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Christ the King


By Elaine Bardwell - Posted on 23 November 2010

Delivered: 
21 November 2010 - 10:00am
Preacher: 
Tony Phelan

 Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 
 I wonder if you know when you heard about the Royal Engagement this week - it's the sort of thing which sticks in the mind - I was looking at some website or other, and there it was: news of Kate and Prince William - and I must admit that I groaned inwardly; I think I could guess all the stuff we were going to hear about it - how it would cheer us all up in these rather grim times. Well the marriages of our assorted royal princes haven't always been up to scratch, and I'm sure we'd want to wish the new happy couple only good things; but it made me realize, that spontaneous reaction of mine, that deep down I'm not much of a royalist - in fact I think I had better confess that I am one of Nature's republicans! Now this truth about the temper of my own personality means I face a bit of a problem today when at the very end of the church's year we celebrate the feast of Christ the King.
 
But of course a lot of the stories in the Hebrew Bible are centred on kings - from the reasonably good ones (with only occasional lapses into immorality) like King David (the odd adultery, theft, arranged murder) to really really really bad ones like King Ahab and of course Queen Jezebel (idolatry, having a pagan wife, idolatry and did I mention idolatry?) If the Sun and the News of the World had existed back then, the paparazzi would have had an absolute field day. In the first lesson we heard today, Jeremiah in the the time of the Exile of the Jewish people denounces all the self-serving leaders who had been misleading the nation. They are the shepherds who destroy and scatter the flock. But his vision of what God's future holds also promises better leaders and eventually a new King, perhaps a new kind of king, who will be the fitting successor for King David and who will have a strange new title: The Lord is our righteousness.
 
It's not too hard for us to see that the Christian Church read that picture of a better kind of ruler as a promise of what Christians believed they'd found in Jesus. But what kind of a king do we find in Jesus? We sing some of the big hymns today (like 'O worship the King') but when we get to the Gospel, it's rather a different story. How are we to understand Jesus crucified between two thieves as a story about a King? - apart from the fact that those were the words that Pilate had fixed on the cross: this is the King of the Jews.
 
Let's stick with the shepherds of Israel for a moment. We say the words so often, we perhaps miss the impact of the phrase when Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep; so it's easy enough to see that Jesus fills the bill for being the new kind of King promised in Jeremiah. But if he lays down his life, what have we got but another victim of violence, administered by other 'authorities' - in this case the Roman imperium and the religious establishment?
 
The difference in Jesus' kingship is that he won't try and assert his rights. I have to confess I find this really challenging: in the the letter to the Colossians Christ is seen as set above all the powers in the universe and beyond - whether visible or invisible: 'thrones or dominion or rulers or powers' and it is quite hard to keep all that lot apart from the other powers that another of those early letters to the churches list: in Ephesians 6.12. For our struggle is not against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
 
And if we ask ourselves what Christ's kingship needs to vanquish in our time, it's not hard to name the powers is it? Jesus risen and glorified in the Colossians verses is the image of God, rising above all the powers that appear to rule in our world - the corporate logos, the merchant banks and the hedge funds, the military juntas, or the whole world of celebrity: everything from the footballers, their wives and girlfriends to he X factor or Come Dancing! In fact everything that well be feeding off our royal engagement and the wedding to follow. And I so want all those powers and dominions to be vanquished, because then ... I'll be proved right. Because they rob the poor, because they distract us from our real needs and political interests. Don't get me started!
 
BUT - and it's a huge but - Jesus gives us a different way. He isn't on the cross because he knows he's in the right; he submits as they slowly murder him, but it's not because he wants to show them up. It's not a kind of ultimate version of what we sometimes call being passive-aggressive. You know: I won't resist but my non-resistance is intended to manipulate you and prove you're wrong.
 
Jesus' words on the cross stop us trying to play that game: Father forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing. Who's right or wrong, whose got more power than the other - such questions just don't apply anymore. James Alison the RC writer and theologian puts it better than I could:
That love is in no way marked by any desire for vindication, for restoring besmirched reputations, for turning the tables of this world, and all that might seem to us to be just and proper, given the horror of the violence of our world. That love loves all that! It loves the persecutors, the scandalized, it loves the depressives and the traitors and the finger pointers. That love doesn't seek a fulminating revelation of what has really been going on as a final vengeance for all the violence, ... That love is utterly removed from being party to any final settling of accounts. that love, the love which was the inner dynamic of the coming of the Son to the world, of Jesus'  historical living out, seeks desperately and insatiably that good and evil may participate in a wedding banquet.
 
Each Sunday as we remember his death and resurrection, we enact that great feast of love that Jesus reveals on the cross: the great banquet that God offers to us at the end of time. One of the two thieves, who according to tradition (because he was one of the good guys so he is given a name)  was called Dimas, he gets the idea. He seems to recognize that Jesus reveals God to us, not as one who punishes, and wants us all to be in the right by accepting his rules; but as the love that simply loves us all. And that's enough: 'today you will be with me in paradise' (not 'well you'll have to hand on for three days and then the father will raise me from death and you can be with me'): TODAY. And frail but infinitely stron, the same love calls to us in bread and wine in this Eucharist. As we remember him, he remembers us in his Kingdom, Today.

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