his kingship long ago and throughout the ages:
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you took our flesh to set us free
you humbly chose the Virgin's womb.
You overcame the sting of death
and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God's right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come to be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
bought with the price of your own blood,
and bring us with your saints
to glory everlasting.
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