As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
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.’
Today is the feast of Christ the King. By a fluke of the rota Margaret has preached on this Sunday for three years in a row! While Margaret Is now quite an expert on the subject, she did ask to have Christ the King off this year.
I promise you (and Margaret) that it is coincidental that it’s pure chance that placed her on this Sunday three times in a row, but I have to confess that I do struggle with the celebration of “Christ the King.” I’ve never been happy with the idea of monarchy. I was lucky enough to be brought up by a mother who would regularly tell me that I could ‘be whatever I wanted to be’ in life. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and although my mother may have preferred I took Business Studies rather than Theology, she was very proud.
But some jobs are closed to all of us here regardless of our skills and expertise and qualifications and talent…
Monarchy is one of those jobs.
The hereditary principle seems unfair to my Lefty principles, but I can understand how someone who works hard wants to pass on the benefits of their labours to their children…
However, today’s monarchs tend to be descended from the most brutal and scheming bullies from ages past. Study history if you doubt it.
If you look at the Bible you can see how, through the thousand years it took to write the text, the vision of God develops:
I’m over-simplifying, but basically –
- when the nation were made up of nomads God was one among many local gods, their provider and guide.
- When they were ruled over by Kings God was the Great King.
- When the nation was in moral and political turmoil God was the great Judge and righter-of-wrongs,
- and then Jesus adds the idea of God as a loving Father.
Surely too much emphasis on Christ as “King” is a backward step in our understanding of God and one that alienates republicans…?
Can we make sense of this celebration for today? Let’s start with this morning’s reading, where we find our King on the cross. Our King seems to have been executed, as a King, but without ever having ruled a Kingdom. He had a handful of men and women who followed him closely – though these were made up of illiterate fishermen, political agitators, collaborators with Rome and prostitutes – not a Title or public school education between them; and scarcely a penny to rub together. Jesus also moved in larger circles than these: crowds turned up to hear him speak. Again, here the crowds were not the scrubbed and polished folk that come for Royal visits today: the sick, the leperous, the mentally ill, the poor and the outcast came to hear. I think it was Billy Connolly who said that the Queen must think that the whole world smells of fresh paint, because wherever she goes, the day before the decorators were in, making the place spick and span for her Highness. Jesus did not visit newly opened business centres and shopping malls, he preached on hillsides and on the shores of lake Galilee. The crowds were not sycophantic social-climbers, they came to be impressed by the new teacher in town, they felt no need to impress him. They were fickle, and would call for his crucifixion in time. Definitely no trappings of a Monarch as we would understand them.
For these, and some of the reasons I opened with, many modern Christians shy away from the language of ‘Kings’ of ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Majesty’. A popular prayer book (which we used to use for Morning Prayer here each day) includes the line ‘Oh Lord, our Governor’. To call God ‘Governor’ is a perfectly acceptable interpretation, but it sounds unfamiliar, and strange. Some modern prayer books go further. The idea of ‘Kingdoms’ is too undemocratic for this age of ‘constitutional reform’. In some prayer books the ‘Kingdom of God’ becomes the ‘Realm of God’, or even the ‘Commonwealth of God’.
This squeamishness about the language of ‘Kingship’ is not without foundation in the Gospels. Jesus does not claim the title ‘King’, the nearest equivalent to ‘Christ the King’ in the Gospels is ‘Jesus the Messiah’.
‘Messiah’ was the term used for Israel’s deliverer. The nation of Israel had suffered a series of occupations: Babylonian, Assyrian, Greek and Roman. They awaited a deliverer – a Messiah. It is clear that Jesus saw himself as a ‘Messiah’, but his attitude to the title is interesting.
If we read carefully through the Gospels, and in particular Mark’s Gospel – the first to be written – we find that Jesus seems to shy away even from the title Messiah. When the demons possessing a demoniac recognise Jesus as a Messiah, Jesus commands them to be silent. When Jesus heals, he often also enjoins the healed, and witnesses, to secrecy. The leper is commanded to go to the Temple to be declared clean, but to ‘tell no one’.
It seems strange that a Messiah should want to spend his life incognito. But Jesus’ reasoning becomes clear when we remember what was expected from a Messiah. The Messiah was to bring political freedom and independence to Israel. The Messiah would vanquish the occupying armies, and establish a Kingdom that would sit in judgment over all the other nations of the world.
A Messiah would be the most powerful person who ever lived. A mighty warrior, an inspired leader, a Monarch beyond compare.
Jesus was certainly a Messiah, but his idea of what Messiahship was all about was so different from the understanding of Messiahship of those around him, that he avoided the very word. If Jesus had stood on the hillside and shouted ‘I am your Messiah’, he would have been instantly surrounded by zealots and agitators, ready to riot and cause mayhem to overthrow the Roman overlords. Not long after the revolutionaries had thronged to his side, the Roman authorities would step in, and a premature crucifixion would have followed.
If we look at the titles that Jesus himself preferred to be called rather than ‘Messiah’, we find that he refers to himself as ‘the son of man’ – an elaborate phrase for ‘I’ – or ‘this mother’s son’ is the nearest equivalent that I can think of.
The way of Jesus was not the way of merely political power – he did not impose his Kingdom on anyone. He talked to whoever would listen. The citizens of his Kingdom were volunteers, inspired by his teaching. The power of his Kingdom was not the ability to force obedience, to control vast numbers of citizens; the power of the Kingdom of God was, and is, the power of love.
The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of love. When that is said ‘the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of love’ it seems very nice and cosy. It would seem like it is unalloyed joy to enter this Kingdom. But remember our reading – The King of this Kingdom is executed on a cross. There is tragedy in the very nature of love. We are called to love God, love ourselves, and to love others. If we truly try to love others we will be hurt. We will be hurt by those we try to love, and we will be hurt by those who don’t want certain people to be loved. If we love the exploited and the despised and the abused, those who do the exploiting, despising and abusing will not be pleased. To love is to be unpopular. To love truly is to know death. Not just the death that signals rest at the end of a long life, but the untimely, cruel death of crucifixion.
I believe that we are right to be cautious about the language of Christ the King, but not because Christ is not a King, rather because Christ is a different kind of King to all earthly Monarchs.
The Kingdom of God, is not a Realm that throws its weight around imposing its rule on other nations. It does not vie for power and wealth and influence. The Kingdom of God is what gives value to the cup of water given to the thirsty, it gives value to the words of kindness to the homeless wanderer, it gives value to our work for the Church. These are the things that build God’s Kingdom.
The paradox of true faith is that it brings peace and crucifixion, comfort and challenge, it is the paradox of a Kingdom with a crucified King, a God who is a human being.
The rule of our King is not political or military, this Kingdom is of love, and those who love are its citizens. The benefits of being a citizen of this Kingdom are pain and crucifixion, but also life, meaning, wholeness and hope.
As we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, let us commit ourselves to the Kingdom, and to serving Christ our King in living, and loving, after his example.