Celebrating Christ The King

Sunday 23rd November 2003
Year B, Christ the King (The Sunday next before Advent)
St. George's, HurstpierpointSt Andrew's, Burgess Hill
Daniel 7:9-10; 7:13-14
Revelation 1:4-8
John 18:33-37

Nobody born since the late 1930s can have a clear idea of what it is like to live in a kingdom with a king. Of course, we have a Queen but the word sets up a whole different kind of response; there is always the odd one out, like Queen Boudicca, but we generally think of queens as gracious and beautiful. But in general we think of Kings as asserting themselves in the council chamber and even more so on the battlefield. Our own line of monarchs spent their first 500 years either fighting the French or each other; and after that they steadily declined as the power of Parliament increased; so our idea of kings is a mixture: we have the rather low key George VI and George V but somewhere in the background there is, Keith Michell's blustering Henry VIII; and all that Shakespeare. And nowadays the country is even ambivalent about whether we should have a monarchy as some members of the Royal family behave in much the same way as media stars. We also treat some celebrities as if they were royalty. Who today would not have Clive Woodward, Martin Johnson or Johnny Wilkinson for king? (That's a relief! I got the topical reference in!)

Perhaps, then, kingship for us has been necessary but it has hardly ever been edifying.

Now think of the Chosen People. They were led out of the Bondage of Egypt by Moses and led into the Promised Land by Joshua. There then followed a series of quasi military, quasi judicial ad hoc leaders we call Judges. But the Children of Israel looked around them and saw that they were surrounded by kings and they started to grumble that they were being short changed. The Lord warned and the Lord temporised; but in the end The Lord gave in.

What followed in Israel was by no means glorious; David was a great leader and a great man but with serious flaws; Solomon was wise in most things but he fell from grace and he could not secure a robust succession. The Promised Land was divided into two Kingdoms and, ultimately, the Chosen People were sent into exile in Babylon, fatally mirroring the bondage of Egypt from which the Lord had rescued them. It is in exile where we find Daniel who is a favoured servant of King Nebuchadnezzar. In his time of exile and servitude Daniel took refuge in the Heavenly kingdom in the tradition of the Psalms: "His Dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall never pass away". When the Exile was over the Israelites never ran their own country again and they hankered for a king to save them from foreign domination, a mixture of Daniel's vision and the earthly power of a great ruler. The Messiah for whom the Jews waited when Jesus began to preach certainly had a spiritual dimension but he was expected to use his spiritual powers to kick out the Roman occupying army and their puppet Herodian kings and restore Israel to some kind of golden age. Which is why Jesus had to be so careful to explain that his Messianic message had nothing to do with earthly power, as recorded in John: "My Kingdom is not of this world".

What sort of kingdom is it that Jesus promises? Is it just like the White Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass, a matter of "Jam tomorrow", the hope of better times in the future to make present times bearable? Is it, in this sense, a drug for the oppressed and the distressed? Was Karl Marx right - and remember his father was a Rabbi so he knew his stuff - when he said that a religion which promised  heaven was part of the machinery of capitalist exploitation? In other words, is heaven just escapism?

Or, on the other hand, is the Kingdom of Heaven just some kind of metaphor, like Valhalla, Xanadu, Nirvana, The Elyssian fields? Is it really about champagne and harps without end, a place where angels are like glorified air hostesses?

And why in this age of individualism and republicanism do we reserve such an important day, the last Sunday of the Church's year, to celebrate the Feast of Christ the King?

Let me start with that last question about the relevance of kingship. Throughout history, the fundamentals of the relationship between kings and people have remained simple; we give a king our trust and loyalty and he gives us protection and justice. Jesus Christ our King offers a relationship on a totally different level: where an earthly king protects, Christ has saved; where an earthly king dispenses justice, Christ has given us his unconditional love. Where an earthly king relies on the power of armies, Christ triumphed through heavenly power. Where an earthly king gathers revenue, our heavenly king supplies us with the boundless revenue of grace. Where an earthly king has the right to demand service, our Heavenly King gave Himself for us in Passion and Eucharist, in the washing of feet and the cleansing of souls.

And what is the reverse side of the relationship? An earthly king demands loyalty but our Heavenly King should NOT need to ask because where an earthly king would demand our trust, our Heavenly King has already put our lives beyond the realm of trust; the relationship with our Heavenly King should be one of unconditional love because that is the way He loves us; and words such as loyalty and trust fall far short of the unconditional nature of the love which we must give to Jesus because he has given us the power to love that way.

So the first reason for honouring Christ the King is that this is a day to celebrate the unconditional love of God for us incarnate in Jesus Christ; and to celebrate the gift of unconditional love which He gave to us which we exercise in His name; imperfectly, of course; half heartedly, at times; superficially, too often. But there is a time for every purpose under Heaven and the time for examining our shortcomings, performing acts of penance in a true spirit of penitence is a central duty of Advent which begins next week. For now, let us be gentle with ourselves and remember the good works we have done in the name of Our Lord over the past year of the Church.

Since I came to St. Andrew's in September I have received countless acts of kindness, small and great; I have felt you smiling; I have heard your warmth; I have noticed all kinds of generosity, of feeling, of talents, of time, of income and wealth; I have heard incidents of sacrifice and self denial, of the extra mile; and all cheerfully undertaken in the name of Our Lord. This is the day when we gather up all this tribute and offer it again in thanks to Christ our King.

But if Jesus is to be truly the King of our lives he must be the King of our hearts, of our souls. That relationship must be built steadily on the firm foundations of Word and Sacrament, reading and prayer. I don't want you, as I have already said, to think how far you have fallen short, how you should have: prayed more regularly; attended Eucharist more often; tackled that knotty book of the Old Testament. I want you to think how far you individually, and all of us collectively, have come in the past year in our spiritual life. This is a time to look back down the winding path we have climbed, to look back at our progress, to celebrate how we have taken Jesus into our hearts, to assess, as fairly as we can, how far we have, in the words of the Lord's Prayer, realised The Kingdom on earth. Next Sunday we will all commit ourselves on New Year's Day to being better. I know how difficult it is to affirm rather than to regret, how easy it is to notice where we have gone wrong and to gloss over where we have done well, to remember what we have taken and not what we have given; But I insist that you do this, just for today. Remember, Christianity is the temple of unconditional love not the archive of unconditional guilt. Let us, then, on this day gather up all the tribute of our praise and offer it with thanksgiving to our Heavenly King.

So, first, we are here to celebrate unconditional love; secondly, we are here to gather up all our spiritual tribute from the past year and offer it in thanks; but there  is a third and final reason for celebration on this last Sunday of the Church's Year and that is the promise made to us that one day we will be at one with God in the Heavenly Kingdom. We are given glimpses of this Kingdom in all three readings today but the clue that attracts me is in Revelation: "I am the Alpha and the Omega" which does not mean the beginning and the end but, rather, means everything; it also conveys the idea of something that is changeless. This is yet another example of John straining to put the idea of the supernatural into words. We do not know what Heaven will be like but I asked earlier whether the idea of Heaven was just a metaphor. It is no such thing. I believe that there are areas where there is room for honest disagreement about what the Bible means but there are others where there is no doubt; not because of the literal meaning of the text but because of what our faith demands.

We may disagree within denominations and between them on certain aspects of the nature of our Christian faith but we all hold the ancient Creeds in common. Given all the complexities of Scripture and sacrament, of liturgy and ritual, of exegesis and tradition, the Creeds are remarkably simple in spite of some of the difficult language about the nature of the relationship between the three persons of the Holy Trinity; and what is the final proposition we have all signed up to in Baptism, in our renewal of Baptismal vows, in our weekly recitation of the Nicene Creed or the Apostles' Creed?: "I believe in ... life everlasting"; or "... the life of the world to come". Just as we take literally the words of Consecration in the Eucharistic prayer, just as we have faith in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, so we affirm in the Creeds the life of the world to come. This is not a hazy aspiration; it is a firm promise made to us by Jesus when He proclaimed The Kingdom Of Heaven for all believers.

So there are three reasons for our celebration of this Feast of Christ the King: our recognition of our relationship with God based on His unconditional love; our thankful re-dedication of all that we have done with His help to strengthen that relationship; and our anticipation of the shared joy of the Heavenly kingdom to come. Recognition, re-dedication and anticipation; love, thanks and joy.