Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
Fr Richard Peers SMMS – Christ the King 2021
Hopefully, the Precentor and my fellow canons will forgive me for being a little controversial this morning.
Controversy entirely driven, I should say, by the gospel we have just heard.
I am thinking of establishing a new campaign group in the Church of England:
The Movement for the Abolition of the Feast of Christ the King.
Actually, the Church of England really doesn’t need any more campaign groups, and this one might be a rather niche, one member group, also MAFCK isn’t an altogether memorable acronym.
However, to say I have reservations about today’s feast would be something of an understatement. It is, in my view, a mistake. It is problematic and should be abolished.
Even the Roman Catholic Church only invented this feast of Christ the King in1925. It was added to the Church of England’s calendar in the 1990s.
I can see how it happened. Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Making this a grand festival has a theatrical neatness about it; this is the finale, the show stopper! Better a bang than a whimper.
But actually I think a whimper is exactly how we should end the liturgical year to be ready for the great longing of Advent that is to begin next Sunday.
The Church of England has also tried to tie together the whole of November, All Saints, the dead, and Remembrance. Kingdom is a convenient tie for that.
Although I think there is a good deal of difference between the kingdom of justice love and peace and this glorification of Christ as king.
The Book of Common Prayer has the beautiful ‘stir up’ Collect for the Sunday before Advent, in place of an epistle Jeremiah reminding his hearers that ‘the days come’ and John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand – all of which segues much more neatly into Advent than our current grandeur.
The fundamental problem as I see it is really that the Bible is actually just so much more ambiguous about kingship than today’s feast would suggest.
As is Jesus.
Just look at today’s gospel. Jesus certainly doesn’t call himself a ‘king’. The furthest he will go is “You say that I am a king”. When we make such a deal out of Jesus as King we are much more like Pontius Pilate than we really might like to be.
St John in his gospel has carefully woven together a complex picture of who Jesus is. So it seems a shame to mis-use his gospel to claim a title for Jesus that neither St John nor Jesus himself actually claims.
Seven times in his gospel Jesus uses the powerful phrase I am. Ego eimi. Claiming for himself that revelation of God at the burning bush in Exodus: I Am Who I Am.
These are seven mighty statements in which Jesus edges right up to claiming his own divinity. And being a king is not among them.
These are the sayings, and we would do well to know them off by heart.
I Am, Jesus says:
the bread of life
the light of the world
the Good Shepherd
the way the truth and the life
the true vine.
This is how Jesus wants us to understand him and know him.
Jesus does of course talk about the kingdom of God (in Luke) and the kingdom of heaven (in Matthew). I wonder if there is some Trinitarian confusion here, if Jesus is the king of this kingdom who or what is God the Father?
When this feast was invented liturgical texts had to be found. The feast of the Ascension was heavily mined as you can see in the Collect chosen for today by the compilers of our own Common Worship.
But, it seems to me, this entirely undermines the meaning of the Ascension.
The Ascension is an historical fact for Christians, in which Jesus does not get levitated to some heavenly throne room and crowned king of heaven. Rather it fundamentally illustrates that our human flesh, our very bodies are incorporated into the divine nature. Essential if we are also to believe and understand the resurrection of the dead, not as disembodied souls dwelling in eternity but a real resurrection of real bodies.
Perhaps this is what is wrong with today’s feast: it is an abstract concept, not a moment or person in history. It is the only abstract concept celebrated in our Anglican Calendars. As such it is clearly an alien intrusion.
Let me be clear that I do not object to the feast on the basis of some Guardian reading dislike of monarchy. Far from it. I am devoted to our Queen and can’t see any system of leadership for a nation that would improve on what we have.
Nor do I think that we are called to any less than obedience and submission to God and to recognise Jesus as the ultimate authority in our lives. But this is Jesus who is glorified on the cross, who calls us his friends not servants (John 15:15). We are called not to be subjects in the Kingdom of God but fellow citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19).
Let’s look at the biblical evidence. Jesus is not called the king or a king directly in any places other than in front of Pilate by him, and, ironically, on the sign Pilate directs to be placed on the cross.
In the remainder of the New Testament there are a mere three other possible direct references at 1 Timothy 6:15 where Jesus is called the king of those who are kings and in Revelation 17:14 and 19:16 . So a mere three examples. Compare that to the number of occasions when Jesus is called ‘Teacher’ in the gospels, 45 times.
let’s have a feast of Christ the Teacher … no, I’m not serious.
We have to admit that the Bible is very ambiguous about monarchs.
Most of Hebrew Scripture was written or compiled when there were no kings in Israel. And it certainly appears to be the case that allowing Israel to have kings rather than judges was a grudging concession of a kind God. God had rejected Moses’ call for a monarch and it is only Samuel who anoints Saul and then David as king.
Even the ideal king, David, is a somewhat ambiguous figure, to say the least. Just ask Bathsheba or even more her husband (cf 2 Sam 11).
As so often I think the psalms can help us understand the problem with today’s feast and set it into a larger context.
The compilers of the book of psalms took great care when they put together the texts they had in front of them. Many of them are what contemporary scholars call Royal Psalms, some of them seem to be ancient Hymns for the Enthronement of a King. But the editors choose to always balance the royal psalms with wisdom and Torah psalms and they begin the psalter not with a great clang of monarchy but with a quiet, reflective psalm on the Torah. Like the editors of any book they set their stall out right at the start.
While I am more than happy to accept, as an article of faith, that the messianic psalms refer to Jesus, it is clear that the Enthronment, many of the royal and the great creation psalms which refer to a king are talking about God the Creator and Sovereign of the universe. God the Father, or God the holy Trinity, not Jesus alone.
And when Jesus describes himself as ‘the way the truth and the life’ he is directly referring to the longest psalm in the psalter, Psalm 119 where these are recurring images for Torah, the law, or better the way of life that God wants for us.
Jesus is in fact saying not that he is a crowned king, but a personification of the Torah, a living Torah. Far more revolutionary.
Outside of the gospels the New Testament does link Jesus to the royal psalms, notably Psalms 2 and 110. And we are, famously, made by baptism into a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter). But it seems to me that this is much more about each of us being made ‘little christs’ by baptism and therefore being of great, royal dignity by virtue of that.
The most carefully worked out spirituality of royal imagery is in Francis of Assisi. However, there it is really chivalry rather than royalty that captures his imagination, Francis is indeed the ‘herald of the great king’, but that king is God the Father. Jesus is more like the leader of the chivalric knights.
Jesus’ kingship is profoundly a shared kingship. His kingship is never unqualified. Preachers around the world will be making that exact point today and talking about the servant king, the cross as a throne and so on. But I would rather we avoided that necessity.
In my (slightly teasing) antipathy to this particular day in the liturgical calendar I suggest it should empower us to do two things:
Firstly, to read our bibles. It is part of our Reformation heritage as Anglicans that we all of us do that for ourselves. Read them and work out what God is actually saying about his kingdom; read them and see what Jesus himself says about who he is.
Secondly, when we have worked out who Jesus is let’s spend time with him, with the images that he uses to describe himself.
For the Prayer Book this is Stir Up Sunday. When we stir up the rich fruit and ingredients that will make our Christmas puddings. How about this week we spend some time in our prayer stirring up the rich multitude of images that Jesus uses to describe himself.
I may be over extending my metaphors somewhat but images of royalty, the royal priesthood we all belong to, should be like the brandy in the cake not the main ingredient.
What does it mean to you and to me to stir up in prayer Jesus who is
the bread of life
the light of the world
the Good Shepherd
the way the truth and the life
the true vine?
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen