Sermon: Christ the King
The Reverend Ben de la Mare
Preached on 23rd November 2008
by The Reverend Ben de la Mare
The Revd Ben de la Mare
This sermon was delivered by Canon Stephen Cherry; its author being confined to hospital at the time.
At the front of the stage, we have just two actors: one, a provincial governor, who is testing the claims made about this man, accused by some of making trouble in the country. Jesus faces Pilate, who asks the question: "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Then Jesus said, "My kingdom is not from this world". So Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king".
Pilate is right, but only in respect of the Jews. Jesus, with one foot firmly placed in the kingdom of God, makes sure that truth takes centre stage - that truth manifested in the God who revealed himself to Moses. And we know that the kingship of Jesus will touch - often obliquely - more than just the Jews.
I was tempted to see Shakespeare's Henry V, in the scene on the night before Agincourt, as an aspiring disciple of the kingdom. For the king goes visiting his soldiers disguised and pretending to be one ‘Harry le Roy' : for the dramatist, a moment full of embarrassing ironies. Shakespeare sees to it that these so-called common soldiers speak more true to the king than they know. And yet, the ‘king in disguise' has yielded no power; unlike Jesus our King, who makes no claims for himself, relying only on the authority that comes from God. All of that hardly begins to explain what are we doing celebrating Christ the King. Instead, we need to go back in time.
The worship of the Jerusalem Temple had long resounded to cries from the Psalms: The Lord is King. And, helped by the strictures of the prophets against what they saw as false religion, Israel came to a very robust view of the sovereignty of God: utterly distinct from the gods of all their neighbours, great and small. But, for the earliest Christians, the cry The Lord is King soon acquired another meaning. Even in his earliest letters Paul refers to the Lord Jesus the Christ.
This feast of Christ the King dates back only to a papal encyclical of Pius XI in 1925. He gave as his reasons ‘to celebrate the all embracing authority of Christ, which shall lead mankind to seek the peace of the Kingdom of Christ'. It sounds good, but! For those times and our own does it really add up to much?
Well, it took a good 70 years for our Liturgical Commission to give it ‘official' C of E standing. Now, it is for us as Anglicans to take a more careful look at its Biblical foundations: no better place to start than with our New Testament reading from Matthew 28, the so-called ‘Great Commission', which gives this gospel such a dramatic ending; but does this back the papal line?' Well, not exactly!
This famous passage has been used in two quite opposite ways: first the Pope, back in 1925. He wanted his pontificate to focus the church on ‘the restoration of all things in Christ.' His aspirations were admirable; but in our troubled and often tortured world it's hard to see many outside his own fold who would take much notice. At a time when the dark clouds of fascism loomed over Europe, his approach would do little to empower Catholics to resist.
However, the alternative isn't much better, not least because it calls for textual sleight of hand. Many enthusiasts for forceful evangelism have seen this ‘Great Commission' as giving them the sanction of ‘preaching the gospel' their way, which tends to mean looking for converts. Well! They definitely need to take a more careful look at the conclusion to the gospel of ‘Matthew'; for he seems earlier to have identified himself as ‘a Christian scribe' or, more precisely, as a teacher who has been disciple - or perhaps ‘apprenticed' - to the kingdom of heaven.
Now, this is where the fun begins - if it hasn't already begun! For just when we were expecting the risen Christ to tell his close circle ‘to go out and preach the gospel' he doesn't! Instead, he uses this very rare word, almost confined to the gospel of Matthew the ‘scribe of the kingdom', and he tells them to ‘go and disciple - or perhaps apprentice - all the nations - i.e. the gentiles. So, like it or not ‘The Great Commission' is much more about teaching and learning than about preaching.
Now, here is a test! Each of the four gospels gives us their version of ‘the first Easter morning'; and these accounts have many features in common. But! Can you say how each gospel concludes?
Scholars don't agree about everything, but they'll tell you that the gospel of Mark is the earliest; and that it ends with the women running from the tomb, in much perplexity. You have Matthew's ending in your hands: the mountain is important, since Matthew might have wanted to remind us of Moses, Israel's greatest teacher; and he tells us that we are now in Galilee. Luke is determined to be different: not a mention of a return to Galilee; the risen Lord takes his leave of his friends at Bethany, just out of Jerusalem. And John, the master story-teller, takes us right back to where the story began: in the midst of a fishing trip, on the ‘sea of Galilee'.
Four gospels and four endings: that should be that. But you may have realised from the sheet that there is more! The scholars assure us that this was never an original part of Mark's gospel, but is the work of an unknown Christian, writing maybe 50 years after Mark, who seems to have been familiar with all the four gospels. However, he seems to have thought that ‘Mark' needed a more hopeful ending; and the single verse, printed on the sheet comes from this ‘long ending' of Mark.
‘And he said to them "Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" - or possibly, ‘to the whole of creation'. What a text! Never more needed than now. According to the best modern scholarship, this passage just shouldn't be there; but it is, just like a gate-crasher, so let's thank a playful providence for that.
‘Preach the gospel to every creature?' Yes! But isn't it better for us to begin by listening; and by observing all the sounds and sights of creation? Let a not too distant poet be our first witness:
I caught this morning's minion, Kingdom of daylight's
Dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he hung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy!
And in case you thought that this was just a sonnet in praise of the Windhover (a traditional name for the kestrel) the poet puts you right with his sub-title: ‘To Christ our Lord'. After that, we should never miss the message of any hovering kestrel.
Now, we leap back 2,500 years to just one example of a very familiar resource for our praises:
‘O praise the Lord of heaven: praise him in the height. ...
Praise him sun and moon: praise him all ye stars and light.
Let them praise the Name of the Lord: for he spake the word, and they were made;
he commanded, and they were created. ...
Praise the Lord upon earth: ye dragons and all deeps;
Fire and hail, snow and vapours: wind and storm fulfilling his word; ...
beasts and all cattle: worms and feathered fowls' ...
And so it goes on, to its praise-filled conclusion; but make no mistake. The psalmist is not giving instructions to all the very diverse creatures, from the sun and the moon down to the worms! He accepts that they have their ways of conveying their praises to their maker. He must be hoping that prayerful humans in their praise-making know that they are not alone.
And there is more, much more; for Francis of Assisi has not yet been heard. First he rejected calls to him to preach. And then he did an about turn. He saw that the people around him were in great need. His chosen life matched the poverty of many around him. This may have given him insight into their truest spiritual need. And he gave his own meaning to preaching the Gospel to all creation. Affinity for the birds and beasts? True; but it didn't stop him telling the swallows to make less noise while he was preaching! For Francis God was everything. Therefore everything in creation spoke to him of God.
Most High, Almighty, good Lord,
Thine be the praise, the glory, the honour and all blessing.
To thee alone, Most High, are they due,
And no man is worthy to speak thy Name.
We could stay with his story all day. Only remember: the great poem of praise offers everything to God: to be praised for ALL and for us to become aware that God's creatures, from the sun to the crawling worm, have their part in the praises.
So on this day for Christ our King we must also to rejoice in this humble man, utterly discipled to the kingdom of God. His only obvious fault was in taking his master almost too literally. So Francis is both inimitable and probably not to be imitated. Still his life makes a moving parable as he preached and lived the way of the kingdom.
Our king has bidden us ‘make disciples' for his kingdom, of all. A tough task YET many have pointed the way by their lives. They know we live in a world that is upside down. Too many false values, deceiving promises.
I add this PS from my hospital chair by the window. Here I meet and observe a staggering variety of people and attitudes. And some of them certainly reflect the values of the Kingdom. Hard for us: the vision is given but can we all fashion lives that even begin to preach values of the kingdom? If we do this Christ the King deserves to be a festival for all.
After Ben had explained his sermon and its PS to me yesterday in Dryburn hospital we had an interesting conversation about what it all meant and how the Franciscan vision of the humble Christ could still touch our lives and imaginations today. We also discussed the kind of ministry to which he felt called even from his hospital bed. I suggested that such a bed makes an interesting pulpit and he of course laughed. And yet the hospital bed is, it seems to me, a splendid pulpit from which to make the point, albeit through an interpreter, that the phrase ‘Christ the King' can be a profound way of expressing some truths about Christlike discipleship, apprenticeship to the Kingdom of Heaven.