Sermon: Christ the King but no triumphalism.
Preached on 25th November 2007
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
Sermon: Durham Cathedral. Christ the King, 25 November 2007, Sung Eucharist
May the words of my lips, and the meditations of our hearts, be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
No triumphalism today.
We might of course be tempted to indulge in a little triumphalism on this feast of Christ the King, the Sunday before Advent. I suspect that for many of us, the feast of Christ the King is not yet quite in our blood-stream. It only entered the Anglican Calendar in the year 2000, and it has only been in the Roman Catholic Calendar since 1925, although its original setting was the last Sunday in October. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI, to mark the sixteenth centenary of the Council of Nicea, which taught that Christ is of one substance with the Father, and so, by definition, is exalted over all as Lord and God. But is also sought to respond to the political turmoil in Europe after the Great War, with the rise on the one hand of communism and on the other hand, the beginnings of a rampant fascism. In other words, it was the rise of totalitarian political systems in which the State itself became ‘god' that led the Pope to suggest this new feast, originally as the harbinger of All Saints-tide, but after the Second Vatican Council, moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, as a kind of summary of all that has gone before. Of course, this papal innovation has not been without its critics. For some, it was a classic sign of a Church that had lost its nerve; that the rise of these atheistic political systems meant that the church was merely and self-consciously shoring up its claims, showing how threatened it was and so simply shouting louder. Yes, indeed, all political systems must stand before the refining fire of Christ, but Christ himself needs no defence, for he has already won the victory. And after all, his kingship is not of this world.
So no triumphalism today, because there is already a triumphant feast of Christ the King, and that is, of course, the Ascension Day, a day of great festivity and joy, as we celebrate that the risen Christ has been exalted, as the Collect says, with great triumph to God's throne in heaven. But in our Anglican calendar we try to make a different, though complementary point. Because in these Sundays before Advent, we have been thinking of the ultimate coming of the Kingdom of God; in past weeks we have read from the Thessalonian letters and the discourses in St Luke about the End- times. They show that when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness, it comes both in judgment as well as salvation; that we are engaged in a cosmic struggle between good and evil, and yes, in Christ evil has been defeated but we do not yet see all things in subjection to him. So, there are and will be struggles, persecutions, violence; the last things are bound up with the great Advent themes of death and judgment, heaven and hell. So we have used red vestments and hangings, resonant of sacrifice, in these days, not festal gold or neutral green. For we have also been remembering war and the cost of war, and the pain of death and bereavement as well as the triumph of the saints in light.
The red vestments themselves remind us - no triumphalism today.
And then there is today's Gospel reading - not Easter and Ascension, but the Passion.
I love Luke's account of the Passion, because it gives us insights found in no other Gospel. At the heart of today's reading is the inscription on the cross, ‘This is the King of the Jews'.
Historically, this is a cold, mocking, satirical title. It was Pilate, needling the crowds and probably having a private joke with that scoundrel Herod, with whom he, through Jesus' trial, had become reconciled after a spat. But, also, how prophetic. And if being a King is about wielding power, then behold how power is used.
For Jesus meets violence, hatred, injustice, mockery, the gross abuse of his body with the words ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do'. It is as if in Luke's vision, he is able to absorb in himself all this sin and violence and hatred, and turn it into something that promises redemption. He bears it and takes the full force of it, in order to disarm it, neutralise it, and open new possibilities, the possibility of forgiveness.
And then that priceless account of the two criminals. The one, desperate, mocking, faithless; transferring his own just predicament onto Jesus - he kept on deriding him the text says, ‘save yourself and us' - use your power for a quick fix. And then the other, rebuking him - but its not just that the penitent thief had the self-knowledge to know that he indeed was guilty and Jesus was innocent - it was that extraordinary word of faith: that staring in the face, he could say to this King - ‘Jesus, remember me when, when you come into your kingdom'. And then the word of grace, Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.' So, it's not just even forgiveness, though that is wonderful enough, but Paradise; it is not just this life, but the life to come. You see, if political systems become corrupted through the love of power; here we see the redemptive power of love. But, I'm increasingly struck by the cost of this redeeming love. Because, all our human instincts are to fight back, to meet violence with violence, hatred with hatred, hurt with hurt; like the first criminal to transfer our own hang-ups onto others. So, might we long for that redemptive spirit of the grace to absorb sin, and bear the cost of absorbing it, in order to meet it with the word of grace; a so unworldly grace, that it has power to convert even those staring into the abyss of death. No triumphalism today.
In 1925, the Papacy was a shadow of its former self - if temporal power is anything to go by. But then again, by then, the Prince Bishops had gone and Christian Europe had been into its own abyss: communism and fascism seemed poised to sweep all before it: Then Abraham took the knife and slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.
And the instinct was, whatever happens, save the Church, shout louder.
But in this Feast of Christ the King, I see a different use of power, a power that absorbs sin in order to redeem it and an ethic that says:
Love your neighbour
Strive to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect
Go the second mile
Seek to love the people who think that they can never be acceptable to God
Bring healing and comfort
Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow
Don't worry about tomorrow
Forgive so you also can be forgiven
Find the pearl of great price and so discover the true riches of life.
I could go on. And there is a cost to all this because it is so counter-intuitive. But in Christ, it led to the salvation of the world.
Yes, no triumphalism today, but simply a conviction that a King like this is worth following. But what strange Kingship and what a strange Kingdom. But how attractive, how compelling if we dare to live it.
God give us grace to follow the costly, self-giving example of Christ the King. No triumphalism, but grace to absorb evil, and transform it by obedient and Christ-like lives.