Monday, 26 November 2018

Christ the King in an age of upheaval: A sermon preached at St George's, Waddon

A sermon preached at St George's, Waddon, on Sunday 25th November at the Eucharist for Christ the King. The readings were Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1.4b-8 and John 18.33b-37.

‘So you are a King?’ asked Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ (John 18.37)


We are living in an age where there is a crisis of leadership. It has been called ‘the Age of Anger’[1] and ‘the age of upheaval’[2]. Either way, a collective nervousness has taken hold and expectations of our leaders has, at the same time, gone up – “they should sort this for us” – and has gone down – “they can’t do anything even if they were up to it”.

This crisis of leadership touches the church, with some people asking why our Bishops and parish priests are not doing more to arrest the decline in church numbers, and others saying that whatever they do the church is doomed.

In British politics we see the political classes flailing around all saying that clear leadership will sort out Brexit, austerity and any other woe we have. They have ditched the phrase ‘strong and stable leadership’ and in the vacuum all sorts of characters barge each other around, thinking they could do a better job.

And globally we see the rise and rise of the likes of Putin, Xi Jinping and their highly questionable approaches, the tyrants and dictators of war-torn and afflicted countries, and then, of course, there’s Trump.

In the midst of all that despair about leaders and ruler, what can be said of Christ our King? And how kingdoms and systems wax and wane?

The disruption to an established order that these rulers represent is deeply unsettling: the fabric of the democratic system that seems to have served us well is fraying at the edges.

All of this begs deep questions about how nations, local communities, families and relationships are ordered and sustained. Where does the power lie in our nation; where does the power lie in our local community, in Waddon, in Croydon; where does the power lie in our families and in relationships?

When we ask that question we are asking ‘what do we want of a King?’ We know that actually most political leaders and tyrants – global, national and local - live in terror of being ousted, either by a coup or an election, or pushed aside by their own supporters. Most people in families who dominate, coerce or control, who make themselves rulers of their household, usually are fragile people who lash out because they are afraid.

It is tempting to think that the brutality of the Roman Empire is something of another age. But human nature and the corruption and manipulations of power remain constant, as does fear of being ousted. Pontius Pilate knew in his mind what kingship and political power was all about.

So Pilate’s questions are today’s questions; Jesus’ answers are today’s answers.

Jesus’ vision of kingship and the kingdom is so at variants with Pilate’s that Pilate keeps on asking, probing, what this kingdom could possibly be and how Jesus could possibly be its king.

In St John’s gospel the theme of kingship keeps coming back. After the multiplication of the loaves and fishes the crowd wants to make him a king, yet he fled. The expectations of a king were not for him, not because social and political power is something Christians should shy away from, but because the presence of a king subcontracts responsibility. That’s why in the Old Testament the prophet Samuel keeps warning the People of Israel against having a king. The king is always a scapegoat to pin our own frailties on.

In other words, if we leave everything to politicians, politicians will get on and play the power games and then we in turn resent that and want to see them booted out.

Jesus reimagines what human power is and what human life and society can be. This is not a withdrawal from the world but walking head on into its mess, violence and death.

Having prayed for unity, Jesus enters into the world of conflict. Alone and vulnerable in the face of worldly and religious power, Jesus, the one who came into the world to proclaim the truth, the God of love, is arrested and condemned to death.

Jesus only accepts the title king when he is bound in ropes and standing before the representative of the Roman Emperor, the ultimate in kingly power. And yet that self-same Pilate will have declared above Jesus on the Cross as Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

The best summary of this that I have come across is in the writing of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche community with and for people with disabilities, which gives him another perspective on what is strong and what is weak in the world. He demonstrates that true power, true kingship comes from the priority of love, seeking God’s truth and kingdom, because as St Paul says, ‘the kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14.17).

Vanier writes:

Jesus is the king of love
who wants to communicate his love
in and through his weakness and vulnerability.
He is a king yearning for the communion of hearts.
This is the truth he has come to proclaim.
Not power for the sake of power, but to build a world of love
at the service of the communion of hearts,
the power of love and compassion that heals, liberates and gives life,
that calls people to live in love with him.

We are all called to live a deep friendship with this vulnerable king.
That is why Jesus came to be with us.
Yet so often we want to be on the winning side
and would like to have a triumphant king,
a triumphant Christianity,
a triumphant church that imposes laws and has global influences.
Like Peter we can be ashamed of our humiliated king.
And like him we can learn from our humiliation.
Perhaps it is only those who are humiliated and excluded
who see in the humiliated king their friend and saviours…

…The soldiers weave a crown of pointed, piercing thorns
and push into his head;
Jesus is blinded by the blood that flows into his yes.
They put a purple gown, a royal colour, around him,
and making fun of him, say:

Hail, king of the Jews [3]

May we all find our place as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and know the reign of Christ our King in our hearts, the world and the heavens, and herald the coming kingdom of justice and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.


© Andrew Bishop, 2018

[1] Pankaj Mishra Age of Anger, 2017
[2] Jason Cowley Reaching for Utopia - Making Sense of an Age of Upheaval: Essays, Profiles, Reportage, 2018
[3] Jean Vanier, Drawn Into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, DLT, 2004. p 314-315.

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