Christ the King, 22 November, 2009
Brother Christopher John SSF
Preached at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Dan 7.9-14 or 2 Sam 23.1-7
Rev 1. 4-8
John 18. 33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, 'Are you the King of the Jews?' Jesus answered, 'Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?' Pilate replied, 'I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?' Jesus answered, 'My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.' Pilate asked him, 'So you are a king?' Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.'
My hometown cathedral of Nelson has no relics. Not so much as a saint's finger bone or a drop of martyr's blood can be found there. But proudly displayed (and not for regular use) are the two chairs from the royal visit of 1954 on which Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip sat while attending matins. Perhaps a relic of a different sort! When Queen Elizabeth came to the Republic of Korea in 1999 one of the places she visited was Hahoe Village — a traditional village which still preserves many folk customs. Now when you visit this village the first thing you see is the hall which was built to commemorate this visit. There is another royal chair, and a photograph of Her Majesty sitting in that very chair. Then there's a photo of her sitting before the special 73rd birthday offering of food which was prepared for her that day and there is also a full sized plastic replica of those piles of ceremonial traditional foods.
And it is of course well known among editors of women's magazines that cover photographs of royalty are essential to ensure good sales.
We are fascinated by royalty — and no matter what the republican leanings of a country are — that fascination doesn't go away.
But what are we to make of this royal feast today? It entered the church calendar in 1925 when Pope Pius XI proclaimed the last Sunday in October as the feast of "Our Lord Jesus Christ the King". The date later changed to the last Sunday before Advent (but didn't make it to the Australian Anglican calendar until 1995). 1925 was a time when secularism was on the rise and the feast was seen as an assertion of Christ's power over individuals, society and nations. Yet in doing so it was also an assertion of the church's power — or at least of the Roman Catholic church's power — over earthly rulers.
Words such as power and authority and sovereignty start to come into this picture. We can run the danger of constructing a Christ the King who is a sort of magnification of earthly rulers. A ruler of greater power, but still of a power which is the same sort — but just bigger — as the power of secular rulers. And we also run the risk of harnessing our fascination with royalty by making a role for ourselves as courtiers of this great king. We might not have invitations to the palaces of earthly kings so perhaps we can imagine ourselves admitted to the heavenly courts.
And with those trappings of power comes the temptation to imagine that this great powerful king is on our side. And that he's going to come in great splendour and sovereign power and banish our enemies. "They've had it coming to them for a long time, they don't believe in the right things," and so on we might be thinking.
The words of today's gospel are an antidote to this thinking. Pilate has summoned Jesus for questioning. "Are you the King of the Jews?" he demands of him. Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world. If it was, his followers would be fighting to defend him. Pilate asks directly, "Are you a king?" and Jesus replies, "You say that I am a king." Pilate and Jesus are almost speaking different languages. Certainly Pilate knows what a king looks like. He is thinking power, status, sceptres and thrones — the signs of authority over others. Jesus is thinking of something different. His authority is one which cannot be asserted by force; because to do so would completely overturn the purpose for which he came.
Jesus continues by saying that he came into the world "to testify to the truth," and that those who belong to the truth listen to his voice.
Jesus is the true and living way. Something which claims to be true and which acts with violence cannot be true. Why? — because truth doesn't retaliate — God doesn't retaliate or take retribution, God is non-violent. If this was the way of Jesus then his followers would be fighting Pilate, fighting the Jewish authorities. We know his disciples are weak and frightened — much as we would be in such a situation — but Jesus does nothing to rally them to battle. To do so would be against the purpose for which he came — to reveal the God of love.
This "truth" of Jesus is something now opposed to the values of earthly rulers. In fact it overturns these values. Pilate's values are those of power, violence, retribution and the balancing act of keeping control in a politically complex situation. The values of Jesus are the opposite. Not seizing power, being non-violent, not exacting revenge, being subject to all.
Truth — what is truth? The Greek word used is "aletheia". A number of biblical scholars state that "a-letheia" is the opposite of "letheia", that which is "hidden or forgotten". So in other words "truth" is the opposite of "forgetfulness" or "hiddenness". Putting this with the gospel reading suggests that Jesus, in talking about truth, is talking about "unforgetting", or "unhiding" something which has always been there — but has been covered over by human weakness and failure.
Jesus — who is truth — is uncovering the abusive power and authority of Pilate — and of the worldly systems of violence and retribution. He is exposing them as a sham. He is exposing the devil as the "father of lies."
We have fallen into this way of violence. Right from the beginning of the creation account. Cain murders his brother Abel. Murder, destruction and violence are part of the human inheritance. We might even feel it's part of our genes — but Jesus shows a "new way." A way of non-retribution, a way of non-violence. The way of love. And it is this new way, the way of truth and peace which Jesus "uncovers", which is really in our genes.
So as we celebrate the kingship of Christ we are faced with a king who is a willing victim of murder. Why should a king die? Surely a king should be above such things?
Well — no. The role of a king is to be the representative of his people. In some way he embodies them. In other words the king carries his people. And in so doing the king becomes an outsider. And as outsider is also sacrificial victim. By willingly accepting to be sacrificed, without taking revenge — Christ breaks the cycle of vengeance and violence. By being the innocent outsider, the one man "expedient to die" for the sake of others, he breaks down the walls of exclusion and separation. This is the kind of king we are celebrating today.
Certainly we celebrate this feast with great joy. But the joy is not that of rejoicing that we have a king more powerful than others, or that we have a king who is going to deal with all the people we don't like.
To quote from the commentator on today's readings in the website, http://www.preachingpeace.org :
"Finally we observe that inasmuch as today is Christ the King Sunday, please note that it is 'Christ the King under arrest and being interrogated Sunday.' It is Christ the King being held hostage Sunday. It is Christ the royal political prisoner Sunday. It is Christ the King soon to be beaten and crucified Sunday. It is Christ the innocent King/Victim Sunday. It is not Christ the powerful King Sunday. It is not Christ the mighty warrior Sunday. It is not Christ the King as Lawgiver and dispenser of punishment Sunday. It is Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world, the King Sunday."
And where is this king enthroned? On some great golden throne? In far off power and splendour?
This king is enthroned in our hearts. And we are the ones who carry him with us wherever we go.
When Francis began his new life of conversion, he gave his luxurious clothes back to his father, and put on the rags of a beggar and set out from Assisi. He left the security of the walled city and was walking on a track through the woods when some robbers came. "Who are you?" they demanded. "I am a herald of the Great King!" Francis replied. They said to him, "You stupid herald of God!", beat him up and left him lying in the snow in a ditch. Francis joyfully jumped up and went on his way singing and praising God — the Great King.
For Francis, to know God was to know that God is all good and supreme love, and that Jesus is the perfect revelation of that all-good God. This was good news and a gift to be shared.
Our Great King is not a powerful lord coming in riches and splendour. Our Great King comes among us in peace, in humility and almost invisibly. Let us welcome him into our hearts and, in our weakness, share the good news of the kingdom with others.
We are sinners, yes — but we are forgiven sinners, and God calls us to his table. Here, with all God's forgiven we rejoice, and feed on the new life God gives us, and filled with this new life, we have the most wonderful good news to share with a needy world.
Everyone has been blessed by God, helped by God, supported by God, inspired by God's beauty and goodness. We have met our king — our great king.
Let us be people of good news who share that treasure with others so that they too may know the good news of God's love and forgiveness and grace.
May God bless us that in our lives we may show to others
God the Father — the source of all love and truth,
Jesus the Son — the King enthroned in our hearts,
God the Holy Spirit — ever leading us on the way of peace.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.