Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Christ the King 2016
Start Date 20th Nov 2016 11:15am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Behold your king! Pontius Pilate was unsure about Jesus’s guilt. But he was also afraid. He wanted to prevent a riot. He hoped to best the religious leaders, who sought to undermine the power of Rome. He hoped the crowd might shout for Jesus. Behold your king! But they refused. ‘We have no king but Caesar!’

The Jewish crowd, who hated the Roman occupation, claimed as their king the Roman Emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero, Caesar, in whose name the governor Pilate ruled. They rejected Jesus as king and in the same breath recognised the authority of Rome. St John’s sense of irony pervades his Gospel. This is the supreme irony.

What have the Romans ever done for us? The answer in Britain might be that they were brutal but effective. They ruled a great empire cruelly, but they brought a fresh kind of civilisation, if not exactly civility, to these shores. We admire their aqueducts, their hypocaust heating system, their language and its poetry, their cities, the pattern of which underlies many cities here still. Ultimately they accepted and spread Christianity.

The view in ancient Israel would have been very different. Every succeeding imperial authority undermined Israelite independence and undermined the faith of Israel: all, that is, except one. The Assyrian empire destroyed the northern tribes in the 8th century BC. Then the Babylonian empire in the 6th century BC sacked Jerusalem, destroying the temple, and took all the leading citizens into exile. By the waters of Babylon they sat down and wept when they remembered Sion. Fifty years their exile lasted until the Persian empire overwhelmed the Babylonians and Cyrus king of Persia, whom the Israelites came to see as God’s agent, freed them from exile and returned them to their homeland. They rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and resumed the ritual sacrifices.

Before too long another empire had arisen, more terrible still. Again we admire ancient Greek civilisation, regard Alexander the Great’s extensive empire as a key foundation of modern civilisation. But there were new pains and trials for Israel as Greek ways of life undermined the Jewish faith. Then the Roman imperial succession to Hellenism at first allowed Herod to extend and glorify the temple. But the Jewish wars led finally to the destruction of the temple in AD 70 and an end to animal sacrifices. The system of synagogue worship, developed in exile, came to the rescue of Jewish religious practice.

So, the Jewish experience of the Roman empire was overwhelmingly of pain and grief. Shall I crucify your king? We have no king but Caesar! So strange! Pilate insisted on the inscription above the Cross of Jesus, INRI, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum, Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews. Another irony. And they reviled him.

The suffering and death of Jesus Christ, Son of God, is at the heart of the Christian story, at the heart of our faith. That almighty God should love human beings so much that God himself, God the Son, should be born into human flesh and live and die fully as a human being, in order to redeem humanity and offer human beings salvation is the greatest story ever told. And the Gospels focus our attention above all on the story of Holy Week, culminating in the great moment of transformation, on the first Easter Day, when the buried body of Jesus is raised from the dead and the risen Lord Jesus Christ appears to the apostles and to others of his disciples. Christ is the King, O friends rejoice!

But the teaching of Jesus is also a vital part of the story. Overwhelmingly Jesus teaches about the kingdom. In many parables, he foretells the coming of the kingdom of God. Christ is the King. His is the face of the kingdom of God, the face of suffering, the face of weakness, the face crowned but with a crown of thorns, blood dripping with his tears down into his beard.

Jesus’ teaching foreshadows his suffering. ‘Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you. Woe to you when all speak well of you.’ None of this is easy. Not easy for him who had nowhere to lay his head. Not easy for us who seek to follow him. How much would we prefer to be wealthy, to have full stomachs, to laugh, to be loved, to be praised, to be exalted, to rely on our status.

But the way to exaltation is the way of humility. St Peter teaches us that we must clothe ourselves with humility in our dealings with one another, ‘for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God.’ And in humbling ourselves, we are doing no more than following the way of Jesus, who, as St Paul teaches, ‘though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’

The impact of this teaching, of this example, has had a dramatic and transformative effect on civilisation as we understand it in the modern developed western world. Leadership we expect not to be leadership of domination but of service. Leadership might not always achieve that goal, but it is certainly expected to be its aim. In a society where leadership were understood as domination rather than service, there would be no concern for the needs of the poor or the weak: let them serve; let them starve; let them go to the wall. Think of the cruelty of those successive empires. These attitudes lurk horribly close to the surface in so many parts of our history and of our world today. And perhaps they are closer to the surface now in the West than they were when Christian faith and practice was a universal norm.

For the understanding of leadership, of authority, as service is particularly Christian, deriving from the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. And, through the influence of Christianity on the development of our attitudes and our ways of life in the countries where Christian faith and the practice of Christian worship have been normative, the belief in leadership as an exercise in humility and service has survived the receding of Christian faith and practice. And for many people who have lost any true sense of Christian faith it has come to seem right and obvious, a human value. But it is above all a Christian value.

Christ is the King. And what sort of King is Christ? a King who serves, a King who suffers, a King who bleeds and dies on the Cross. He himself said, ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.’ If we are to follow him, to be his disciples, we too must take up our cross, ‘for’ as Jesus said, ‘those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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