Rev Andrew McKearney’s Sermon for Sunday 24-Nov-13
Christ the King
This week, with the feast of Christ the King, the Church’s year comes to a conclusion. Next Sunday, Advent Sunday, a new Church year begins.
I don’t like this feast very much! It’s a recent development in the Western Church, used to conclude the Church’s year with. It does so by using imagery of kings and kingdoms which I don’t deny is in scripture, but it has little common currency evoking as it does thoughts about rule, domination, power and authority. We may live in a United Kingdom (though for how much longer?) but we’re not that into kings and kingdoms; and I think that Jesus had his reservations too!
Take for instance the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate in John’s Gospel when Jesus is hauled 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”.
Hardly a straight answer!
It’s very similar to those occasions when Jesus is asked about whether he is the messiah and you get the same slightly slippery 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.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement!
So I think Jesus 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?
Jesus chose to be vulnerable, powerless, crucified. And it’s this about Jesus that invites our allegiance, that means we wish to follow him; vulnerability, tenderness; our allegiance to Christ has these at its heart; and while the stuff about kingship expresses something of that allegiance, there’s an awful lot of unhelpful baggage that comes with it!
Take one of the most striking features of Jesus’ ministry, that simple invitation to follow him. From the calling of the first disciples right through to his meeting Peter at breakfast by the lakeside at the resurrection, time and again Jesus simply says to people: “Follow me”. No explanation is ever given as to why! It seems Christ spoke with an authority that was difficult to question. Nets were simply left behind, relatives ignored. This for me lies closer to the heart of today’s feast of Christ the King. He invites our allegiance.
What then about the vulnerability, the tenderness?
What I find so striking is how open-ended the invitation is: follow me! That’s all! To follow in Christ’s steps is something that seems void of all content, it gives us no intelligible programme for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after! Christ calls, the disciple follows – to do what? Our minds race to put in place a system, a code of morals, perhaps a religion – anything!
But what those simple words “Follow me” seem to mean is a profound attachment to Christ.
The nearest equivalent I can think of is marriage, where a commitment is made, an agreement is entered into, a covenant signed with no guarantees at all as to how it’s going to work out. Two people give themselves to each other “for better, for worse”. Why do it? Why say to each other “I will”? The only reason is this – a profound attachment to each other that marriage alone can express.
And the same logic (if you can call it that!) is at the heart of our faith – a profound attachment to Christ.
Or again, take John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, not only do the crowd want to come and take Jesus by force to make him their king, but a little later, after Jesus has talked about the Bread of Life, many of his disciples turn back and no longer go about with Jesus, so much so that Jesus says to Peter: “Do you also wish to go away?”
There’s no contract the disciples have signed! They’re free to go if they wish! And when Peter does in fact turn away, the risen Christ comes to him after breakfast and simply asks him: “Do you love me?”
It’s this tenderness and vulnerability, that’s so much part of Christ’s ministry and the reason why we give him our allegiance, that is missing from the thrones and the power involved in the image of a king.
No wonder Christ backs off a bit in his conversation with Pilate; no wonder he takes to the hills when the crowd want to come and make him their king.
What kind of a king, what kind of a kingdom – that’s the question – and the answer lies in the cross.
There is perhaps irony in the way we heard Luke tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion; the religious authorities lead the cries for Jesus’ death, whereas the one person in the text who perceives the truth is the second criminal being crucified alongside Jesus!
He acknowledges that he justly deserves his punishment, in contrast to Jesus, who is innocent. But he also sees that Jesus will enter into his kingdom not by coming down from the cross, but by dying. His request, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” is a plea not to be forgotten! Others in the drama reckon that Jesus’ fortunes are over; this condemned criminal has glimpsed the depth of the mystery going on and puts his trust, his allegiance, his attachment there – in Christ, dying beside him on the cross!
What kind of a king, what kind of a kingdom?
The poet R.S Thomas’s puts it like this in his poem “The Kingdom”:
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
That’s what the criminal did.
That’s what we are invited to do.
Rev Andrew McKearney 24-Nov-13