Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Christ the King

Christ Pantocrator (all powerful)
detail from Paradiso, by Giusto de Menabuoi

Colossians 1:17

He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together. 

Luke 23:35
And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 

Make America Great Again!

Take Back Control!

These are the two slogans we’ll remember this year – both winning slogans, as it turned out.

They’re about promoting power and unilateral strength and they’re against things perceived as weakness or external threat.

From the point of view of worldly power, they are exactly the kind of thing you would expect from the kingdoms of this world – earthly rulers promise strong institutions that can react to outside threats, and which are bolstered up by military protection.

“Take Back Control” was the Brexit slogan that won the day – suggesting ‘a sense of rightful ownership’ 

(I can’t even remember the Remain slogan).

“Stronger Together” – That was the US Democrats': that didn’t work; it proved much too difficult – no one was really feeling very together with the ruling Elite...

The rightful ruling of a kingdom or a nation is the stuff of politics and on our news screens every night.

How should a nation be ruled?

Is might always right?

Are Democrat supporters right to fear Trump as an upstart and a maverick who will militarise America and bring us into the 3rd Word War?

Or is he the Messiah that the disenfranchised voters of the rust belt (American Midwest) were hoping for?

On this feast of Christ the King, we will begin by looking at the idea of kingship and ruling – a hot topic today.

Then we’ll look at Jesus as exalted King and as a suffering human being.

Finally we’ll ask, how do we hold these two pictures in tension, and why does it matter that we do?

1. People have always sought Messiahs – anointed kings/rulers.

It was no different in the Old Testament.

The people asked Samuel for a king and it was always going to turn out bad (Saul).

‘We want to be like other nations', they whined.

Other nations had kings.

But kings (rulers) basically do two things: lead their people into conflict over territory and levy taxes.

It seems ironic that Donald Trump, one of the richest men in the US (this is the man who has gold taps in the bathroom of his private 80 million dollar jet) has become the champion of the supposedly downtrodden…

Can you really be a champion of the people if you are so removed from their daily lives?

Enter Jesus of Nazareth – into a politically febrile environment – and into a tradition of kingship.

The king was like God in the Old Testament, e.g. Psalm 110, where we read:

The Lord says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”
The Lord will extend your mighty sceptre from Zion, saying,
in the midst of your enemies!”

The bible offers Jesus, however, as an alternative king and also as a culmination of all human hopes for a righteous ruler (though we don’t really know what we want).

Our Western mindset is based on the theory of progress – everything’s getting better and better – the job of the ruler is to lead us into greater material prosperity and protect us from outside threats at all costs.

In the Western mindset we can and do expect increasing advances in technology that will deliver us better health care and an answer to global warming without us having to change our habits of consumption.

In contrast to this theory of progress, we have the life, passion, death and resurrection of Christ.

And we have the history of the Church - successful expansion but also persecution, and periods of faithfulness, then unfaithfulness throughout history – the church experiences lots of little deaths and resurrections but is always called to die in order to live.

These things tell us that True Life is not about humanly procured economic prosperity, but about losing your life in order to find it.

What will it profit a person if he gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?

In place of endless progress, Life, in fact, feels more like two steps forward, and one step back.

And so against the backdrop of political upheaval, votes, elections and leadership questions that we see on our TVs every night, we have today two illustrations of kingship that are joined in the one person – Jesus the Christ, whom we confess.


2. Colossians – a cosmic king – this is a ruler supreme over all the universe – in him all things on heaven and on the earth were created, says Paul in Colossians.

This is a little hard for a student of physics to take in perhaps, this ‘Cosmic Christ’ of Colossians…

Jesus the man, the gentle saviour, the perfect human being, is easy for us to take on board, but the COSMIC CHRIST?

It’s a much harder concept!

'for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created,…..He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together' (Colossians 1)

The idea of St Paul here encompasses even atoms holding together…

It’s a HUGE intellectual idea!!

‘Through him, with him, in him…’ we say in our Communion liturgy.

In other words, everything revolves around the Christ of the cosmos and everything is held together by him.

Christ Pantocrator* is a title of Jesus meaning Christ all-powerful, not in the sense of ‘he can do anything’, but in the sense that every second, every minute, he is actually doing everything needful to continued existence, right now: he holds it all together.

If you want to grasp the idea of the cosmic Christ, meditate on Colossians 1:15-20.

This is the KING.

He makes all other kings look like tiny ants.

In 1925, amidst rising nationalism and secularism (sound familiar?)Christ the King was inaugurated by one of the Popes to remind the Catholic Church that kingship was in God’s power to give and that Christ was the ultimate king.

In the weekday Lectionary we’ve been in Daniel, who had the vision of the everlasting kingdom, amidst other godless kingdoms rising and falling.

This vision was needed when despotic rulers were on the rise and especially when they were threatening the very existence of the people of God.

So that’s one picture of kingship from the bible: the mighty exalted king – the cosmic Christ ruling in the everlasting kingdom.

And here’s another: Jesus on the cross.

The sign on the cross read: “The King of the Jews”, but the Pharisees were incensed about this.

They told Pilate to change it – to ‘This man said I am the king of the Jews.’

But he said what is written stays written.

He had the last word!

The mockers were not mocking Jesus for being a criminal, they mocked him for saying he was a king.

What sort of a king would go and get himself crucified?


3. These two contrasting pictures of Jesus are summed up in his name: Jesus Christ

As Richard Rohr has pointed out – Christ is not Jesus’s surname! Christ is his all- powerful title.

Jesus = the man who went to the cross,

CHRIST = the all powerful king, now exalted in heaven, but who existed from the beginning of all time, the Logos, in whom all things hang together.

What do we do with these two pictures before us today? (the suffering human and the all powerful God?)

Because there are in tension and theologically they have caused problems for the councils of the Church.

Do you stress the humanity over the divinity? The ordinary man who understands our suffering, over the all-powerful God who can deliver us from it? Or do you stress the power at the expense of the vulnerability?

Are we powerful, as Christians, or vulnerable?

Are we powerful, as humans, or vulnerable?

No other religion has this idea of human and God combined in one unified nature – and anyone who tells you that all religions are basically the same, cannot really know what they are talking about.

And this twin identity of Jesus Christ, the human and the divine, is what we celebrate at Christmas in the Incarnation.

It’s of primary importance in our faith yet I still meet people who’d call themselves Anglican, who haven’t realised Jesus claimed divinity. They think he’s just a moral teacher.

Someone said to me recently, that she didn’t really trust Jesus because you can’t put so much emphasis just on one human…. (!)

If we can get something of his actual nature over during our Christmas services and concerts, we’ll be doing well!

BUT why does it matter that we worship Jesus, Christ, the suffering one and the divinely exalted one?

What do we risk if we stress one picture of Jesus over another?

I think some of the angst around church decline and church growth that we see at the moment is about missing the connection, stressing one over the other, not understanding that we have to lose our life in order to gain it, like Jesus did.

There is a proper ‘dying’ that the church has to undergo – a dying to feelings of privilege, feelings of superiority, assuming people want to know what we think on things, feelings of moral one up-manship.

If we model ourselves on the Jesus of the cross, who did not count equality with God something to be held onto but who emptied himself on behalf of others – that is a good sort of dying.

Then there’s a bad sort of dying in the Church, which comes from apathy, complacency, wishing to be shielded from the mess of other peoples lives, holding tenaciously onto the past, not investing energy in succeeding generations who express their faith differently. That’s a sort of dying that parts of the C of E are experiencing. And it’s painful.


Leonard Cohen died this week. A writer in the Church Times paid tribute to him, claiming that many of his comments and certainly his poetry and songs, pointed to an implicit understanding of this winning combination of suffering and glory, that we are presented with on Christ the King.

Cohen wrote “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.

The crack is suffering. The light is the glory.

He also said “A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh”.

‘The Word’ – Christ eternal, the Pantocrator.

‘Made flesh’ – our loving Jesus, who suffered on the cross and understands what we’re going through.

This is the God that we worship today, on whose nature we model our own lives for the good of others.

Alleluia, Amen.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Sermon for Remembrance

Vimy Ridge Memorial to the fallen of the Great War

2 Thessalonians 3:11-13

For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Luke 21: 9-10 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom...

2016 has been a year of tumultuous political upheaval in the UK and the US.

Somehow with the dawn of the Internet and 24 hour news channels, it’s easy to be drawn into daily anguish about a political system that can be turned on its head overnight after a surprise vote to leave the EU, or an upset that puts someone as controversial as Donald Trump in the White House, with no previous political experience.

Church leaders reported some anguish amongst church members on the Sunday after the Brexit vote back in June, whether it was a sense of betrayal over being misled by politicians, heightened daily fear for non-UK Nationals, or being harassed for voting in a way that was portrayed by the liberal elite as isolationist, even xenophobic.

For some, our decision to leave the EU is framed principally as a failure to maintain our loyalty to a united Europe that has kept the peace for 70 plus years since the end of the Second World War.

What will happen to our old alliances if we find ourselves out in the political cold, is a lurking fear in many minds.

Across the Pond, psychotherapists in New York have reported a rise in Trump related anxiety issues amongst their clients.

Some have even used apocalyptic language to describe their fears by referring to the spectre of climate change, with the New York Times suggesting that a Donald Trump presidency could put climate change ‘on course for the danger zone’ (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/11/us/politics/donald-trump-climate-change.html?_r=0).

We are all a bit more touchy thanks to the Internet and constant exposure to comment about comment about comment on our current affairs.

I have spoken to several people, and noticed the tendency in myself, to be way too informed, to touch that news app. a bit too much throughout the day, to let that disturbing headline shout at you in the newsagent’s queue.

Being hourly in touch with such news can even disturb your sleep, as particularly younger people are worry about the way their world is going.

It can rob us of our inner peace.

There was a highly developed sense of the apocalyptic around in Jesus’ day.

It explains why so much of the latter part of the gospels deals with what Jesus says will happen at the end of the world.

Nobody questioned that the end of this would be a time of unparalleled stress – it was normal for First Century observant Jews to talk about these things.

For us, approaching Advent, it needs to form part of our belief too, because God holds the affairs of humankind in his overall framework and nothing can therefore truly be said to be out of control, though it may feel that way to us.

So I’d like this morning to help us be realistic about the world and its conflicts, but also to hear Jesus’s words to stand up for him in this world, and to endure.

Jesus was realistic about conflict and war.

‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom’ he says.

Elsewhere, in Mark and Matthew, we have the haunting phrase from the KJV: ‘wars and rumours of wars’.

Jesus doesn’t ignore the stark reality of war, but he says it doesn’t in itself signal the end of the world.

War instead is listed as part of the birth pangs of the age to come – not literally the end of the world, but, as it were, certainly en route.

The inevitability of war and conflict is illustrated by a look at a map of the world in which major or minor conflicts are listed according to how many violent deaths have occurred as a result of them in the past year.

At the top of the list with 10,000 deaths or more per year are conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq; conflict resulting from the Boko Haram insurgency, and of course, the Syrian Civil War, which dominates our news.

Then comes conflict in Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, Pakistan, the Mexican drug war, and Civil Wars in the Yemen, Libya and South Sudan, with each of these conflicts claiming up to 10,000 violent deaths each, in the last year.

All in all, in the list there are a total of 55 armed conflicts which are current, claiming lives and maiming for life others who suffer injuries as a result, with, of course, mental injuries being the dark hidden reality for many veterans.

And today we see vast numbers of refugees consequently fleeing the effects of war across the world, seeking a better life in countries such as ours where peace is a blessed daily reality.

And I suspect what the vast majority of these refugees and migrants want is not be corralled into camps and detention centres, not to be demonised by people who fear the stranger, but to ‘live quietly and earn their own living’, to quote Paul in the Epistle we had.

With regard to the world and war, the picture Jesus paints for his first century Jewish listeners, is not a pretty one, but it is realistic – humankind finds peace hard to come by.

Domination and greed we find easier.

And for us who live in peaceful neighbourhoods, it’s all too easy to ignore what does not directly affect us.

But ignoring what doesn’t directly affect us is something that the ruling political class have discovered, to their chagrin, only raises huge problems in the long term. Sooner or later, there is a bloody, or non-bloody, political revolution.

But in case we feel overwhelmed by what is happening in the world, Jesus calls his followers to endure.

Enduring is a key word for the Christian disciple – we have to continually live out our calling to follow Jesus even when the world seems to be in turmoil, or even when our own lives feel as though they’re in turmoil.

The bible is full of highly unsuitable leaders making terrible decisions that affect 1000s of innocent people.

And it also hopefully points to a Daniel, a Moses, a Mary, who said yes to God’s call and whose faithful witness changed the course of human history.

This is what Jesus calls us to today: to endure - to stick at following him, even when life feels overwhelming.

And as we reflect on wars and rumours of wars, we thank God for those whose ultimate sacrifice bought for so many the peace we enjoy in our country today.

We pray for grace, wisdom and direction as we live through these uncertain times, holding onto the certainty of God’s ultimate kingdom and reign amongst us. Amen.

Cemetery when the poet Edward Thomas is buried,
Northern France
God of peace,
whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom
and restored the broken to wholeness of life:
look with compassion on the anguish of the world,
and by your healing power
make whole both people and nations;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Copyright Archbishops’ Council 2016