Christ the King

Here we are at Christ the King. Every Sunday the Church reads a piece from the gospel. A very large part of the worldwide church reads the same portion of Scripture on the same day, so Christians across the world and across denominations are on this same page with us. Together we travel through one gospel in a year. All this year we have read from the Gospel of Mark, augmented as this week, with John. This is the last Sunday of the church year, the climax of the year, on which we celebrate Christ our king. The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; he is girded with strength (Psalm 93) This king is on his way. The gospel of Mark tells us Keep awake for you do not know when the master of the house will come… so he does not find you asleep, I say Keep Awake! We Christians have been made sentries. We are on duty here on the ramparts, looking out for our king. We also have to keep a look out for all threats represented by all the various pretend-kings who make their claims on us. We have to give warning to the nation when it takes their claims too seriously. This is why we Christians are here.

Let us look at this gospel reading. Pilate summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Pilate means ‘Judaeans’, the political entity of Judaea, which is all that is left of the whole kingdom of Israel. The answer is that Jesus is king of Israel, the whole of which Judaea is a part. He is not king of a part but of the whole. Other kings are kings of parts, this little territory but not that one, and they defend their power against all the other parts. My kingdom is not from this world – that is, not of one territory or jurisdiction rather than another, and so not sourced in any desperation to defend that little territory in order to hang on to power. Are you the king? What kind of king is handed over to their enemies by his own subjects? You remember we heard four weeks ago that he did not come to be served but to serve us, and to give his life as ransom for many (Mark 10.45). This king has made himself the servant, tirelessly servant of all. This is why it is so hard to recognise his kingly power as such, as hard for us as it is for Pilate. To us this looks like the dreaded opposite of power. He exercises his royal power as public servant number one, who appears not at the top, not in the middle, but right at the very bottom of all political hierarchy. And ‘My kingdom is not from this world‘. He is not king of one place rather than another, so he does not have to defend his little corner against rivals as other kings do. Daniel says For to him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed (Daniel 7).

Are you the king of the Jews? Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? The Lord asks Pilate whether he had worked this out from his own knowledge of kingship, and how power functioned in Rome. Had Pilate concluded that Jesus was, or ought to be made, king of Judaea? Or had Pilate been taking advice and finding out what was contained in the Scriptures of Israel? Every military commander should do his research into the history of the territory he occupies in order to learn about where the locals believe authority rests, and what constitutes proper exercise of power. Were the people of Israel about to seize Jesus and anoint him as their king, and so thrust him into the position in which he would then drive out all other political leaders? Some certainly wanted to, but Jesus had not allowed this to happen. Or had Pilate found out that, according to these Scriptures, that Israel was expecting a king who would exercise kingship in the way Jesus had been doing, as redemptive servant who leads his people to take and endure the regime of Rome and all hard masters? Had he heard from these Scriptures that the God of Israel was not just a local tribal god, but God of all, that is, God of gods and Lord of lords. This would make the king of Israel the king of Rome too. Who is the king of Israel? Here is a funny thing: the God of the whole identifies himself with a part. The universal king is the God of Jacob, and the Rock of Israel. The God of all nations stands by this one nation Israel, and so with these Judeans, and he stands with these Judaeans under the hand of Rome. Rome takes its authority from the God of Israel and the God of Israel sets his own people under the authority of Rome.

Jesus and Pilate are face-to-face, the power of Israel opposite the power of Rome. Israel is the source of Rome’s power, but Israel also places himself beneath that power. Pilate was standing before his master, but quite unable to recognise him. He stood there for us. We stand in that exact same situation, for as we are called together here Christ stands before us. What shall we make of him? Perhaps, like Pilate, we have little idea of how precarious our position is, as we are gathered here, now, before the Lord. We look at this Jesus, and what we look at is the source of all things, and we are protected by our own ignorance, the truth of who we are facing too overwhelming to take in.

For the Lord has appeared before the assembled priests of Israel’s Sanhedrin, then Herod the puppet king, now Pilate the effective government of the military. Each of them has this chance to identity Christ as their master, to recognise him as the source of their own public authority. Each is faced by the terrifying Lord of heaven and earth, and allowed to ask their questions. Each of these authorities comes face to face with the Lord.

Pilate has the power of Caesar. He stands for all Rome. But the strange fact is that God has made Rome the ruler of Israel. Israel was under the cosh. Israel had to recognise that this imposed external gentile rule, this hard and unholy gentile hand was ultimately the hand of God, who intended Israel’s justification and righteousness, and that this foreign rule therefore had to be endured, and still has to be endured, and not to be thrown off. Rome is the righteous rule of God for Israel.

The bible is the story of the encounter of one empire after another. None lasted. Each starts single-minded and resolute, but over time becomes hollowed out. As with time their power leached away, the Assyrians gave way to the Egyptians, who gave way to the Babylonians, who gave way to the Persians, who gave way to the Greeks who gave way to the Romans. Rome is just the latest in a long line of foreign masters who represent a hard lesson for Israel. But though they are individually corrupt, so that each is eventually toppled by the next, less corrupt power, each is the hand of God on his people for a time. But they have all passed away. Only Israel is still standing.

My kingdom is not from this world...’ Jesus sources his authority direct. Every other political ruler sources their authority indirect, for they source their authority from Christ. Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is as you say’. In other words you have got that right. Jesus is the king of Israel who leads Israel in suffering the hard hand of unrighteous masters without throwing them off, taking them from God convinced by faith that they are part of God’s purposes. Did Pilate exercise a self-seeking rule over Judaea? Though he was God’s servant, was he a bad servant who did not pursue the peace of that territory and the good of the people? Nevertheless Pilate is lord, for a while, in that place, for a particular local purpose, until the contradictions of his own bring him down and he is replaced by the next local chief. Many, many empires have come and gone since then, many economies peaked then collapsed. In this week’s reading from Daniel four animal forms appear – these the empires that surround Israel. They are giants, Goliaths to Israel’s David. They are terrible because they are out-of-control, miserable, raging, they have no security because they have no hope. They represent four temptations to take power without authority, without legitimacy. She must not be afraid of them.

Jesus Christ is our king. That means that we have a good king, one who can do the job, actually the only one who can do the job. One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land (2 Samuel 23). This king is there to protect us from the incursions and demands of those who want to exercise power without authority and who may be able to start doing us good but cannot keep it up.

A king is simply a political leader. All leaders get their political authority from God, and God is the control and limit on them all. The world is full of undeclared chiefs, who want to make themselves our kings, without admitting as much, without allowing their power to become explicit or becoming accountable to us through the normal political channels. We Christians are here to remind all leaders that God commands them to act well for the people they have authority for, and that they will have to give an account of themselves, and will stand before that judge. All our political representatives are ‘kings’, ‘chiefs’: we don’t call them that, but that is how the bible regards them. Part of our job is to tell people and institutions who have effective power that with it they have authority to use it well, for the nation as a whole.

So now what about our own political classes? How are they doing? They exercise a form of kingly authority for us. Our government, from the smallest council employee to the prime minster, is the hand of God for us. We have to encourage them to govern, and tell them that they have a good and honourable task. We have to invite them to judge for themselves whether they are doing a good job. In the Litany, in the Book of Common Prayer, which we pray at the beginning of Advent, we pray for the Lords of the Council and all the nobility… grace wisdom and understanding and for the magistrates grace to execute justice. They have divine authorisation to rule for us and we pray for the grace they need in order to do so. Each of them may, and must, carry out their office. They may do their job, at whatever point, high or low, in their particular institutional hierarchy, in the knowledge that they do it for us. This is their share in the kingly office of representative rule. They govern for the common good and so we encourage them to do this well, and we give them our thanks. We can remind them that we are here, and are watching, and that they will present their work to God, the only fair judge and true king.

Authority rests with the law and with parliament, and so with the government and prime minster that that parliament provides for us. But in the last year we have let power drain away from parliament, leaving our representatives there merely symbolic, and actually bored, resentful and irresponsible. There has been a lurch of power away from the place in which it should be exercised in full view, and it is exercised in all sorts of other places, out of view. It belongs with the media tycoons, of course, with the barons of the financial services industry, with the European union which has newly awarded itself sovereign power. As long as they are not challenged they are able to award themselves a slice of national revenue, even plunder the national economy. But this is not good for the nation as a whole, and it is not even good for them. Many people want to place themselves above challenge. But our political leaders, whom we voted for and put into parliament as our representatives, are there to challenge them, and we must encourage them to do so.

In the financial marketplace many giants have been and gone, and many more are about to crumble. Many in the City of London are in their death throes. They have created these financial high seas, that have raged out of control. In their fright at this latest storm they have thrown themselves back into the arms of the state (the formal sovereignty vested in a nation, which they have done so much to destroy). Now the banks and the state are in each other’s arms. The banks are exhausted and panicky and all assume that the state is our immovable rock strong enough always to make things right again. It isn’t.

It is our job to talk up our public servants, remind them of their responsibility, and so to hold them to account. It is always our job to tell our power-brokers that they are ‘kings’, that their authority must be made honest by being declared as such. If we see anybody with power we should put them straight in the second chamber of parliament, where we can call them ‘noble lord’ and can trowel on our rhetoric about the responsibility they bear until they begin to feel some of that responsibility, take seriously the mandate to act for the common good, and so give an account of how they use the power they have. We must tell each of these empires and political authorities that it is here to do us good. We remind them of the source of their authority and the mission they are given, that they are the heavy hand of God for us, and that under this discipline we can be formed and grow. For all the political powers of any age are set there by God to be our servants and to do us good. This task breaks them all eventually.

Now what about us Christians? If we do not obediently receive whatever discipline we can from all our governors, then we have to say why we are holding out against the good discipline, given for us by God, that these secular authorities represent. If we indulge ourselves with claims of our own powerlessness, resentment, self-pity, or other excuses for the evasion of politics responsibility, we will be judged. Are our political leaders incompetent, corrupt? Possibly, but no more so than any one of us. Do they seem to despise all that is good and valuable about the UK? Possibly, but no matter. Are they not Christians? No matter. Are they positively antagonistic to the Christian faith and its public expression? No matter.

We have the rulers we deserve. We are only ruled by bad rulers because we have not ruled ourselves well. If a nation has given up on the good practices of political life, they will find themselves with rulers as feckless as themselves. Everyone has to exercise self-control and self-government, restrain their demands on others, act justly and work for the common good. But every Christian is a representative, with public and political authority. Every witness of Christ is an office-holder given a share of kingly, public rule. By grace we have been given the office of leading public repentance. We gather here to say we have sinned in thought and word and deed and even more in what we have left undone. We can say Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. We may make this admission on our own behalf, on behalf of London as a whole and of all the undeclared power brokers in it. We can lament on their behalf. We make out that their sins are our sins, as indeed they are. Then we must bear this, we must suffer, and be humbled and be humiliated. This is what we are called to, it is our priestly calling. We repent, and we make publicly acknowledgement of the just, merciful, gracious hand of God.

What can we do? Look what we are doing? We stand here before God and before the world. Now where two or three are gathered in his name, they stand by faith in the presence of the Lord. For you stand here, this little half dozen, side by side, and you stand before the world. When the world sees you, standing faithfully, they see the body of Christ, the presence of Christ, and the faithfulness of Christ. This half-dozen standing before this altar now may seem a fragile little group – but so must every Christian community be. But Christ has put us here as his witness to the world in this part of London. We are rooted and grounded in Christ. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder and this altar, is our rampart, which we look out over the melee of markets and governments into the far distance to see if we can see the first telltale dust plume that tells that he is on his way. This altar is our window. We look through there to see past all the manic wheeling and turning of immediate events, cultivate this distance vision, and attention to the stark simplicity of the command to exercise some royal, priestly and prophetic authority, for our poor contemporaries’ sake, and act like sentries, who keep a good look out, issuing the necessary warnings and always aware that we will have to give an account of ourselves, and of the nation we have been sent here to protect, when the Lord comes. Now we can repent and ask him to release us from the excessive power we have taken on or rather the authority that we have not taken on and not used. Now we may confess that we – Christians – have acted as unaccountable office-holders and got in the way of our own nation from coming to its repentance and to its Lord.

The world can see that we stand here. Every act of Christian worship is public. When we meet here we stand before the whole population of London. Thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened (Daniel 7). That is what is happening in every act of Christian worship. This becomes more obvious whenever little groups of Christians pray in London’s streets, when we stands in front of this or that national institution, or financial or media corporation. We can pray for them, and that merchant bank or TV station can hear up from us, if they want, some sense of the huge responsibility that they have and of the leadership that every large institution must show.

How should we be these witnesses? It is Advent, a penitential season, in which we repent for the nation. We confess on their behalf, saying for them what they cannot yet say for themselves. We speak for the finance services industry when we say ‘Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us…’ Take this worship and confession that Christ is king out onto the streets. Tell all those working in this part of London that we are in this penitential advent season in which we examine and prepare ourselves. How can you do this? How can you here at St Georges make one single joyful body of public witness? Go down to the bottom of Southampton Row and stand on the corner Bloomsbury way at six o’clock mid week and do an evensong. Tell all who pass that it is Advent. Sing Advent hymns, psalms, carols, with collects which collect up and express the prayers of every person working in the offices of every national institution around here, the hospitals, the art college, the lawyers and accountants, but above all the banks. Speak out for them in the street the prayers that they need to present to the Lord. In a couple of weeks time we will sing our carols through the streets, telling London, and telling every power-broker in London that the source of his power is Christ, and that each of them stands directly before the watching world who expects and hopes that he will act well, and that he stands before God. Every powerful person exercises the power of God for us. We may remind them, nag them, to exercise that power well, on all our behalf, representatively, for the common good, for the nation for society, for the next generation, to give all us confidence to lift up our heads. All power-brokers will pass away, we can tell them. Only Christ surrounded with his people, Christ with his body the church, will remain. We may now exercise that the kingly, priestly prophetic power and sing his praise and proclaim that he is source of all authority and all human offices, and as long as we do our nation may recover itself in time. If we are afraid of the big beasts, and mute our voices, if we are timid or embarrassed, we will be judged and that coming, that advent will be a terrible advent for us. We stand now before the Lord. Every time we gather, we are, as Pilate was, in the presence of the Lord. As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. What do we Christians have to say? We have to say that is it is Advent, we say advenit, he is coming. We sing O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. We say ‘Christ is King’ and we say ‘This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.’

St George the Martyr, Holborn, London, 22 November 2009