Preacher Canon Robert Titley
There is no Feast of Christ the King to finish the Church year in the Book of Common Prayer. Instead we have these readings, for the last Sunday after Trinity. True, Jeremiah prophesies that ‘a king shall reign, and prosper, and shall execute judgement and justice in the earth’, and the gospel reading describes Jesus feeding a multitude, but these end the year not with a whimper, but hardly with a bang.
Christ the King is in fact a pretty recent addition to the church calendar, and according to recent research, it may already be going out of style. In a survey of 32 lay Anglicans in Winchester, participants were shown several traditional images of God. Of these, more than half found the image God as King ‘not helpful’. Two said they were non-monarchists, and a few thought the trappings of monarchy incompatible with Jesus’s humility.
And Jesus might have agreed. He was reluctant to accept the title for himself – in John’s gospel the next verse after our feeding story shows Jesus heading for the hills – why? – because he saw that the crowd were about to ‘make him king’. On the other hand, the kingship of God was the mainspring of his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and to the crowds this would have come as a thrilling alternative to the egregious emperors of Rome and the compromised kings of its client states.
For us it may feel different. Our own history has its royal horror stories, and our 21st-century constitutional monarchy, if valued for its symbolism, is seen as largely powerless. This is not the most fertile soil for powerful image of God to flourish: a God who is a ‘constitutional’ king sounds like one you wheel out on ceremonial occasions, but ignore most of the time, which may be an accurate image for some people’s view of God, but is not the stuff of eternal life. So, if Jesus makes God known to us, how does it help to picture him as Christ the King? Some history.
In 1925 the flames of the First World War had ignited the Bolshevik Revolution in what was by then the Soviet Union, and the growth of fascist dictatorships around Europe. It was the year when Stalin was manoeuvring for absolute power in Moscow, Mussolini was close to achieving it in Rome. It was the year when Hitler first published Mein Kampf. And that was the year when Pope Pius XI inaugurated a new festival in honour of the Kingship of Christ: in the face of ruthless men who demanded a religious kind of devotion, the people of God would hold up the image of Christ the King, to whom alone worship belonged. By the end of the century, other churches would adopt it, including our own.
So we end the church’s year with this celebration of Christ as our Lord and King. And, just as Easter Day is an annual reminder that every Sunday is a day of resurrection, so today reminds us that every Sunday – or, as Samuel Pepys called it, every Lord’s Day – is a day to ask afresh that his just and gentle rule may be supreme in our lives. It is also a day to remember that we too have our leader-worship (though it is celebrity rather than politics that tempts us to that piece of idolatry) so this is a day we need.
Some words of the Dutch Roman Catholic writer Henri Nouwen
On the last Sunday of the liturgical year, Christ is presented to us as the mocked King on the Cross as well of the King of the universe. The greatest humiliation and the greatest victory are both shown to us in today’s liturgy. It is important to look at this humiliated and victorious Christ before we start the new liturgical year with the celebration of Advent. All through the year we have to stay close to the humiliation as well as to the victory of Christ, because we are called to live both in our own daily lives.
This sermon owes much to Richard Lindley’s article, ‘Seeming sceptical about the sceptre’, Church Times, 21st November 2014.