Christ the King, 22 Nov 2020
Just like our very own Joel, I was once a pastoral assistant, in my case in Somers Town. In the 1920s this church - like here called St Mary’s - had been served by a priest called Fr Basil Jellicoe, who led a campaign to demolish and rebuild the homes and spiritual condition of the families of that parish, then one of the poorest in London. Controversially, the church even opened its own pub, The Anchor - though a fierce statue of St George on the saloon bar reminded folks that they were to enjoy themselves - but not to excess. Fr Jellicoe’s zeal was inspired directly by the Christian conviction that, as he often put it in sermons, God’s people were the ‘blood brothers of the King of kings’. Holding that status, they deserved dignity, deserved life, and indeed life abundant. I want to explore with you this morning what it means to call Christ both our ‘king’ and our ‘brother’.
Aspects of worldly kingship can point us to truths about our God. Kingship is about power and authority. We might think of today’s feast of Christ the King as a triumphal pageant for the last Sunday of the Church’s year - indeed, about its full modern title - ‘The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe’ - there is a hint of The Empire Strikes Back. In our hymns we certainly find regal language - we’ll sing of God being ‘pavilioned in splendour’ complete with ‘chariots’ and ‘robes’. St Matthew writes of Jesus coming ‘in his glory, escorted by all the angels’. And it’s certainly right that today at Mass, and after Mass at Benediction, we come before Jesus with reverence. We can be reverent in different ways and in different places - but remember that the most important way of encouraging within us that appropriate reverential response to God, is to come, if we can, to church, his earthly court, and into his presence - now for private prayer, soon united again in worship together. If we are to bow in the presence of our earthly royalty and throng the streets to glimpse them, how much more should we tremble before, and adore, the living God in his house?
A king is also judge. Even today the monarch is the embodiment of justice - in all its ideals, but in its corrective force too. This morning’s Scripture leaves us in no doubt about judgement. Ezekiel’s ‘I will judge rams and he-goats’ foreshadows St Matthew’s Jesus separating men ‘one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats’. And so if an earthly king is judge how much more should we look up to and fear Christ, the King, who sees all and knows all and summons us all before him. Let our obedience to the laws of the land prompt us to take account of our spiritual obligations, to take stock of where we are with the Lord as well as with the law, to take some time, for example, to plan what we’re going to do to make a holy and prayerful Advent so that we are ready for his coming.
Along with a king’s power and authority comes service. I imagine it’s almost compulsory in a sermon today to quote from the successful Netflix series The Crown. There’s a scene in Season 4 when Her Majesty recalls how one of her royal mottoes is ‘Ich dien’ - I serve. Indeed the current monarch’s dutiful record is an inspirational example of the age-old ideal of the king who serves and protects the rights and welfare of his subjects. This is forcefully conveyed in the scriptural combination of royal might with the pastoral responsibilities of the humble shepherd. The all-powerful king who wrought the mountains and who unleashes thunder is one and the same with the shepherd who tenderly watches his flock - who shall ‘look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong’.
Power, judgement, service. Three aspects of earthly monarchy that are useful pointers towards bigger truths about our heavenly king.
But the comparison begins to strain. When we call Jesus ‘King of kings’ we’re not multiplying Elizabeth II by 100. Because Christ’s kingship is, for all these useful reference points, something different.
For one thing we can’t speak of it being God’s ‘duty’ to care for us as he does - his faithfulness and his mercy and his grace are regal gifts indeed, but we don’t deserve them by right or contract. For another he doesn’t give them to us out of tradition, or political necessity, or begrudgingly or partially - he gives them out of love. And the letter of the law steps aside for the faithfulness of the heart. The image of the shepherd king, moreover, indeed of God being born a man, goes far beyond noblesse oblige and presents as radical a challenge as ever to leaders of all kinds, and still cuts so fundamentally against the way humanity organises itself.
Christ’s kingship makes it personal. It demands more than any earthly monarchy of its subjects but unlike any earthly monarchy it offers to make kings of them, kings of you and me.
Demanding because it asks that we go into the world and to treat every single person we come across as Christ - and Christ the King. Even - excuse me - especially - the annoying, threatening, the boring, the awkward and smelly, the intense. Even those strange adults who zip down the pavements on those ridiculous scooters. We’re not going to manage it all the time. Many aren’t going to let us treat them like a Christ. A lot of the time, in the situations when we’re rushed off or feet and broke and we’re being asked for money or we witness a fight or are trying to work out whether it’s fairer to be gentle or firm with someone, often we won’t know what it means to treat someone like Christ even if we find the patience to try. But the first step is to make ourselves look at others in the knowledge that God has chosen to make each one of them a sister or a brother of the King of kings. If we start by trying that - start today - things begin to change.
Demanding, yes, but look what comes of aligning ourselves so to God’s kingdom. Jesus came down to us, a king born ‘away, in a manger’, who exchanged heaven’s crowns for a cruel wreath of thorns, in order to take us back with him and to give us back our crowns. So that we might feast with him, as the 23rd Psalm has it, at an abundant ‘banquet’ prepared for us in the Lord’s house - where cups shall overflow. There are places for all of us - you, me, the next person you see scooting down the High Road - at this royal feast if only we can grasp and live out that adundance as though we were sat there now. The kings of whom the King of kings is king are not the kings of this world, but you and me when we live with and in him as blood brothers and sisters.