Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Christ the King
November 21, 2010, 12:36 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , , , ,

A sermon preached at Holy Nativity, Knowle, 21st November 2010

Sometime around the end of September, in the year 1224, St Anthony of Padua preached to the Friars assembled in Chapter at Arles on the text: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” This is, of course, the inscription that Pontius Pilate had fixed to the Cross, as Luke and the other Evangelists tell us.

When the Israelites first asked God for a king, so as to be like other nations, the prophet Samuel was not pleased. God is your only king, he told them. The reigns of Saul, David, Solomon and their successors proved his point. Human rulers always fall short of the ideal. Nevertheless, from then on Israel was constantly reminded by the prophets, firstly, that the true King is God Himself; and, secondly, that earthly kings (at least in Israel) reign as God’s representatives, answerable to him and most especially as anointed by him. Samuel anointed both Saul and David with oil to set them apart for their task, and even when David was persecuted by Saul, he refused to take up arms against the Lord’s anointed. When David himself was dying, he commissioned Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet to anoint Solomon king. And all the people (at least in Handel’s version) cried, “God save the king! Long live the king! May the king live for ever!”

“Christ” and “King” are, in Biblical terms, virtually synonymous. The kings of David’s line reigned in Jerusalem, many of them (alas!) thoroughly bad lots, until Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed, and the royal line was deported to Babylon. In the centuries before the birth of Jesus, two ideas were in creative tension: the belief that the line of David would endure, and that the monarchy would be restored; and the belief that God alone is the real king and shepherd of Israel. “The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing.” “Hear, O thou Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep!” These two strands crystallised in the belief that God would send a definitive “Anointed” or Messiah who like Saul would save his people from the hand of their enemies, who like David would be filled with the Spirit of the Lord, who like Solomon would be blessed with the Wisdom of God.

When we celebrate the Kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ, all these Biblical themes should be in the background. Jesus is King precisely because he is Messiah or Christ, the Lord’s Anointed. His anointing is not with material oil, but with the Holy Spirit. According to Luke, he opened his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth by quoting Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” [Is 61.1] When he sat down, he said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” [Luke 4.18-21]

Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel’s hope, the Anointed of God, because he is not power-orientated like earthly kings, but comes to help the poor and the prisoners, to bring light and life and liberty. He does this by making himself the object of human hatred, the victim of earthly tyranny, so as to deserve to be the recipient not simply of our obedience, but of our love. We love him, because he has first loved us, and has sacrificed himself for us. “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” [John 10.11]

When Jesus stood before Pilate, he did not look much like a king. But even Pilate knew that someone may be the rightful ruler, even if he is a prisoner. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked. Jesus knew that Pilate was thinking in earthly terms. “My kingdom is not an earthly one,” he replied, with soldiers and armies to defend it. My mission is to bear witness to the truth. Strange words! Nowadays we associate government with “spin” rather than with truth! But what he meant, I think, was this. His mission was:

  • to tell the truth, to tell us how the world really is- what matters, what doesn’t.
  • to be true- that is, wholly reliable, loyal and trustworthy.

We can have faith in him, because he will not deceive us or let us down.

In today’s Gospel, we see Christ reigning from the tree. When the high and mighty mocked his kingship, the dying thief simply asked to be remembered when Christ came into his kingdom. “Today,” said the Lord, “you shall be with me in paradise.” We must never forget that, although our Lord promises us joy and glory, it is on condition that we first take up our crosses and follow him. Christian discipleship is always a Way of the Cross.

While St Anthony was preaching on the Cross at Arles, one of the Brothers, Brother Monaldo, looked towards the door of the room where they were meeting. There he saw St Francis, standing with his arms stretched out, apparently blessing the assembly. Francis, in point of fact, was hundreds of miles away in Italy, and unknown to the Brothers at Arles had about two weeks earlier received the marks of the Passion  in his hands, feet and side, while meditating on the sufferings of Christ. Monaldo’s vision was a kind of confirmation of Anthony’s sermon, that following Christ means accepting his Cross.

The folly of the Cross is the Wisdom of God. The weakness of the Cross is the Power of God. Raised from the dead, Christ our King, our Brother and our Friend is now “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come.” Because he is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters (even if we are the least of them) we belong to the Church which is his Body, animated by the Holy Spirit. He is the head, we are his hands and feet, his continued presence in the world. Through us he continues to bring good news to the poor, to set the prisoners free.

Christ is King. God save the king! Long live the king! May the king live for ever! And may he bring us all in due time to the Father’s house, where he lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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