— Andrew McKearney’s sermon for Sunday 22-November 2015 —
It’s kings and kingdoms, as you’ve never heard them talked of, or seen them lived out, before!
I suspect I’m not alone in having found the singing of La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, deeply moving during the last week or so. In its history this Anthem has been sung in a huge variety of contexts – and in certain contexts it really comes into its own. For instance, French cyclists famously hummed it as they rode the Tour de France through German ruled Alsace, between 1906 and 1910. It’s not hard to imagine it being sung with great emotion in the two World Wars. In one of Casablanca’s most memorable scenes, the resistance leader orders a band to play it in order to drown out the singing by Nazi troops. And of course just recently, we heard it sung by a whole stadium full at Wembley, when England played France.
It’s a stirring anthem of defiance: “Let’s go, children of the fatherland……. before us tyranny’s bloody flag is raised…” This revolutionary song stresses that we are all in this together, calling for courage and solidarity in the face of danger, and highlighting the threat posed to one’s children. No wonder Simon Schama described it recently as the greatest National Anthem in the world – ever!
There is though a significant ‘but’! The lyrics are extremely bloodthirsty, and the final words of the chorus contain more than a hint of racist sentiment when they say: “May impure blood water our fields.” Of course this was not the week for such questioning! Even the future king of England found himself singing this Anthem before the match began! Why? Because it was the week for unity and solidarity, captured so powerful by the singing of La Marseillaise.
I want to suggest a parallel to this in the early Church and it concerns the Feast of Christ the King that the Church is celebrating today. The affirmation of Christ as King raises significant concerns for some Christians today. Christ as King has many unhelpful associations. Our royal family, for instance, has a symbolic and ceremonial function, but when it comes to actual power, that lies with parliament and the government of the day, not with any king or queen. And in the days when kings and queens did have actual power it could often be quite arbitrary and despotic – hence the importance of Magna Carta which began that process of ensuring that even royalty were not above the law.
So theologians and pastors have questioned some of the ideas behind Christ the King, in a not dissimilar way to how, over the years, even some French presidents have questioned whether La Marseillaise should continue to be sung. There is well-founded unease. And yes, as I’ve said, this was not the week to question the singing of La Marseillaise, so the days of the early Church were not the time to raise concerns about the ideas behind Christ the King. Why? Because, just as in France this week, it makes sense in context.
For the early Church, the context that they were trying to exist in was the Roman empire. This empire required the payment of divine honours to its ruler. Some emperors even came to believe in their own divinity. The Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, was probably written when Domitian was the emperor and he required to be acclaimed as ‘Our Lord and our God’. For the early Church this was a gross parody of the recognition of Jesus as, in the words of Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God’. So in the Book of Revelation the Roman empire is portrayed as the Beast, the great enemy of the Church.
It is in direct opposition to the claims of the Roman emperor that we heard the Book of Revelation refer this morning to Jesus Christ as “the ruler of the kings of the earth”! Revolutionary stuff, every bit as potent and powerful as La Marseillaise – and understanding the context helps us appreciate the sentiments, even if our reservations still remain. Indeed I think that Jesus too had his reservations! Take for instance the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate that we heard in our gospel reading from Saint John. Jesus is standing before the Roman governor and you can hear there how ambivalent Jesus is when Pilate tries to pin him down about whether he is a king.
The first time when Pilate asks: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answers: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” A little later when Pilate asks a second time: “So you are a king?” Jesus answers: “You say that I am a king.” And in between these two answers, Jesus talks about his kingdom being “not from this world”.
It’s evasive in a very similar way to those occasions when Jesus is asked whether he is the messiah and you get the same evasive reply! Jesus doesn’t say, “No, I’m not the messiah” or “No, I’m not a king” and yet he’s reluctant to say, “Yes” because of all the baggage that comes with that.
On one occasion (John of all the gospel writers is alone in mentioning it) the crowd want to make Jesus their king. It happens after the feeding of the 5,000 and John writes: “When Jesus realised that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Jesus does not want to give a ringing endorsement of kingship! He had his reservations. In Pilate’s mind a king meant only one thing. For the crowd a king meant only one thing.
And for Jesus?
The path that Jesus took undermines so much that we humans have in our minds when it comes to kings and kingship! This year on the Feast of Christ the King, the Gospel reading is about Jesus being handed over to be crucified as told by Saint John.
Next year on this Feast it will be the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as told by Saint Luke. And in the third year of the church’s lectionary, we shall read on this Feast of Christ the King about the parable of the sheep and the goats, as told by Saint Matthew, in which Jesus says:
“I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.”
Concluding: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” It’s revolutionary stuff!
Many in the early Church gave their allegiance to Christ the King, and set their faces against the Roman emperor and his blasphemous claims to divinity. The French, and many others too, sang La Marseillaise with passion and fervour, and set their faces against the terrorists and their evil ways. There is though both a setting your face against and also a ‘setting your face towards’. And when Jesus ‘set his face towards’ it was towards Jerusalem and crucifixion. He chose that path of vulnerability, identification with the poor, and death on a cross. Nine years ago I started my ministry here and preached today for the first time on this Feast of Christ the King. I concluded that first sermon with some words that Saint Paul uses to describe how he started his ministry at the church in Corinth: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” That’s the way of Christ! It’s kings and kingdoms, as you’ve never heard them talked of, or seen them lived out, before!