Sermon for CHRIST THE KING Sunday next before Advent HIGH MASS Sunday 24 November 2013
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
‘There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”’
On first hearing, and even perhaps repeated hearings, it may seem a strange even an ironic choice of gospel for this feast celebrating the reign of Christ; that section from Luke’s account of the passion -especially in comparison with the grand sweep of the hymn to the cosmic Christ in whom all things find both their origin and their final end.
But the irony is deliberate. The soldiers mock Jesus, as do the religious establishment. Even one of the two criminals crucified with him joins in. There is that sign over his head and the crown of thorns. All of this to mock the suggestion – that a country preacher could be a king.
The Jewish religious establishment refuse to recognise him as their king- the Messiah. He was not the kind of Messiah they, and many of the people, hoped for: a new David who would smite down the Roman Goliath and restore freedom and independence to Israel. So the spiritual leaders, these men of the scriptures, mock him, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one.”
The Roman soldiers, whose job is to defend the Empire against all enemies domestic and foreign probably think this is a pretty pathetic threat to its security – but along with their commanders know that it’s important to make an example of trouble-makers before things get out of hand.
A gruesome public execution from time to time will put the fear of their God into the natives. Perhaps spare them death in some grubby campaign to suppress a colonial uprising, before they settle down to a peaceful retirement. Occupying armies, even those of democratic states, set down amid hostile and resentful populations, do not always behave well, as we know from recent events. So the soldiers too have their fun at the expense of this holy man: “if you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”
And of course, by the world’s standards, as much now perhaps as then, Jesus seems an unlikely candidate for kingship and sovereignty. He doesn’t fight back. He has not mobilised his popularity to advance his cause. Unlike Spartacus or later Jewish rebels against Rome, he has not raised an army. He has no expensive spin doctors or election-winning consultants in his group of disciples. Most of them, except some women, who don’t really count, seem to have scattered already – scurrying for whatever cover they can find lest the same fate befall disciples as well as master.
But the Church reads this passage today, and at Evensong tonight we will hear from John’s Gospel of Pilate – the representative of earthly political and military power – asking Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over…”
The irony at work here is that in Jesus we see the subversion of human understandings of power which are, in the final analysis, rooted in the use of power, dependent on the threat of violence. In Jesus we see a kingship, an authority which is not rooted in that kind of power at all.
There is a natural temptation for us to think of the crucifixion, the death of Jesus, as a gruesome but temporary episode which is then reversed, by the resurrection and ascension. There we see Jesus as king; established as such by God’s superior power.
But the Gospel sees things very differently. It sets out to tell us something more than the poignant story of another human victim of inhumanity. St. John’s sees clearly that Jesus reigns not just from the safety of heaven, but from the cross. And in our passage from Luke, we see too a Jesus who exercises his divine authority in the very moment of his death; his compassion at the heart of his passion.
The religious had thought Jesus blasphemous when he pronounced the forgiveness of sins. Only God can do that. But here on the cross we see Jesus doing just that:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
He prays not just for the soldiers, but for all involved in the political and spiritual conspiracy which had brought him to this; and by extension to every such abuse of power which arises from human sinfulness.
And to the penitent criminal, one of those outsiders in the gospel who get what the religious don’t, who from the midst of his own agony, glimpses something of who and what Jesus really is and begs: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus responds: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It is right there on the cross that Jesus exercises his power as divine king, to grant forgiveness. it is there that we see Jeremiah’s shepherd king leading his flock home to God. There we see his justice and righteousness. He is the Lord who is our righteousness because he shows that the true meaning of life, and our only hope of true peace, is to be found in the offering of life rather than the taking of it: in blood given rather than blood- shed.
We see Jesus at his most divine when he seems most utterly human: as the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.”
It is there that Paul sees that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
So, how are we to live as those who have been transferred into the kingdom of Christ, those who follow the shepherd king?
We find a clue in the words of the penitent thief. His partner in crime has joined in the mockery: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.”
But he rebukes him:
”Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
The penitent recognises something we all need to see is true of us all: that we are all sinners, that we have been condemned justly that we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, that we all need forgiveness. But neither that nor condemnation is the last word. We can turn to Jesus because we hear him say: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And for those who have been “transferred into the kingdom of Jesus Christ”, these two things are vital. In the light of the love of God seen in the cross, like the penitent thief, we see our own need for forgiveness. And we see the one in whom and from whom we are offered that forgiveness – not at some time in the future, but now.
But if we are to receive that forgiveness ourselves, we must allow it to transform our lives so that we share it with others, so that they may find it in us. And we need look no further than the Christian community to which we belong for the place in which we learn to do this: to forgive those who know not what they do. In any human community or family, in a church, there is ample opportunity for us to unthinkingly hurt others or to take offence when none has been intended. We do not need to look for some other place where we can learn to do this, as if somehow it will be easier there.
That is why the mass in which we celebrate of our redemption begins with the confession of sin and the word of forgiveness. That is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is made available in the confessional, so that we can hear Christ’s word of forgiveness spoken into our hearts and can ourselves become more compassionate and forgiving.
These things are given so that we might learn to be realistic about ourselves, to know that we are justly condemned, that we are paying the price for our sins here and now in lives less loving and generous than they are meant to be. But they are not given to condemn but to save; not to make us feel bad about ourselves, to feel that all is lost, but to give us hope. Make us better.
A priest said to me the other day, “I’ve given up trying to make people better.” These words have stayed with me ever since. I think I know what he meant: he’s stopped trying to compel people to be good, to behave, to keep the rules, like some spiritual policeman. That’s a role quite a lot of people would like us to adopt – although it’s other people they want us to keep in line; other peoples’ failings they want us to condemn. Woe betide us if we ever suggest that they might change their ways!
But the preacher’s task, the priest’s task, the Christian community’s task, is always to hold out to people the challenge and the possibility of goodness and holiness as well as the reality of human sin. This is possible because we are not speaking merely in terms of human resources of compassion and love and understanding, of trying harder, but of God’s gifts offered freely to us:
“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”
That inheritance is not just some future reward. It is a present reality. Jesus says to us, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Today we can share in the life of heaven. That sharing in being forgiven which flows out in forgiving will not transform the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of our God and of his Christ in one fell swoop, but that transformation will not come unless and until it happens in our lives; until Christ becomes our shepherd and king and we his subjects become more like him.