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.

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