Preacher Revd Neil Summers
In one way, this Feast Day of Christ the King, falling as it does on the final Sunday of the church’s year, could be thought to be ending the year on a triumphant note. It wasn’t always thus, for the feast only entered the Anglican calendar in the year 2000. It has only been in the Roman Catholic calendar since 1925, and it was originally celebrated on the last Sunday of October, prior to All Saints’ Day. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI, to mark the sixteenth hundredth anniversary of the Church Council held in Nicea, which declared that Jesus Christ to be of one substance with God the Father, and so, by definition, to be exalted over all as Lord and God. But it also sought to respond to the political turmoil in Europe after the Great War, with the rise of communism on the one hand and the beginnings of a rampant fascism on the other. In other words, it was the rise of totalitarian political systems in which the State itself was regarded as ‘god’ that led the Pope to suggest this new feast be moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, as a kind of summary of all that has gone before. Of course, this papal innovation has not been without its critics. For some, it was a classic sign of a Church that had lost its nerve; that the rise of these atheistic political systems meant that the church was self-consciously shoring up its own claims, showing how threatened it was, and so simply shouting louder. Yes, indeed, all political systems must stand before the refining fire of Christ, but Christ himself needs no defence, for he has already won the victory. In any case, as he told his followers, his kingship was not of this world, but something altogether different.
So no triumphalism today, not least because there is already a triumphant feast of Christ the King, and that, of course, is Ascension Day, a day of great festivity and joy, when we celebrate that the risen Christ has been exalted ‘with great triumph to God’s throne in heaven’. But in our Anglican calendar we try to make a different, though complementary point. Because in these Sundays before Advent, we have been thinking of the ultimate coming of the Kingdom of God; in past weeks we have read from St Paul’s letters and also passages in Luke’s Gospel about the ‘end-times’. They show that when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness, it will come in judgment as well as salvation; that we are engaged in a cosmic struggle between good and evil and, yes, in Christ evil has been defeated – but on this side of that fullness of the Kingdom, we do not yet see all things in subjection to him. So, there are and will be struggles, persecutions, violence; the ‘last things’ are bound up with the great Advent themes of death and judgement, heaven and hell, which are quite unsettling and some way off the glitzy Advent calendars on sale in the shops!
What does kingship entail? Wealth? Power? Leanings towards despotism? Responsibility? Perhaps all of these. But then where does that lead? Does calling Christ ‘King’ of itself smack of oppression and antiquity? Apart from the fact that, as someone has written, tongue-in-cheek, ‘Christ the King’ has a much better ring to it than ‘Christ our Democratically Elected Leader’, it should not be so. For without doubt ‘kingship’ involves responsibility; care, not just for affairs of state, but care for the individual, especially for those in distress; it involves care for peace and justice. As described by Matthew in our Gospel, none of the actions and reactions demanded by this King of his subjects relates in any way to the grandiose and the opulent. Rather the opposite. In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ the King displays many of the attributes of Christ the peasant: born in unimaginably downmarket conditions, his early life was humble and his trade was that of an artisan. He himself suggests to John the Baptist’s disciples that if they’re looking for someone regal, someone dressed in fine raiment, they’re looking in the wrong place: they should be focussing their search in a King’s palace. But his is not that sort of sovereignty and this, clearly, is no ordinary king. This is a king who says that he was hungry, he was thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned. Here is no sense of military might, of social or economic status. Here is a king presenting himself, paradoxically, as someone in the greatest need, looking for succour from the poorest of his subjects. What do they/we do? How do they/we react? By feeding, nourishing him, quenching his thirst, clothing him when he’s naked, visiting him in prison, even just assuring him that he’s not alone. The needs of the king are, at least to some extent, answered. And the important point is that nothing impossible is demanded of the subjects, of you and me. No one is being asked to explain the mysteries of the cosmos, or to save the planet. God is to be found in the individual who shuffles up to you and me in the street and asks for change, in the homeless person huddled in the shop doorway, in the prisoner incarcerated unjustly, in the refugee fleeing persecution, in the starving child who appears on our TV screen, in the victim of abuse or neglect. What Jesus the King teaches us is that in responding to him, we are responding to the call of God to care for our fellow human beings. And I know that sounds obvious, but I recognise that I am shaken by the number of times when I fail to respond in any adequate way. I know that there are times when I mean to donate to a collection, but never somehow get round to it, when I mean to write to my MP about an injustice, and never somehow get round to it. I know full well how easy it is to cross the road when you see someone coming who might ask for a handout, and then feeling wormlike for lack of generosity. Perhaps you recognise some that in yourself, too.
The life of Jesus is, as it were, book‐ended by kingship. It is the Magi who, seeking him at his birth, ask directions for the new‐born King of the Jews, much to the dismay and anxiety of Herod – another king, whose own style of kingship could not have been more different. And at the end of his life, Jesus had a notice hammered onto the top of his cross – ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’ This is a king who begins his earthly life in a stable and ends it as the victim of a cruel public execution. His own reaction to the question as to whether he was a king is (at least to Pilate) maddeningly elusive. ‘Are you, or are you not, a king?’ demands Pilate in John’s Gospel. The answer won’t have reassured him. ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, then I’d have a whole crowd of people fighting for me, but it isn’t. My kingly role is to bear witness to the truth.’ In the words of the poet Francis Warner, ‘He turns our royal pageants upside‐down/Subverts earth’s power structures into dust.’
Mark’s Gospel, too, emphasises the importance of this kingly role. It is not, he stresses, to exercise lordship over people, but, on the contrary, to minister to them, to be their servant. If there is to be a judgement, it will surely ask whether we loved enough, cared enough, in the way Jesus did. These twin threads of kingship and servant, of authority and servitude, are so closely intertwined that they become one yarn with which the fabric of Jesus’s ministry is woven. This is a hard but salutary lesson for his followers, both individuals and institutions, to learn, and it doesn’t half throw a whole new light on the nature of kingship.