Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the feast of Christ the King 2022
Jesus rules from the cross and from the place of risen glory.
The Venerable Tricia Hillas Canon Steward and Archdeacon of Westminster
Sunday, 20th November 2022 at 11.15 AM
Each year November begins with the feast of All Saints when we recall those who have shown us what it means to live well, people who allowed the reign of God to be manifested in them.
November then moves into Remembrance-tide, its poignant silences standing in contrast to the clamour and the clash of earthly kingdoms. It’s a yearly juxtaposition of the depths of human failings, lust for power and vain glory set against the sorrow, pain and generous self- sacrifice made by many.
As the month draws to its close, on this last Sunday of the Church’s year, we keep the feast of Christ the King.
It was in 1925, in the aftermath of the conflict, desolation and upheaval of the First World War, when fascism and dictatorships were posing an increasing threat, that Pope Pius the Ninth first inaugurated this feast day.
It was in part a signal to the totalitarian governments of Mussolini, Stalin and later Hitler which made the point that that human power used in extreme self-interest was highly dangerous and ultimately futile.
In contrast the feast pointed to the Sovereign Ruler of all; the King whose rule, marked by truth and love, is revealed in both sacrificial vulnerability and transcendent glory. This Jesus, rules from the cross and from the place of risen glory.
The reading we heard from Luke’s gospel today takes us to the cross.
By this point in his passion, Jesus had been questioned by the Roman governor, Pilate, the representative of the Tiberius Caesar, the most powerful man on earth. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Pilate asked.
The question of this man’s identity, the question of his authority, will be raised not only by Pilate but by others over these next hours. The same questions had marked the outset of his public ministry, as he faced fierce temptations to reject the calling on his life and the way in which he was to live out that calling. In the wilderness came the repeated questioning of his identity and authority: ‘If you are the Son of God?’
At that time Jesus had chosen not to conform to the typical modes of exercising power and exerting his own identity. What would happen now? Would he give way as the last battle drew near? The questions came again: ’Are you?’ ‘If you are?’
‘Are you the King of the Jews’ asked Pilate before handing Jesus over to be crucified. As he was laid bare on the cross, the leaders of the people scoffed ’if he is the Messiah then let him save himself’. One of the criminals crucified with him derided him saying ‘Are you not the Messiah?’ The soldiers who had affixed him to the cross in the most brutal fashion, mocked him ‘if you are the King of the Jews, save yourself’.
But each one, Pilate, the leaders of the people, the soldiers and the criminal missed the point. It was not himself that Jesus was interested in saving.
Not himself but they; not himself but us.
We are gathered where in a few months, amidst scenes of great rejoicing an historic coronation will take place. Today on this feast of Christ the King let us look again to the nature of his kingship and identity through the lens of his unfolding passion. Jesus the King of Glory who reigns from the tree.
Now a key role of legitimate rulers is to uphold the rule of Law. Yet we see Jesus the King of Justice condemned unjustly, one who stands with all victims of a justice system corrupted. He will bear in his body the injustice of every heinous act and miscarriage. In him and through him justice will reign, let all the tyrants throughout the ages, all the nations of the earth hear that one day justice will stand.
Then Jesus was robed, as if in fine royal garments, but then stripped, his garments taken. Yet his vulnerability will clothe and shelter us all.
Next piercing thorns were woven into a makeshift mocking crown. Yet the sign and symbol of his cross has been marked on the brows and adorned the crowns of countless human kings, queens and emperors since, as they have bowed the knee to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
On his way to the place of execution Jesus was paraded through the streets, a very different kind of royal procession. Countless of his followers, over the ages, and still around the globe today have joined the same procession, walking the road of martyrdom with their King.
Around 180AD representatives of Caesar asked Polycarp of Smyrna ‘what harm is there is saying ‘Caesar is Lord’ and offering incense and saving your life?’. Polycarp is said to have answered ‘For eighty-six years I have been the servant of Jesus Christ and he never did me any injury. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’
Sisters and brothers of ours in various places today are facing similar choices. All of us rightly ponder the balance of power and loyalty in our own contexts.
As the procession reached Golgotha Jesus was raised upon a Roman Cross. Above his head, in three languages, was written ‘The King of the Jews’. From this most unlikely throne, this unlikely King changes everything. There his sacrificial, expansive kingdom is revealed. The kingdom of justice, plenty and peace.
The kingdom which is both transcendent with cosmic implications and closely imminent and intimate such that a condemned criminal in his last moments might beg to be remembered and receive personal assurance that ‘today you will be with me’.
This is the king whose reign from the throne of the cross invited a response; a response from those around him, soldiers, leaders, those crucified with him and from us today.
For if Christ is King, will his reign and rule be over us? Shall we orientate our lives to his? Will we accept his kindly and gentle rule? If we choose such a glorious endeavour, as his subjects, we truly have something to live for. But it will require everything of us. These are the words of Pope Pius the Ninth, who first instituted this feast:
‘If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire.
He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ.
He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God.
He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone.
He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.’
So, on this Feast of Christ the King, in us and through us may God’s Kingdom come.