I was born in the early 1960’s, I know that’s hard to believe, and for most of that decade my world extended to about as far as I could see from the top of the hill which was opposite our front door. It was probably the 70’s before I took much notice of what was going on any further away than that – except maybe for a certain landing on the moon, with those small steps and giant leaps.
Kathleen Carter was my mum’s mum. She was born in 1912, the youngest of my grandparents. And I imagine for her it was similarly the 1920’s before she showed much interest in what was happening outside of her immediate environment. Perhaps that was through reading her dad’s newspaper or, from 1922, listening to the new-fangled BBC Radio.
The 1920’s are often referred to as the ‘Roaring Twenties’ due to the economic prosperity experienced by many countries following the tragedies of the 1st World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic. Sometimes it’s called the ‘Jazz Age’ to reflect what was happening in music and culture. Plus, it was the beginning of the surrealist movement in Art and authors like Hemingway, Woolf and Fitzgerald were on the Best Sellers list.
But the 1920’s also saw the rise of radical political movements. Communism spread under Lenin following the Russian Revolution. The fascist leader Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922. Dictators emerged in the Balkans, Poland and Yugoslavia. Meanwhile there was a famine in Russia and economic collapse in Germany. In 1923, Adolf Hitler attempted a coup against the Bavarian and German governments.
Nationalism and Secularism
In 1925, against all this background of huge change, and empires rising and falling, Pope Pius XI introduced the Feast of Christ the King. It’s the feast which we’re celebrating today. He said that he had done it in response to the growing nationalism and secularism that he saw in the world around him.
Pius XI 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. I don’t think any of us would disagree that these are all laudable points for Pius XI to make. For those of you in Café Church last month, they’re not too far away from what we saw in Deuteronomy 6: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength’. We could do a lot worse than spend some time reflecting on how much of each of these we really do give in service. To ask ourselves to what extent Christ really does reign in each of these areas of our lives.
But then history doesn’t show that introducing this Feast of Christ the King stemmed the tide of 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.
Do we really think of Christ as King? Or if I asked how you thought of him would you tell me about the miracles or the storytelling or the encounters with people on the margins? Or would it be his birth, his death or his resurrection? But Christ as King?
How do we feel?
I wonder if part of the problem is how we feel about Kings and Queens and royalty. That we don’t really like the idea of someone else reigning over us or of thinking of ourselves as being subjects. Our own experience here in the UK, for so many years, is of a benign and benevolent monarch. Most surveys have three quarters of the UK population still preferring a monarchy to a republic. But the statistics show that we’re less certain when it comes to a monarch expressing political views or how they are financed. How would we feel if the monarch had real power – and exercised it? Our experience of monarchy is very different to someone, say, in Saudi Arabia or Oman today.
Does that shape how we think of Christ the King? Here in the UK do we think of Christ the King doing a walkabout and collecting gifts of flowers from the public? Or opening a new shopping centre? Or, maybe, giving a Christmas Day message at 3 o’clock? Afterall, Christ would be the best person to do that!
Are you the King?
As you know, we follow a 3-year cycle of Bible Readings. The Gospel today is from John 18. It’s the part where Jesus is before Pilate – and Pilate is asking if he’s the King of the Jews. Jesus probably didn’t look his best. He probably didn’t look much like a king. He’d been bound and questioned already. He’d been struck in the face. And all we have is the words. We don’t hear the tone of voice. We don’t see the body language. And maybe Pilate is being sarcastic and mocking: “Are you the King of the Jews?” But maybe he’s being serious: “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Next year’s reading, from Luke, has Jesus on the cross in-between 2 criminals. It’s not where you would expect to see a king. One criminal jeers but one asks to be remembered. To not be forgotten. And Jesus exceeds the wildest dreams of this criminal and tells him that they will be together in paradise.
The year after that the reading is from Matthew. It’s the bit 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. 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”.
This is how the Gospel writers saw Christ the King. Bedraggled and beaten. On a cross giving relief to someone else, whilst in agony himself. Telling his disciples to look after the least of these.
What sort of king is this?
And then if you reflect a bit more you might remember that many of his parables were about his 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 great and the good who you’d expect to stop and help. In the kingdom of which Christ is King a father humiliates himself by going out to both his wayward son and the upright, uptight son. And in the kingdom of which Christ is King a shepherd leaves his large flock untended to go after the single errant sheep 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 as being part of the society in which we live. A society that will never quite be what God promised. Not quite as just, not quite as equitable. But having had a glimpse of the kingdom of God then perhaps we should be more actively pushing for more of that kingdom to be visible in our midst.
For that to happen, our faith can no longer be private. For that to happen we can’t sing a good hymn but then not help our neighbour. We can’t say “Thy Kingdom come” and then ignore the plight of the earth or manage our money and resources as if they belonged to us rather than being entrusted to us.
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, becoming weak and needful himself. A king willing to embrace and forgive and redeem all, because that’s his 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 minds, wills, hearts and bodies to make that kingdom more visible for the world.
A kingdom quietly made manifest by people like my Nan, Kath Carter who became Kath Jordan. A person who never needed to preach a sermon because her life said enough, who looked after family and friends whenever they were in need with never a thought for herself, faithfully played piano at the church service each week, enjoyed a cup of the weakest tea that it was possible to brew and wrote letters to her grandchildren (which they still keep) that were full of love and full of God. Amen
“What sort of King?” was delivered by Ian Banks at St John with St Mark’s Church on Sunday 21st November 2021. It was based on John 18:33-37.