Sermon: The Feast of Christ the King 2013 – 24th November 2013 – Martin Davies

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Song of Zechariah; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

It is wonderful to be here again at S Alban’s, where Julianne and I experienced great warmth of welcome and hospitality, in the all-too-short time that we were able to be part of this community of faith.  Julianne is sorry not to be here today, as she is in the diocese of Machakos in Kenya on an ABM visit.  Thank you Fr John for inviting me to preach at today’s liturgy.

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The title of today’s feast, of Christ the King, may lead us to think also of earthly kings and rulers.  In biblical and other religious and secular histories, it was common to locate the events and people being described, within the reign of the emperor or king at the time.

So for example, if I were to describe myself in this way – which to our ears now seems somewhat odd – I would say that I was born in the second year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  I might also want to locate myself even more specifically within a particular religious, civil, and geographical context, and in a particular era.  So I could add, that I was born during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, during the arch-episcopate of Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury, and the episcopates of Edward Joyce and Alwyn Warren, respectively Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops of Christchurch NZ.  At that time, in that land across the water, Lord Norrie was Governor General, and Sidney Holland Prime Minister.

The Feast of Christ the King is a very different type of celebration than that of an earthly civil or religious ruler.  Today is also sometimes known as the feast of Christ the Universal King.  While there have been rulers who aspired to universal power, once that sort of language is used, we can no longer relate it to our ordinary experience of temporal rulers, unless they are power-crazed maniacs.

To get a better understanding of Christ as King, let us go back to today’s Gospel reading.  Have you ever considered, that even in their taunting, the leaders, the soldiers and the criminal in today’s gospel are made to acclaim Jesus as the Christ of God, the Chosen One, the King of the Jews.  Likewise, the repetition of the word saved  –  he saved others  …  let him save himself  …  save yourself  …  save yourself and us as well  –  acknowledges even in scorn, what we proclaim in faith; that Christ is our Saviour.  By this twist of irony, S Luke transforms the cross into a throne of victory, the accusation of crime into an act of faith, and mockery into confession.

The inscription placed above the crucified Christ was intended by Pilate to provoke the Jews.  Both the soldiers and the leaders mocked Jesus; and it was one of those crucified with him who took Jesus seriously, with his prayer Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.

In a meditation, the twelfth-century Cistercian S Bernard of Clairvaux asks that Christ will remove the stumbling-blocks within himself, so that Christ may come to reign in Bernard.  He says

Greed comes along and claims its throne in me; arrogance would dominate me; pride would be my king.  Comfort and pleasure say: We shall reign!  Ambition, detraction, envy, anger fight within me for supremacy, and seem to have me entirely in their power.  But I resist insofar as I can; I struggle against them insofar as I receive your help.

The lesson for us from S Bernard, is that Christ’s kingdom is not a place, but is a people who give their hearts lovingly to him, by shaping their lives according to the Gospel.  It is possible to live with Christ within us, if we open our lives, our hearts and our very being, to the grace of God.

Today’s gospel invites us to ask what and where are the signs and places and events of Christ’s way – Christ’s reign – among us?  Christ’s reign in our lives and in the Church won’t appear as if by magic.  It requires our cooperation, our willingness to host it, to bring it about.  In the same way that Jesus’ birth could not have taken place through Mary without her cooperation, so too, Christ cannot live in us without our wholehearted assent.  The reign of Christ is, surely, a new creation.  It is, as S Matthew’s gospel spells out for us, a world in which the sick and poor are visited, the hungry are fed and the thirsty quenched.

The great Russian Orthodox theologian Fr Alexander Schmemann, called the liturgy the journey of the Church into the dimension of the kingdom.  In other words, liturgy sets out to cooperate in recreating the world in God’s terms.  Therefore what we say and do in the actions and words of the Eucharist, we have to translate into how we are and what we are, after we have said as we are leaving, that We go in the name of Christ. (For the Life of the World)

In a word, if the reign of Christ is to be in us, and is to be evident in us, we have to become the bread of the Eucharist.  Like that bread, we have to be offered, blessed, broken and shared for the life of the world.  And we need to be mindful that we share the bread of the Eucharist in an unsharing world.  We then need to discern what we can do to change that.  We may not be able to influence world economics, but we can assess whether our personal attitudes and actions are consistent with sharing for the life of those around us, or whether we are closed off and remain within ourselves.  The Eucharist with its bread – and us – being offered, blessed, broken and shared, and with its wine poured out for the life of the world, is the model of how we are to be, in the reign of God.

To paraphrase the great S Teresa of Avila, for the reign of Christ to be in us and among us, we must be Christ’s eyes and ears, being attentive in our seeing and hearing; we must be his hands and feet, going where he would go and blessing where he would bless; we must be Christ’s mouth now, speaking his words and speaking for those who have no-one to speak for them.

We have heard of this throughout the year of the proclamation of S Luke’s Gospel.  Luke gives us a picture that is well summarized in the wonderful canticles of his Gospel, of Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and as we heard this morning, in the Benedictus.  Listen to those urgent and welcoming Benedictus words and phrases: holiness and justice; living in God’s presence; making known salvation; forgiveness of sins; guiding into the way of peace.  These themes echo all the way from the justice and righteousness we heard in today’s reading from Jeremiah.  I like the sound of this kingdom more and more.

It is a kingdom that should be very contagious.  I have a book at home with the title, The Contagion of Jesus: Doing Theology as if it Mattered (Sebastian Moore OSB).  Although the book itself is a wonderful collection of essays, more than anything it is the title itself that catches my attention.  Put aside our common linking of contagious with winter ‘flu and with disease, and imagine for a moment a happy contagion where the life, the reign, the kingdom of Christ is so irresistible, that we truly live the kingdom within us and around us, as if it mattered, as if our life depended on it.

When we put together what we can begin to see in the Benedictus, of the shape of the reign of God that Christ came to bring, and put these words alongside the beautiful Colossian Christ-hymn which we heard today, we do indeed see a vision of Christ as Universal King which far exceeds the rule or the powers of any earthly ruler, or any comparison with them.

He is the image of the invisible God,

the firstborn of all creation;

for in him all things in heaven and on earth

were created,

… in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

and through him God was pleased to reconcile

to himself all things…