236 22.11.15 Christ the King
May the words of my lips
'"What is truth?" said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for
an answer.' So wrote Francis Bacon in the 16th century.
A commentator says: 'It is one of the greatest unanswered questions,
but the Greek word alethea means 'That which passes not into forgetfulness.'
In a sense Jesus answers the question in his very self, and has certainly
not been forgotten. Pilate seeks a philosophical or political or inspirational
answer, but Jesus' silence gives us to know that this is the wrong question.
For it is Jesus himself who is the truth.'
I can remember our Divinity master at school spending what seemed like
weeks and weeks of our one-period-a-week trying to tell us what truth
was. Unfortunately, all I can remember is the boredom!
So who is this 'Christ', who we call 'Christ the King'? I'm sure most
of you remember that not so long ago we arrived at Trinity Sunday and
then spent an infinite number of Sundays-after-Trinity going nowhere in
particular until at last we reached 'Stir Up Sunday' and started the whole
In 1925, in response to tensions between church and state in Italy, Pope
Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in the Roman church, and
this was adopted in the CofE (and elsewhere) in the 1980s.
The Feast is now celebrated on the last Sunday of the church's year (we
start all over again next Sunday with Advent Sunday) and it completes
the run-up to Advent which we now call the 'Kingdom Season'. The idea
is that Jesus is the crowning glory of the year, and also that He is that
which is to come: the end of time. This eschatological element is central
to the Feast.
Last year on this Sunday I focussed on the Kingdom of Heaven, and on
justice and peace, rather than the King Himself. This year, I want to
think about the King. So what sort of a king is Jesus? This is what Pilate
was trying to find out - or thought he was. Our churches often have depictions
of Him, as here in the east window at Crosby Ravensworth, seated, with
a crown on His head, surrounded by worshipping angels. Orthodox churches
usually have a picture of 'Christ Pantocrator' in the dome or the
nave vault. He is pictured as a stern but mild judge, variously teaching
The word 'pantocrator' is used in the first Greek translations
of the Hebrew bible for the Hebrew names for God, such a JHVH or el Shaddai.
The closest single English word is probably 'Almighty'. In western art,
the idea presented is usually 'Christ in Majesty', and there are plenty
of those such as that at Coventry Cathedral. In other depictions, this
quickly morphs into the Last Judgement, and this takes us round again
to what I said a few moments ago: Jesus is the crowning glory of the year,
and He is also that which is to come: the end of time.
So we believe that He is indeed 'Almighty', 'able to do anything He chooses'.
We believe that He is also just and forgiving.
In our reading from Daniel, we hear of his vision of the 'Ancient of
Days'. This is a phrase that comes up in the hymn 'Immortal, invisible,
God only wise.' We've sung it many times. What does it mean? Daniel's
vision is an attempt to describe the greatness of God. The gods of the
ancient peoples were variously terrifying, vindictive and generally pretty
undesirable. In various ways, the whole of the Old Testament is a description
of mankind moving very gradually from this image to the God we believe
in. Clearly you can't make a change like that overnight. This new God
who is revealing Himself over a long period might just be a mistake, an
illusion. Some people will still try to tell you that it is all an illusion.
As the ancient peoples were gradually coming to recognise God we can
imagine them, therefore, keeping a watchful eye over their shoulders,
just in case one of the old gods would come and get them!
So Daniel's vision - you can read it all again on your pew sheets - seeks
to find words to describe the indescribable, the awesome and infinite
greatness of God. He is portrayed as an old man - you can see that in
many icons and pictures - to signify the fact that He has always been.
Eternity is timeless. The whiteness signifies purity; the fire signifies
the cleansing that we will all be subject to when the 'court is seated
and the books are opened'.
And he describes 'one like a son of man' being led into the presence
of the Ancient of Days and being given sovereign power and authority.
All peoples worshipped Him
.and His kingdom will never be destroyed.
If we had picked other readings from among those offered for today, we
would have found similar images. Psalm 93: 'The Lord reigns in majesty
are from all eternity
.mightier than the thunder of great waters..the
Lord on high is mighty
.your statutes stand firm; holiness adorns
your house for endless days.' Or the Revelation of St John the Divine
- the other bookend from Daniel. 'Look, He is coming with the clouds and
every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him.'
And on and on! Poets, painters, musicians have down the ages attempted
to describe the infinite greatness of God, using what human language we
Most of today's hymns are in the same vein. 'All hail the power of Jesus'
name', 'Jesus shall reign where'er the sun/doth his successive journeys
run', 'Christ triumphant, ever reigning'.
Our king in the east window has a crown on his head. As children, I suspect
that we all imagined that kings and queens go round the whole time weighed
down with an enormous crown. Actually we know that this is not the case.
The crown is used at the coronation to indicate the authority which is
being given, and the respect in which the person should be held.
But if you have read '1066 and All That' you will know that there were
Good Kings and Bad Kings. It doesn't always follow on this earth that
placing a crown on somebody's head makes them into better people. It can
have the opposite effect. 'All power tends to corrupt', as we all know,
and 'absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely'.
Which brings us to the reading I have barely mentioned and the hymn I've
not mentioned at all.
'It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me.
What is it you have done?' You can detect more than a little irritation
and incomprehension in Pilate's words. 'Are you the King of the Jews?'
And Jesus comes back with: 'My Kingdom is not of this world'. Some translations
give 'My Kingdom is not from this world.' Both translations make valid
points. 'My Kingdom is not of this world.' No. It is quite different.
It is not corrupted by worldly things. It has no place except in our hearts
and in the life hereafter. 'My Kingdom is not from this world.' No, it
has been from everlasting and it is not given to me by the world.
So this Kingship, what is it? At several points in the Gospels we read
that Jesus came 'not to be served, but to serve'. We understand that Jesus,
God and man, has infinite authority and power, but chooses to use that
authority and power to serve. 'Whatever you did to the least of these
my brothers and sisters, you did for me.'
That is the model that Jesus is.
And it has to be said, if we go back to our Good Kings and Bad Kings
model, our present queen is a model of service. She committed herself
at her coronation and has gone on doing that. She has shown herself as
a model subject of her king, Jesus. The absolute power of medieval kings
vanished in this country in the 17th century. The Early Stuarts tried
to maintain the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, and Charles I came
to a sticky end because of that. With the Restoration in 1660, we developed
the idea of a constitutional monarch, with powers limited by Parliament.
So Elizabeth II is not like the model medieval monarchs, but much nearer
to the Model of Jesus. She has carried on serving her people long after
an age when others would have retired gracefully.
If you think that the way of life Jesus teaches is just too much, and
far beyond what you are capable of, then perhaps the earthly model of
Elizabeth II might help you on your way.
And if you have looked through the hymn list to find the one I've not
yet mentioned, it is our Offertory Hymn: 'The Servant King'. 'From heaven
you came, helpless babe/entered our world, your glory veiled/not to be
served but to serve.'
This servant is the King who crowns our year. This servant is the King
who is here for eternity. This servant is the King we must serve in this
world and must meet in the next.