So, today is the feast of Christ the King – what’s that about then? It’s the last Sunday of the Christian year before it begins again on Advent Sunday. But why Christ the King?
It is quite a recent feast as these things go. It was designated Christ the King Sunday by Pope Pius XI in 1925. So, you might think that a recent, and Roman Catholic, feast might best be ignored by Prostestants like us. Is it just another high church attempt to make Jesus somehow more grand? Have I been watching too much Netflix?
Well, it turns out that Pope Pius knew what he was doing. He was known, in the last part of his Papacy, for speaking out against the rise of fascism across Europe, about a rise in violence and fear. He was deeply troubled by the political currents of his time and the way that people were idolising human leaders. And it seems that he wanted, above all, to remind Christians, all Christians, that our allegiance, our true King, is always Christ himself. It is Jesus who is Lord, it is Christ who is King. We have no other leader, no other Fuhrer or Duce.. Pope Pius wanted to remind Christians in his own day of what the earliest Christians had professed and lived, that Jesus Christ is Lord. In fact ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ was really the first thing that Christians learned to say to mark out what their faith was really about. And I think that, whenever we are Christians, whether we live in the first century or the twenty first, we all need a reminder about where our true and deepest allegiance lies. Because there are times when you really need to know who you are.
This is what this Sunday is really about. It’s about coming clean with ourselves and with the world around us about where our true and ultimate loyalty lies. It’s about owning whose servants we really are. And it’s about saying what the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is really like. It’s saying that Jesus is the one by whose light and law we live, even if it brings us into conflict with earthly laws. And it’s about seeing clearly what his law of love is really like and what it would mean really to live in obedience to it. As Christian folk, we are, generally speaking, law abiding, loving, loyal, faithful, seeking the common good, active in society, good citizens. But there are moments, there are moments, when we find out where our ultimate loyalty lies – and when we know whose servants we really are. And we need such moments to help us to live faithfully in the world.
I’ve discovered the story recently of a woman called Edith Stein. She was German and she was an intellectual and she came from a Jewish family, though she herself grew up an atheist. In her adult years she finally became a Christian and eventually she became a nun. She came to recognize that the third Reich, the kingdom of the Nazis, was opposed to the Kingdom of God – that you couldn’t, you just couldn’t, be part of both. And finally, she gave her life for her allegiance to Christ and for her solidarity with the Jewish people. I’ve heard that when anyone said to her ‘Heil Hitler!’ she would respond, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord!’. And that response sums up so powerfully what this day is all about. If anyone says, ‘Heil Hitler’ (or something like it), we say ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’.
One of the greatest of URC ministers, Graham Cook, died quite recently. I remember him telling the story about how he was once interviewed by a political party because he was thinking about standing for parliament. It was all going well, until they asked him a question about party loyalty. Would he always put the party first? Would he put it above his own personal convictions? Was the party ‘king’ for him? He began to say ‘yes’ and then realised that there might be times when he would have to put something else before party or politics or even self. The highest authority for him was the God who was made known and is made known in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to say that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Justin Welby was also once asked if, as a Christian, he would always obey the law, whether the rule of law was always paramount. He took a deep breath and said that he would have to say that his faith stands above even the rule of law. He explained: “We do not believe as Christians that the rule of law outweighs everything else, we believe that the Kingdom of God outweighs everything else.” Christ is King. Christ has the very first call upon our lives – because he is the most secure foundation we have been given…
In the world of ancient Rome, the world of the Roman Empire, Christians from the very beginning began to say to each other and to the world around them, ‘Jesus is Lord’. They said it because they knew that Caesar wasn’t their Lord and King, that Caesar wasn’t the one to whom they would give their lives. Jesus is Lord. Christ is King.
And of course this must have sounded to many who heard it like some kind of joke. And indeed it is a quite bizarre thing to say about Jesus. Because Jesus was not and is not like any other kind of King. The Romans who crucified him, and the thieves who died with him, thought it was a joke. The Roman soldiers mocked him. They dressed him up as a kind of parody of a King – with a crown of sharp thorns and a purple cloak staind with the blood from his beaten back. They thought that everyone should laugh to see this Jesus with his thorny crown, and his naked body, and the battered wooden plank over his head saying ‘King of the Jews’ – that didn’t need anything like inverted commas to show you that it was a joke. ‘Remember me’, said the one on the next door cross, ‘when you come into your Kingdom!’. You can imagine how they must have laughed at someone who looked nothing like a King at all.
But the funny thing is, we know that this is not a joke – or at least not the ridiculous and absurd kind of joke. We believe it – because Jesus, all that he taught and stood for, all that we’ve known of him, means more to us than anyone who tries to rule over us or tell us what to do. Jesus is our King, but he is not like other kings. He does not win his way with violence, or status or earthly power. He does not come with wealth and glamour and jewels. He makes his throne by sitting with the poorest and lowliest of people. His Kingdom is with the hungry and the suffering, with criminals and slaves. He turns even kingship upside down and invites us to follow him into a kingdom that upskittles the kingdoms of this world. He makes us citizens of a kingdom where sins are forgiven, where bruises are healed and soothed, where doors are unlocked and freedom comes. And we give him our allegiance and our love and our strength, as we become citizens of his kingdom, even if it means being excluded from the kingdoms of the world.
We are one of a small number of nations in the world now who have a monarch, a crown. My friends at the WCC tease me – asking which is the more ridiculous – United or Kingdom? But I find it fascinating and significant that the one in our nation who is a monarch is also one who continues to make it clear that for her, Jesus Christ is Lord. On January 6th, the feast of Epiphany, if you go to the chapel of Saint James Palace, you will find that there is gold displayed on the altar – and it is there to symbolise that even for the Queen regnant of England, someone else is the real King – Jesus. Jesus is Lord.
We are going to celebrate Christmas soon. And we will share stories about how Jesus had a miraculous birth and of how he was the Son of God. And we might wonder how and why we have such stories to tell. And one answer is that these stories are so very like the stories that were once told about Caesar – whether you mean Julius or Augustus. The Roman Emperors, the rulers over the ancient world, with more power than any human being had any right to claim, they had stories told about their births and their origins that were very similar. And so the early Christians were making the claim that Jesus, rather than any Caesar, was the ruler of the world. It’s hard now to imagine how audacious that was – and how audacious it still is! That a Palestinian peasant who said the poor were blessed and who was crucified was the Lord of all. That this rabbi from Galilee, and not the leader of the Roman armies, was the Son of God. But that is precisely what we say, by coming here week after week.
And it may that the powers that attempt to coerce us are no longer Roman Emperors or German fuhrers. But there are powers that stalk the world today that are maybe even more dangerous. The powers of unrestrained capitalism and consumerism perhaps. The powers of white privilege and racism. The powers that persuade us that we are only worth anything if we are acquiring money and status or if we are beautiful or young or fit. These are powers in our world. But just as Edith Stein refused to salute Hitler, and just as the early Christians refused to give lordship to Caesar, in just the same way we are loved and claimed by a power of a very different kind. In our lives, Jesus Christ is King.
The famous theologian Karl Barth once summarised the Gospel with the words ‘Jesus love me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so’. Martin Luther, so troubled by the demons of doubt, used to say over and over again to himself, ‘I am baptised, I am baptised.’ And when we are beset by troubles or bullied or brutalised by anything or anyone we can say, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. There is no one and no power more true and wonderful than that.
And this knowledge, that Jesus is King – sets me free, sets me right, and sets me singing! There are times in my life when I see suddenly how much Jesus Christ shapes my life and how much I want him too. That’s why I need to keep reading what he said and what he did. That’s why I need to keep looking for him in the places of the world where he naturally belongs, among the poor and the sad and the sorrowful. That’s why I need to keep setting my pace and my life in tune with him. Jesus is my King – no other. I have signed up for his kingdom and it has my ultimate and total allegiance. Christ is King. And so I will follow him and find him where he is even now, among the poor, the homeless, the frightened, the rootless and the victimised, the lonely and the dying. And I bow the knee not to the powers of this world, but to the one who is crowned with love. Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus Christ is King. Amen.