Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, and I take comfort from Trevor’s view that we must see the irony in some of what we hear in church. Whoever designated this Sunday and then chose the gospel reading wanted us to see the implications of the mismatch between words and meaning.
There are many kings in the modern world. Saudi Arabia has a king, Abdullah. He has a personal fortune of over 18 billion US dollars. He has absolute power, being both king and prime minister. He exercises it in the great spheres of politics and economics, foreign affairs and national justice. His response to internal dissidence is dawn raids, torture and, often, public beheadings. He also involves himself in other areas of life, for example, he won’t allow women to drive cars. He can take a less draconian line – he allowed women athletes to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games and he clearly likes women. He has over 30 wives and has produced over 40 children. (I’m not sure if the vagueness of these numbers is the result of inefficiency at Wikipedia or of an uncertainty on the part of the king himself)
Not all kings of course are like King Abdullah. King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands, went to a state school and so do his children. He’s a constitutional monarch with a ceremonial role. His powers are severely limited – he can’t create laws or refuse to sign a law the government has made. His speeches on public affairs are confined to reading statements prepared by the PM. He’s one of Europe’s ‘cycling monarchs’ – this mode of transport they favour is a metaphor for the homeliness of their life styles, though they’re nearly all very rich. The king’s birthday is celebrated by a national boot sale.
Our monarch is of course a queen and she fits somewhere in between these examples of kingship. She’s very rich, though not on the scale of King Abdullah. Like King Willem Alexander she delivers speeches written for her by government ministers but she has a great deal of influence, not least on the perpetuation of the class system. She’s an independent minded woman. She uses facial expressions and body language to make her views known. She will unquestionably pass on her role, her palaces, her valuable possessions to her son.
We associate kingship with wealth, privilege and power,
So when we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, what are we saying about the 1st century Galilean peasant whose crucifixion we’ve just read about in the gospel? Wealth, privilege, power? Could any of the lives of a king be more remote from the life of Jesus?
When Jesus wanted to make a point about the relative status of God and the emperor, he had to borrow a coin from someone in the crowd. He took occasional journeys in a boat and had one recorded ride on a donkey, but his usual mode of travel was on foot. He commented wryly that the birds had nests and the foxes had holes but he had nowhere to lay his head.
In a very enigmatic conversation with Pilate when Jesus was on trial he said: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews”; This was a clear admission that he didn’t have the power of a conventional king. Pilate was puzzled and said to him, “So .…You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” No wonder Pilate despaired of him.
We live in this world and Jesus taught up to pray: your kingdom come on earth.
In the cynical, unjust, corrupt 21st century, when it seems that to be modern is to be negative, self-seeking, individualistic and detached, we must create the kingdom, in our homes, our workplaces, our communities, here in this church.
We can’t blind ourselves to the grim realities of life in our world. In the last few weeks we’ve heard of appalling abuses of power. The trial of Rebekkah Brookes and Andrew Coulson may result in an acquital but it’ll be a long time before we forget about the casual way that powerful figures in control of our national press have made decision which have blighted lives and caused intense grief. –An American drone flew over a sovereign state to kill a man believed to be a threat to US security. The US has a system of capital punishment, but surely not without a trial. The owner of the Grangemouth oil refinery threatened to close it down unless the union agreed to a 3 year pay freeze and a reduction in the pension entitlement of the workforce. Our appeal court delivered a judgement that the actions of the Secretary of State for Health in respect of the A&E department at Lewisham hospital had been illegal. He immediately announced that he intended to change the law. We don’t know whether he’ll get the necessary majority to carry out his intention but there are unnerving echoes of the behaviour of an absolute monarch here.
But we mustn’t despair, accept our impotence, give vent to frustration and then do nothing. The story of the crucifixion is often referred to as the passion narrative and the word passion suggests that Jesus was a passive figure, yielding to his fate. A careful reading of the story shows that Jesus was in control of events. He was not a meek victim of circumstance. The night before his death, he modelled the values of his kingdom when he washed his disciples’ feet. He shared the Passover meal with his friends as a sign that he would be forever present when even a symbolic fragment of food was offered equally to all who came to receive it, regardless of their wealth, their level of privilege, their power or any other indicators of worldy success. At the moment of absolute dereliction, when he cried out to the God who he thought had forsaken him, he accepted his part in carrying out the will of God, absorbing violence and evil into himself and sacrificing himself to protect his followers.
The kingdom is attainable. Jesus has redefined the meaning of the word king and he’s shown us what the kingdom is like. We have to make it and continually remake it no matter how many times someone presses the destruct button. And it involves changes in our attitudes and our life styles, an abandonment of our comfort zone. When Jesus answered the rich young ruler’s question about inheriting eternal life, he told the young man to get rid of his wealth, to give it to the poor. The young man went sadly away. We must find a more positive response.