Queen Elizabeth II once said: “We have to be seen to be believed.” Hence the continual cycle of tours and visits undertaken by the royal family. And particularly the non-stop activity of King Charles III in the first few weeks following the death of his dear mama. When Queen Victoria retreated into privacy following the death of Prince Albert, Lord Salisbury wrote to her saying: “Seclusion is one of the few luxuries in which royal personages may not indulge … loyalty needs a life of almost un-intermitted publicity to sustain it.”
Those of you with good memories may remember that I preached on the Feast of Christ the King this time last year. We took a look at some of the world events which led to Pope Pius XI introducing the Feast in 1925, almost a hundred years ago.
It wasn’t so long since the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed. Communism had spread under Lenin following the Russian Revolution. There was fascism in Italy with Mussolini coming to power and dictators emerging in the Balkans, Poland and Yugoslavia. Adolf Hitler had attempted an unsuccessful coup against the Bavarian and German governments. Meanwhile there was a great famine in Russia and China.
But elsewhere the 1920’s were referred to as the ‘Roaring Twenties’ due to the economic prosperity experienced by many countries. Or sometimes they were called the ‘Jazz Age’ to reflect what was happening in music and culture.
Minds, wills, hearts and bodies
Against all this background of political, economic and social change, Pope Pius introduced the Feast of Christ the King. He said that he had done it in response to the growing nationalism and secularism that he saw in the world around him.
Pius wrote this: Christ our Lord…must reign in our:
- minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ.
- wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God.
- hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things and cleave to him alone.
- bodies, which should serve as instruments of justice unto God.
Minds, wills, hearts and bodies. Everything! All we are – but stirred-up. It’s like Deuteronomy 6: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength’. We could do a lot worse than to ask ourselves to what extent Christ really does reign in each of those areas of our lives.
But then it all feels a bit King Canutish, doesn’t it? Whilst Pius had good intentions, the Feast didn’t turn back the tide. Introducing a day where we think especially of Christ the King did not stem Communism, Fascism or Naziism. Neither did the world get any less secular. Whilst it was very well meant it didn’t oblige the generations before us to stop in their tracks and take stock – any more than perhaps it does to us today.
Maybe we don’t think very much of Christ as King? I hazard a guess that we’re more likely to think about his birth, death or resurrection – or perhaps his miracles or his storytelling than his kingship.
I suspect the events of recent months may have brought into sharp focus what place we give in our lives to queens and to kings. The death of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of King Charles III may have made us reconsider how we think about royalty. Charles has worked extremely hard to give a sense of continuity but there will inevitably be change.
Does our view of the monarchy in the UK shape how we think of Christ the King? In this country, monarchs don’t now have the same absolute autocratic power as they do in some Middle Eastern countries for instance. If we think of Christ as King at all, is he opening a new shopping centre or accepting gifts of flowers from the public? Or, who better to give the Christmas Day message at 3pm? How would Christ’s message differ from Charles’ I wonder.
It’s instructive to look at how the Gospel writers see Christ as King – or at least the view of the compilers of the Lectionary in the verses they have selected for today.
As you know, the Lectionary is a 3-year cycle of Bible Readings. Today we have Luke. Jesus is on the cross, nailed between 2 criminals. It’s not where you would expect to see a king. One criminal insults him – but the other asks to be remembered. And Jesus exceeds his wildest expectations and tells him that today they will be together in paradise. No hesitation. Not tomorrow or some other time but today.
When did we do that?
Next year we have Matthew. It’s where Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes in glory and sits on the throne, he will separate out those who gave him food when he was hungry, and clothed him when he was naked, and took care of him when he was sick and visited him when he was in prison from those that did not. And when the righteous ask “when did we do that?” – Jesus says: “when you did it for the least of these who are my family, you did it for me too”.
Last year the Gospel was from John 18. Jesus is standing before Pilate – and Pilate is asking if he’s the King of the Jews. Jesus had just been beaten up. He’d been bound and questioned and struck in the face. He probably didn’t look much like a king. We don’t hear the tone of voice. We don’t see the body language of what took place. But we do have our imaginations. Maybe Pilate is looking at what’s in front of him and sarcastically saying: “Are you the King of the Jews?” But maybe he’s being serious and reflective: “Are you the King of the Jews?”
So, this is how the Gospel writers saw Christ the King. Not as an autocratic ruler at one extreme – or having tea with Paddington Bear at the other. But on a cross giving consolation, today, to a stranger, whilst in agony himself. And telling his disciples to look after the least of these. And one who was bound, bedraggled and beaten.
But then if you reflect a bit more you might recall that many of Jesus’ parables were about the kingdom. “The kingdom of God is like…” Those short stories with their twists and turns, the unlikely endings, the heroes and villains swopping places. We begin to get the sense that all we thought we knew about kings and kingdoms needs to go out the window because the kingdom of which Christ is King is likely to be outrageous and humorous and overturning conventions. A kingdom where people are set free rather than living under oppression and injustice.
Because in the kingdom of which Christ is King, a wounded man is tended by the person who is despised, after being avoided by the religious types who you’d expect to stop and help. In the kingdom of which Christ is King a father humiliates himself by reaching out to both his wayward son and the upright, uptight son who had stayed. And in the kingdom of which Christ is King a shepherd leaves 99% of his flock untended to go after the 1% that hadn’t made it back in time for tea.
No longer private
You and I, we live in 2 realms, 2 kingdoms. We have the rules which we need to abide by to be part of the society in which we live. A society that will never quite be what God promised in our lifetime. Not quite as just, not quite as equitable. But having had a glimpse of the kingdom of God then every single one of us should be more actively working to make more of that kingdom visible for those around us. Perhaps by being a little kinder. By being more of a better friend.
For that to happen, our faith can no longer be private, no longer in seclusion. For that to happen we can’t sing a good hymn on Sunday but then not help our neighbour on Monday. We can’t say “Thy Kingdom come” and then ignore the plight of the earth or be self-centred in how we manage our money and resources.
Seen to be believed
The Kingdom of God is around us and within us. It beckons us to live by its vision and values now, not some point in the distant future. For that to happen, Pius XI was right. It needs our minds, wills, hearts and bodies to submit to the topsy turvy reign of Christ. A Christ who stands beaten and alone. A Christ who gives comfort to a dying thief and a Christ who notices when we care for the very least of his family.
Next week is the start of Advent. We think about the king who came to meet us in our weakness and in our need and in our vulnerability, becoming weak and needful and vulnerable himself. A king willing to embrace and forgive and redeem all, because that’s his very nature. A king who comes to usher in his kingdom – but needs us, implores us, to recognise the kingdom already around us – and by our stirred-up minds, wills, hearts and bodies; by our words and actions, today, to make that kingdom more visible for the world.
Christ has to be seen to be believed – and how he is seen is down to you and down to me. Amen
‘Seen to be believed’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St John with St Mark’s on 20th Nov 2022. As well as Christ the King it’s also Stir Up Sunday. The Gospel for the day was Luke 23:33-43.
- For an earlier version of this sermon: https://stjohnstmarkchurchbury.com/what-sort-of-king/