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Sermon: Christ the King 2012

Nicholas Thistlethwaite
Sunday 25th November 2012
Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14
John 18: 33b-37

From the Book of Daniel:

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.  (7:14)

Then Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel:

‘My kingdom is not from this world.’  (John 18:35)

Two weeks ago, I was standing in front of the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey.  It has recently been cleaned and repaired, and the surviving fragments of mediaeval gilding and paint have been meticulously conserved.  We were discussing how the Chair should be displayed.  Should tourists be allowed to approach it or would a protective glass screen be needed?  How were the environmental conditions to be maintained to prevent further deterioration?  Should a pseudo-mediaeval setting be created, with damask curtains and cloth of state, or would the Chair speak more powerfully if seen in stark simplicity, with no attempt made to disguise its now battered condition?

           The Coronation Chair was made at the end of the thirteenth century to house the Stone of Scone, on which the Kings of Scotland were enthroned.  It had been seized by King Edward I during one of his northern campaigns when he also took the Scottish crown and sceptre, and presented all three to the shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey.  In doing so, Edward was making a political statement about England’s victory and Scotland’s defeat.  And when, a century later, St Edward’s Chair became the Coronation Chair, the symbolism became even more blatant.  England’s kings were invested on Scotland’s humiliation.  Only when the two crowns were united in the seventeenth century, and the Scottish king became King of England too, did the symbolism begin to wear a more benign aspect. 

            St Edward’s Chair is not the throne.  It is the chair of state in which the monarch sits to receive the regalia (culminating in the crown) before being conducted to another chair on a higher podium for the ‘inthroning’ as it is termed.  Yet it is an instantly recognisable symbol of earthly kingship: familiar around the world from those endlessly replayed films of the present Queen’s coronation in 1953: Michael Ramsey standing on her right, an unremembered Bishop of Bath & Wells on her left, and Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher in his cope holding aloft St Edward’s Crown before slowly lowering it, and placing it on the young Queen’s head to ‘loud and repeated shouts’ of ‘God save the Queen!’.  As a piece of political theatre it is unsurpassed.

           Today is the Feast of Christ the King.  For the last three weeks, the lectionary’s readings have directed our thoughts to the subject of   kingship and the kingdom.  In doing so, they have pointed up the contrast between earthly kingship, which has to be dressed up, dramatised, and acted out in order to maintain its authority, and heavenly kingship, which needs no props or stage artifice to assert its claims.  Earthly kingship – celebrated in the coronation rite, in public ceremony, in the mystique that surrounds monarchy – all too often proves to be hollow, unreal and vulnerable, whereas the kingship of Christ is of a different order: everlasting, authentic, invulnerable.

           That raises a question about whether the language of kingship is ultimately helpful in describing the sort of authority that Jesus, the crucified Messiah, claims.  His words to the bemused Pilate (‘My kingdom is not from this world’) seem to imply a rejection of the earthly model as inadequate, even irrelevant.  The purpose of his kingship, he says, is ‘to testify to the truth’ (18:37).  Pilate, in making his surely cynical response, ‘What is truth?’ (18:38), provides a clue as to why these two models – the earthly and the heavenly – are fundamentally incompatible.  For the relationship of earthly power to truth is all too often a tenuous one.

           Some of you may be watching a series of three television programmes about the relationship of Hitler to the German people.  It is a chilling reminder of how power can use propaganda to manipulate, exploit and deceive.  Hitler and the Nazis led the Germans in a dance of death which finally consumed not only the German nation, but also countless millions of men, women and children of other nationalities and races.  The Holocaust was the negation of truth and the victory of the insidious lie as the Nazis operated the levers of power (‘kingship’, in all but name) to deceive and poison minds.

           Even in more genuinely democratic societies, the relationship between power (or kingship) and truth is an uneasy one.  The exercise of power involves compromise; being ‘economical with the truth’ isn’t necessarily seen as disreputable in political circles.  Political expediency (in time of war; when negotiating with a competitor) demands compromises which sometimes equate ill with truth.  Pilate, wearily experienced in realpolitik, knew that.      

           ‘My kingdom is not from this world’.  Jesus’ words to Pilate force us to ask whether we must discard the earthly kingdom as a fore-shadowing of the God-centred kingdom that he comes to proclaim.

           It is understandable that writers, such as the unknown group who compiled the Book of Daniel in the middle of the second century BC, and the mysterious ‘John’ who recorded his vision in the Book of   Revelation, expressed their expectations for the imminent eruption of God’s kingdom into human history in images drawn from their experience: thrones, kings, courtiers and counsellors, armies and horsemen, cities with thoroughfares, cemeteries, ships, palaces and temples.  Jesus (a man of his time) deployed some of this language when talking about the apocalypse.

           But in general the language he used, and the images he explored to answer the question, ‘What is this Kingdom of God like?’ were more unexpected.  Perhaps deliberately, he avoided the model of the earthly kingdom.  In Jesus’ teaching, the Kingdom was like a mustard seed, yeast, treasure hidden in a field, a fisherman’s catch, seed scattered on the earth by a farmer, a lost sheep, a lost coin, a banquet, a field of corn, a pearl.  In these homely images, the inner qualities, not the outer appearance of the kingdom, are revealed.  Power has nothing to do with it.  Instead, we learn the graciousness, generosity, abundance, inclusiveness and pervasiveness of God’s Kingdom.  And we learn the character of the King who searches out the lost and gives himself without reservation to his children.

           His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.  (7:14)

The writer in the Book of Daniel couldn’t help but equate the rule of God with an earthly kingdom: what other metaphor could he use?  Jesus, however, was more radical.  He set on one side the ambiguous metaphors of earthly power and politics, and turned instead to everyday images drawn from ordinary life.  In the same way, his kingship was revealed not when he was raised on a gilded throne, but when his wounded body was raised on a cross.  The cross is a negation of earthly ideas of authority: a shocking rejection of human power politics and the conventional theatre of monarchy.  From the cross, Jesus inaugurates a new kingdom characterised by love not selfishness, sacrifice not greed, truth not falsehood, faithfulness not betrayal.  In that new beginning we find our salvation when we turn our eyes onto the suffering but victorious figure on the cross and acknowledge him as Christ our King.