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Christ the King, Year C, 22.11.98, S Mark's, Londonderry
Jer 23.1-6: I will raise up a Davidic shepherd as king
Col 1.11-20: Son as image, agent, peacemaker
Luke 23.33-43: Jesus - King on the Cross 2226 words
Summary: This is God's good world, so let us love and live by the Spirit in Christ our King to the glory of the Father.
Today, as part of the Revised Common Lectionary, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This feast was established in 1925 in the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius XI. It was originally kept on the last Sunday in October to celebrate the all embracing authority of Christ which shall lead mankind to seek the 'peace of Christ' in the 'Kingdom of Christ'. It is a feast that has long been observed by some Anglican churches, and now it has been transferred to the Sunday next before Advent. So today we are capping off the Christian Year celebrating Christ as our King.
The gist of what I would share with you this morning is this: We give expression to the Kingship of Christ here and now, and what we do is meaningful and worthwhile as we do so in the authority, the peace and the kingship of Christ.
But why as Christians do we believe that what we do here and now is meaningful and worthwhile? Let me answer this question by telling you a story. Most of it is true but a bit of it is guesswork. The story begins in the second millenium BC, and its outcome is important to us as Christians at the end of the second millenium AD.
We begin the story with a fact. It is a fact that in the second millenium before Christ, in and around the area we now call Greece and Macedonia there was a lot of poetry concerned with the state and origin of the cosmos, the sun and stars and everything else - what is called cosmogonic poetry. And throughout this cosmogonic poetry there ran a sense of dis-ease, a sense of flux, a sense of everything being unstable, the kind of feeling that I for one get when standing on a shaky ladder.
It is also a fact that in the second millenium B.C. there were the migrations of the Aryan peoples, and the route of these migrations covered the Indian subcontinent, the whole of the Middle East, including Asia Minor, and the area of Greece and Macedonia, which helps to explain why so many of the roots of words in the Greek language, for example, are drawn from Sanskrit, the ancient language of India.
It is my guess that the sense of flux and instability in the cosmogonic poetry was to be found in the whole of the area where the Aryan migrations occurred as traffic moved back and forth.
If so, this would help to explain the fact that Hinduism, Greek Philosophy and the Near Eastern traditions behind the Old Testament developed three distinct responses to the world around them.
The reaction of Hinduism at its most profoundest was: Yes, everything is in flux, there is no real stability - it is all maya, that is, illusion, so let go - do not try to hang on to it. The only way out of this mesh of illusion, this maya, is nirvana, and nirvana is a goal not easily achieved. One is trapped in this maya by being reincarnated repeatedly on the basis of ones actions in the prior existence. In effect, you get your just deserts, so don't fight it. If you are born low caste, that is your lot. If you fulfil your present lot well now, perhaps you will have a higher status next time. This outlook makes for a static society and places a very low value on the world around one.
When we turn to the Greeks, we find a society that was slave-based. It was the men of leisure who had time to think about things. They sat in the schola, or leisure room, hence our word "scholars", those who have leisure to think high thoughts while leaving all the menial tasks to the slaves. When they viewed the problem of flux, they approached it as an intellectual problem. They started from the Greek verb einai, meaning "to be", and they asked themselves if anything was truly existent, truly stable, and the kind of answers that they reached were those of Plato. That which is truly existent and abiding are the eternal ideas, and these ideas reach at best only imperfect expression in the world around us. Once again, as in the Hindu reaction, little real worth is ascribed as such to the creation, and Archimedes, with his levers, his bath tub, and his shout of eureka, was very much of an exception when he got his hands dirty doing experiments, for manual labour was really only for slaves and lesser beings.
In between these two outlooks, in the Middle East, was forged the outlook of Israel, and we find it summed up in the priestly creation narrative of Genesis 1, with its recurring phrase, "And God saw what he had made and it was good", and God saw what he had made and it was good, and God saw what he and made and it was good", ending up with "And God saw all that he had made, and lo! it was very good." So this is emphatically God's good creation - the material world is good and worthwhile. And setting man, male and female, as his image in it, God says, "Be fruitful and multiply and subdue the whole earth", so that human life is valuable and human labour is worthwhile, and what we do matters; history matters. It is striking that neither the Old nor the New Testament ever views manual labour as demeaning or beneath ones dignity.
The other point to be noted in both the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 is that God brings living dynamic order out of lifeless disorder, and gives mankind the same continuing job under him. That is, biblically speaking, there is no static order, but there is dynamic order held in being by God; as Deuteronomy expresses it, "underneath are the everlasting arms".
With this emphasis on this being God's good creation, the biblical witness asserts that when things go wrong, the fault lies not outside us but in us: we are the ones who err, so we are the ones who need to be set right. It is not the situation that we face that needs to be changed; rather what needs to be changed is our capacity for facing it, for the problem is located inside us, not outside us. This combats dualism that looks on matter as bad or evil.
Calvin Coolidge, who was the President of the United States early in this century, had a reputation for being a man of very few words. It is said that one Sunday, his wife being under the weather, he went to church alone. When he came home his wife asked him what the preacher's sermon had been about. Cal replied, "Sin". His wife asked further, "What did he say about it?", and Cal replied, "He was against it."
Well, it is obvious that the New Testament has a lot more to say about sin that that, and a key passage occurs in the First Letter to Timothy, written in Paul's name somewhere around 105 AD, about 40 years after Paul's martyrdom. By the time this letter was written there were lots of Gentile converts who had brought into the Church their own Hellenistic background. This included the influence of the mystery religions and Hellenistic dualism, which regarded matter - the Greek word is hule - as " dirty". The mystery religions and incipient gnosticism offered an escape from this world into what we may crudely call a purely spiritual world.
Against this our writer says, in those words we always heard every Sunday when we used The Book of Common Prayer for the Holy Communion: "This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." - that is, the problem lies within us, not outside us. In a similar vein the First Letter of John, writing about the same time, says quite baldly: "He who says he is without sin is a liar."
And it is against this background that St John's Gospel stresses that "the Word became flesh", the word used is sarx, good, gutsy flesh. Both Luke and John emphasize that the risen Lord bears the abiding marks of the passion, and the First Letter of John stresses that one must believe that Jesus came in the flesh.
So it is in this context and conviction that this is God's good world in which we have a meaningful role to play that we come to today's scriptures for the Feast of Christ the King.
Today we are observing the feast at the end of Year C of the Common Lectionary, and therefore our gospel is drawn from Luke. Next week we shall begin Year A and we shall be shifting to Matthew. But no matter which Gospel we use, when it comes to the Kingship of Christ, our Lord is invariably presented, as we have heard it this morning, as being the King precisely when he reigns from the Cross. Just like St Paul himself says: I would know nothing among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified.
When the prophets talk about kings they speak of them as shepherds, as David was a shepherd. We have heard Jeremiah do this in today's reading. As you know, the true Middle-Eastern shepherd not only guards his sheep, but he leads his sheep to pasture, that is, they follow his example. It is striking that when St Matthew produces the passage from Micah about Bethlehem of Judea as the place where the Messiah is to be born, he quotes it as "from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel". But both the Hebrew text and the Greek Septuagint produce it as "a ruler who is to rule". Matthew shifts it to the tenderness of a shepherd, and he then consistently presents Jesus as the son of David who is called on for mercy.
In short, if a king rules, then Jesus doesn't - he shepherds his people, and he shepherds them with mercy. We have heard Luke bear witness to this with Jesus' words to the penitent thief in the gospel.
The Roman emperor, Caesar, was a ruler of power, who might even be hailed in Latin as "filius dei", "Son of God", by his minions. But in Mark, it is the Roman centurion who, seeing not worldly power, but how Christ reigns from the cross in powerlessness as the world knows power, proclaims and confesses, "Truly, this man was God's Son." And the very meaning of "son of God" in biblical terms, means one who is a chip off the old block - Jesus shows forth the character of his father, of his father and our father: the character of love incarnate, the very nature of the God whom we worship and serve.
Jesus is King on the Cross, for he reigns as the Peacemaker, the Peacemaker whose power is shown chiefly in mercy, and his kingdom is the Kingdom of God.
He is our model: we reign precisely as we are ready to die to ourselves that others may live. As St Paul says in 2 Corinthians, the Lord told him: "my strength is made perfect in weakness".
So Jesus' authority is the authority of love. His peacemaking that our reading from Colossians speaks about, is the peace, the shalom, the good order that only love can bring about. And his kingship and his kingdom, his realm is the realm of love.
Ultimately, there is no other authority, peace and reign than that of the God who so loved us that he gave his only Son for us, the Son who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. For it is in dying to ourselves that we enter into the real freedom, the freedom to order our lives in love, by love, and for love, and thereby give expression to the reign of Christ the King.
This is God's good world in which Christ is our King, and every act we do should express the nature of Jesus' reign in our lives. We do it when we visit Marjory Callard or send a get-well card to Howard Goring. We do it when we help out at the Holiday Club or are involved with the Community Project. We do it when we fill the shoe boxes for the children. We do it in big ways and little ways, but we are to do it all the time, and thereby we enter into the Kingdom of God and of his Christ.
Brothers and sisters, let us love one another, for love is of God. Let us bring all that we have and are and lay them before God's Table that we may stretch forth our empty hands to receive the Bread and the Wine of the Banquet of our Father's Kingdom, that he may make us rich with the unspeakable treasures of his love in Christ,
--- so that we may love by the power of the Holy Spirit,
--- so that we live in Jesus the Christ, our Lord and King,
--- so that we may live and love in his Kingdom to the glory of God our Father. Amen.