Our Dying King

Sunday 21st November 2010
Year C, Christ the King (The Sunday next before Advent)
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Luke 23:33-43

On this Feast day of Christ the King we have come to the end of the Gospel of Luke as we stand at a distance from the foot of the Cross listening to Jesus forgiving the repentant thief, summing up one of the great themes in Luke, the centrality of penitence which is not a necessary precondition for approaching Jesus but results from approaching him. And this is typical of what we might call Luke's generosity of spirit, much closer to John in many ways than he is to Mark and Matthew with whom he is usually grouped. He may lean heavily on Mark for much of his material - or they might both have borrowed from the same source - but Luke has a breadth of understanding and a depth of feeling which perhaps speaks better to our age than the other Gospels.

So what have we learned from our year of living with Luke? I could make a long list of themes, including such obvious topics as the fulfilment of God's promise to Israel and the centrality of Jesus but I want to choose just three subjects: religious piety, social justice and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel of Luke starts and finishes in the Jerusalem Temple and that building pervades the whole of Luke's account of Jesus: we first meet Zechariah, the father of Jesus cousin and fore-runner, John the Baptist, in the Temple; Mary and Joseph take Jesus there to commit him to God and to offer the two turtle doves and he is blessed by Simeon and Anna; we meet Jesus among the elders when he is twelve; and we encounter him numerous times preaching there, notably after he has cleared out the traders to give himself a better teaching opportunity; and Luke's account closes with the Apostles praying after the ascension, waiting for Pentecost. This theme in Luke, of the importance of corporate worship, fits well with one of his other major themes, the centrality of private prayer; before every important occasion we find Jesus praying alone; and although we recognise the importance of such prayer, we thank God for the Church which was the gift of Jesus to all of us. This is our Temple, the place where we praise God and offer sacrifice.

But that sacrifice must not be hollow, a mere token; as Jesus offers himself for us in the Eucharist we must come to him not only with humble and contrite hearts but also with the knowledge that we have done our best to lead holy lives. In a few minutes I will be leading the prayers of the faithful, asking for God's blessing on all kinds of people who are suffering or oppressed; so I ask you to think now whether we are asking for things which we are not prepared to be involved in ourselves. What kind of intercessions are they which ask for the relief of poverty if we do not contribute to that relief? What do we mean by calling for tolerance if we are intolerant? Prayers are our own public commitment to our calling, they are not a device for pushing problems upstairs to Jesus. God will not fix the things he gave us the means to fix.

Looking at Luke through 21st Century eyes there's nothing remarkable: he had a particular regard for the status of women, drawing particular attention to Mary, pairing accounts of the deeds and needs of men with women and laying particular stress on their faithfulness to Jesus during and after the Crucifixion. Luke was also very keen on what Jesus said about helping the poor and the needy, notably widows who were often the most poor and dejected and, as we have heard today, Jesus associated himself with criminals, beggars and tax collectors. Most of us don't have much of a problem with sexual equality, although we're probably somewhat wary of beggars, but we need to look at Luke through the eyes of First Century Palestinians to see the point. Jesus' approach to women and the poor was radical almost beyond comprehension; not only was he socially radical, he also broke all the hygiene laws in order to touch people who were deemed unclean, much in the same way as Princess Diana broke the taboo on touching people with HIV/AIDS. So what was revolutionary in the time of Jesus is commonplace for us but this still leaves plenty for us to do: in addition to being less wary of beggars, we still need to come to terms with substance abusers, immigrants, the mentally ill and those who have given up hope. We, the comfortable people, have twinned with quaint little towns in France but not with the nearest council state.

Impossible, we think. The gulf is too wide. We pay our taxes and we give to charities, surely that is enough?

In such circumstances the accident of social position and the habit of financial calculation are not enough; we need to recognise that we will only reach our fullness in the power of the Holy Spirit. Now I don't expect that will mean that we undergo an experience like the Apostles at Pentecost, speaking in tongues and facing down the religious authorities which so recently killed Jesus; but I promise that putting ourselves into the power of the Holy Spirit will change our lives and the lives of those around us.

And this is where we come full circle for the Spirit is most obviously with us in corporate worship and private prayer. The way this works is different for each of us for we are, after all, involved in direct, personal relationships with God - and no two such relationships can be the same - but the essence of the approach is that we should leave ourselves open to the Spirit so that we can, so to speak, be prayed into. The way I look at it is that it's like opening your house totally to a guest who tidies the cupboards and shines a light into dark corners so that we see it in a new and brighter light. Letting the Holy Spirit into our lives does the same kind of thing brightening our own spirits and giving us the courage to be ourselves.

For in truth, perhaps the essence of Luke is that he sees us as God's children who are often led astray and need Jesus to lead us back to our Father. We are not fundamentally bad - just the opposite - but we become lazy and careless and that often leads us to be lethargic and timid. For us to be truly who we are, we are in want of the Spirit.

So, as we stand with the Apostles at a distance from the foot of the Cross, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the courage to bring us a little closer to our dying king.