Sermon: Sunday 25 November 2012
Christ the King
The Revd Canon Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
You will know that today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the church’s year, the last before the new season of Advent begins.
Christ the King is a rather peculiar feast. It was only established in 1925, at a time when most countries, including my own, had abolished the monarchy for good. Thus even in 1925 the feast had a peculiar feel to it; it smelled anti-democratic, reactionary, monarchist and chauvinist – at least in Western Europe. The Feast was certainly used in that way by parts of the Roman Catholic Church to enforce papal primacy over national churches and to express ecclesial distrust of democratic republics and particularly against socialist ideas and the danger of communism coming from Russia. Most of you being British, with a far less discredited monarchy than France or Germany, may have very different initial reactions to referring to Christ as Lord and King of the Universe than people in other countries.
Apart from political issues around the institution of the feast in the 1920s, what is it about to state with a Sunday Feast, a solemnity which pushes the normal liturgy of the Sunday out of the way, what is the point of stating that forcefully that Jesus Christ is King of the Universe?
If Jesus says that his kingdom is NOT of this world, what does it mean that Jesus is our King?
For early Christians this was pretty obvious. Most of them considered themselves as loyal subjects of the Empire, and several parts of scripture point to the fact that government and law and order are important things and that Christians owe loyalty and obedience to the law of the land. However, in times of conflict between the requirements of the state and the requirements of their faith they felt obliged to obey their true king Jesus Christ. For example, when the emperor Diocletian demanded a certificate from every citizen that she or he had worshipped the Roman Gods, the emperor in particular, those Christians who did not acquire these certificates and went to prison or in some cases suffered death and torture because of this were seen as martyrs in the Christian community. Those who worshipped the Roman Gods or purchased falsified certificates were seen as sinners and could only return into the full communion of the church after severe penitence. In the 20th century more Christians died for their faith and the requirements of their conscience against the demands of their state than ever before. More recently, the martyrs of the third Reich like the Jesuit Alfred Delp or the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer were consciously acting against the laws of their country, feeling obliged to do so by loyalty to their true king Jesus Christ. Such decisions are obviously not easy and not made light-heartedly, particularly in cases where their consciousness required them to act against the law and demands of their churches.
Accepting Jesus Christ as our king makes us responsible for our actions by giving us ultimately the right to resist our fellow human beings, our governments and our church if – and that is a biggy – we are convinced that their demands upon us are contrary to our Lord’s call for obedience. It is not enough to follow the crowd.
Currently a lot of people are fed up with the Church of England and are extremely angry with the decision which happened on Tuesday evening [when General Synod voted against the legislation to allow for women bishops]. Like many here I feel bewildered about this. I am switching between being sad, angry and frustrated and being deeply touched by those for whom this is far more painful than for me. I am obviously talking about female clergy but also about a friend who cannot in his conscience accept that women can be priests. He is currently very upset about being blamed, being called a misogynist pig and being cut off from his friends – a number of whom happen to be women priests. We are in a complete mess and nobody who doesn’t go to church regularly has any understanding why this is such a big issue and why we are so stupid. However, I am proud to be part of a church which has checks and balances around major changes and needs an overwhelming majority to make major changes. I am proud to be part of a church which is episcopally led and synodically governed. I am proud to be part of a church where the bishops and the clergy cannot impose their views on the laity just like that – but it is difficult if the things which I really like about being an Anglican work out to be an impediment to what I believe needs to happen. To be blunt: Holy Mother Church is a place where one can find Jesus Christ and where Christ is especially present through his sacraments.
However, though the church mirrors Christ it is not Christ himself. The church is a broken mirror with lots of faults and horrible bits about it. The church is struggling to discern the will of God and sometimes gets it totally wrong. As a fairly catholic Anglican I do believe that God still reveals himself within the church and that it sometimes takes a while for God’s will to become obvious and clear. Currently the vast majority of Christians on this planet do not believe that women should be ordained. I happen to disagree with that and I do hope that over the next 500 years things will shift. Hopefully in the Church of England it will take far less time. The decision to have bishops is clear; the question which remains unresolved is about how to do it. But in the worldwide church this will not happen in the next few years, this will take centuries if it is the will of God – if not, our successors will find out at some stage that they made a mistake. Today the question whether men have to be circumcised or whether you may have a pork chop for your dinner is no longer a divisive issue in the church. But it almost tore the Church apart at some stage. If you want to be depressed about church history read the Acts of the Apostles. The church has always been a mess and it always will be. But I believe that God will not leave his church alone and that he will make his will known to us.
You may consider that a cynical viewpoint, but for me this is about the kingship of Christ who is king of his church. Sometimes I would like to be the supreme dictator of the Church but luckily I am not – luckily for everybody else I mean. Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. He will sort it, he will make his views known through the Holy Spirit but there is a distinction between the kingdom of God and the Holy Church – the church is but a broken mirror to reflect Christ – and though the image is distorted and blurry one can still see Our Lord in it.
But God is not only the Head of the church; it is equally important to check on a regular basis whether God is truly the Lord of my life. I say that because in many respects all of us are acting atheists. I am an acting atheist if I give in the thoughts and feelings that the world relies on me to do this or that, that I have to keep control, that I have to organise this, other people would not do it that well, it’s better I do it properly, without me slaving away everything will go pear-shaped, the whole of Leicester Cathedral, of Leicester and of the world relies on Johannes doing a super job nobody else can possibly do. I am sure you all know these feelings. The other side of my atheist megalomania is that I feel over-asked, stressed, upset, I think tasks are too difficult for me. And this is entirely true! Being a
Christian and realising that I am not a Master of the Universe, I am not He-Man, if anybody here is old enough to remember him. (Anybody? He-Man versus Skeletor?)
Well, being a Christian who accepts Christ as King means exactly that I am not He-Man, who is a Master of the Universe. At the end of the day I am Master of very little, because almost everything which matters in my life is completely outside my control. My marriage, my health, the well-being of my children, even my own behaviour and the way I think and feel. I often reach the point when I want to do the good thing, but do the evil. Welcome to humanity. St Paul had exactly the same problem. As Christians who accept Christ as their true king and creator we are to accept ourselves as restricted human beings made by God. Through acknowledgement of my shortcomings and failures I make it possible for God to take them away from me. But I am truly required to acknowledge my failures and to trust in God’s justice and mercy.
‘God I wanted to do the good, I have done evil, I could not control myself or the situation, I feel insufficient and sinful. Help me, King and God of my life, deliver me from evil, take away from me what is between us.’
Prayers like this we say every Sunday and in our private prayers. Admitting our nature as restricted beings we give God the possibility to change us. Giving up before God, the insight not to have to do everything by ourselves gives perfect freedom. This is great relief: we do not have to do everything by ourselves, we world will not cease to exist if we do the wrong thing, but we have to be honest towards God.
Finally, something offensive. Being a Christian means to be a Eucharistic person, somebody who gives thanks to the true Master of the Universe. One of the most important spiritual exercises for me is to give thanks for a moment every morning for what I receive in life and have no real control over: my life, my marriage, my children, my house, my job, my church. To be Christians means to be grateful. When St Paul and his friends were in prison and were suffering from the Roman authorities they spend their time singing and praising God and proclaiming the kingdom. You may not feel like it, but singing, giving thanks, worshipping and praising God is the most important thing to do.
Let us praise God, let us sing to him, listen to his word, break bread together and let’s ask him to sort out this mess. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
© The Revd Canon Dr Johannes Arens