Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the feast of Christ the King 2021
Pax Christi in regno Christi—‘the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ’.
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 21st November 2021 at 11.15 AM
In January 1922, Pope Benedict XV died suddenly, from pneumonia, and a librarian became Pope. Pius XI was a real, up-close scholar, an expert on ancient manuscripts and fourth century Milanese liturgy. The sort of thing the Precentor reads in bed. In 1922 he was a compromise candidate in the longest conclave of the twentieth century. And this was the man who had to address Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Franco. It is worth remembering when we wonder at the antics of our world leaders that we do not have a new problem. It is not a new problem to wonder what the church will say about all this or who will say it.
Pius XI found the words, he was responsible for an extraordinary denunciation of Hitler and his ‘idolatrous cult’, which was read from German Catholic pulpits on Palm Sunday 1937. What Pius XI most wanted to say is what we are saying this morning. That Christ is King. In fact, he created this day, the Feast of Christ the King, in 1925. This is not a feast like Christmas, or Ascension that celebrates a moment in the life of Christ. It is not a feast like St Peter’s day - for a person. This is an idea. Like Trinity Sunday, it is all about a doctrine. Christ is our King. For Pius XI this is was a big, important idea, his motto was Pax Christi in regno Christi—‘the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ’. Not just another title Christ the Lord, Light of the World and Emmanuel, but a doctrine. Christ as King.
Now, honestly, this is not quite straightforward. Today, the angels put on slippers and tread softly. Pius XI was extraordinary, but he was human. If he hated Nazis, and he did, he hated Bolsheviks even more. He created our feast as a sort of swipe at the politics of his day. He was not simply offering us a deeper understanding of our faith, he thought that faith has to defend itself, even come out swinging. Make no mistake, he had particular governments in his sights:
nations who thought they could dispense with God, and that their religion should consist in impiety and the neglect of God.
Talking about kings and kingdoms we so easily get into difficulty. We so easily take sides. It is not always good for us to call someone king, it is almost always not good for them. We need to be clear what we mean.
A few moments ago, we heard about a vision that Daniel had
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne.
That was Daniel 7: 9—a vision of the moment when the Kingdom of God is finally established amongst all the nations and languages of earth. Everything finally comes good. We can all smile at a happy ending. The problem is that we did not read from verse three, about what happened just before this moment, a nasty, brutal story of beasts raging over the earth,
a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. Daniel 7: 7
That is the Book of Daniel telling us what is wrong with kings and kingdoms. That is Daniel, in fact, telling us all about Alexander the Great and his increasingly nasty offspring. It is a description of war between nations, bloodshed, and an attempt to destroy the Jewish faith. Here faith needs to defend itself, come out swinging as sides must be taken. The point about kingdoms is that they are different and you must belong to one and not another.
So, I have to remember I have taken an oath of allegiance to Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories, Queen. I have that commitment and owe no loyalty to the Akond of Swat or the Mayor of Trumpton. When we think of kings we must think of these people with their king. We think of our Queen and people like us, who eat marmalade and understand cricket. We certainly do not mean the French, who are foreign and may not know how to queue. Kings and kingdoms demand loyalty and knowing this from that.
The migrant crisis that has our eyes fixed on the Channel and on the borders of Poland and Belarus shows us just how seriously we take the boundaries that divide him from her, us from them. There is a newly vigorous nationalism that waves flags and puts slogans on caps. At its best, it is an invitation to think about interesting things like inheritance and the importance of place. At its worst, it is a more sinister suspicion that all the others are out to get you. Another invitation to come out swinging.
So, now let’s turn to that gospel reading.
Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
They had taken Christ inside the Roman Fortress the Antonia. That is important. The Romans built this fortress right next to the Temple. It was big, it dominated one corner of the Temple, reminding the Jews about the power of Rome and the claim of politics, not faith. Before the conversation between Jesus and Pilate even began there were questions of loyalty.
Not just the place, but the time matters. It was dawn. Don’t miss the irony, this is John’s gospel, the one that tells us the light shines in darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it. Jesus was dragged into the shadows of the Antonia. It is all contrasts, the ironies abound. Jesus tested by Pilate. The judge of all is being judged; the King of kings is ruled over, Jesus Christ: the gate by which we enter is shut fast, in a fortress. And Pilate is in the dark, he cannot see it. Choices, this or that, loyalty.
Then, notice the conversation they have. ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ That is another irony. We know the answer to his question. Years before, in Galilee, Nathaniel blurted out
“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” John 1: 49
Jesus is a King, but it is a sovereignty Pilate cannot recognise. Jesus is adamant
“My kingdom is not from this world”. John 18: 36
Jesus is not another king. He is precisely not another king, one more loyalty in competition with the rest, anxious, angry, particular. Jesus resists every attempt to make him the sort of king that Pilate would recognise. Pilate wants Jesus to tell him whose side he is on: Who is on your side; who is on mine?
I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?
For Pilate that is the key question. Which club do you belong to and where, precisely is the border between you and me? That is not a distinction Jesus knows. Jesus, remember, has been with the Father from the beginning, and all things came in to being through him. Jesus is precisely not one more thing vying for a bit of our attention, to be voted for, liked, put on the Christmas card list and retweeted. In Christ all things come together. There are no divided loyalties in Christ; he is the beginning and end of all things. Christ’s kingdom has no boundaries, he is a King over a kingdom without limits. That is what Pius XI had in mind when he created the feast of Christ the King. A kingdom of peace because there can be no enemies. A kingdom for one people where no one can be foreign, no one stranger. A kingdom with a future because that peace and unity still struggles in to birth.
We must for a moment press this argument to the conclusion we so often miss. In creation, as Genesis describes it, God divides one thing from another, light from dark, waters from dry land. It is a theological point there is this and that and both come from God. English and French, Manchester United and Manchester City, residents and refugees, marmite and honey, whatever your loyalty God does not take sides. In Christ they are one. And Christian faith is not another loyalty; this is not another club to join with marks of membership, badges and a tie. Christianity is simply a belief in the full humanity that we see in Christ, the full humanity offered to us all.
That is what we are saying and celebrating on the feast of Christ the King. That is what Christ means when he says
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Pax Christi in regno Christi—‘the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ’. So, it is a resounding ‘yes’ to the delight we can take in the local, in our inheritance and the best of our culture. We should celebrate difference, confident that it can be contained in Christ. It is ‘no’ to all that divides and promotes discord. We are invited, even commanded, to find a place in a kingdom we can share. Christ is King.