Sermon 22 November 2015 Christ the King

“My kingdom is not from here”

Pilate asked him “So you are a king?”. Jesus answered “You say that I am a king.” So we do – and we say it officially since Pope Pius XI inaugurated this feast in 1925.

However, isn’t there always an ambivalence in this saying, this naming of Jesus as King and in this Feast? – an ambivalence that is nicely captured in John’s account of the exchange between prisoner and governor. We say that he is king but does Jesus? Should we?

Today’s other readings and the antiphons we have sung express the glory of kingship: “ruler of the kings of the earth” (we might think of King Edgar being rowed along the River Dee by eight kings) and having a dominion that is “an everlasting dominion”. There are the icons of Christ Pantocrator, such as the one in this church, seated on the throne with book open and judgment to come - they reinforce this image of royal glory. “I myself sat down with my Father on his throne” we hear in the Book of Revelation. The one who says this is named the Amen and the beginning of God’s creation.

All of this imagery contrasts sharply with the scene in John’s gospel. “You say that I am a King” – these are the words of a man who has been bound, who has been struck on the face by a police officer. He is a provincial, an itinerant preacher of a subject people, standing before the judgement seat of the highest official of the Empire. That official will shortly order him to be flogged. The soldiers will humiliate him inventively, using twisted versions of the very symbols of royalty to do so. The leaders of God’s people will publicly demand his death – termination with extreme prejudice.

Of course I’m aware that there’s more to John’s depiction of the trial than this but the picture I’ve drawn corresponds with the equivalent scenes in the synoptic Gospels and with what is historically probable. If there is anything in this picture which suggests kingship as we normally understand it, then it is the kingship of a pretender, whose claims have been woefully exposed. By the standards of earthly realms, there is no glory, only ignominy.

However, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from here”. What then? Can we understand Christ’s kingship, if this is a different kind of kingship, one not fashioned from the forces which move our commonplace world? A kingship not of horses, nor of many wives, nor of great quantities of gold and silver - the things which the Book of Deuteronomy forbade to the kings set over Israel. Not a kingship such as that of France which we fought over in 1415 and again in 1815, nor of England which we fought over in 1215 and again in 1715.

“If my kingship were of this world, my followers would be fighting …”

Perhaps we need to hear that again today – Christ doesn’t need us to defend him and his kingship by fighting. 

Ignatius of Loyola, in his ‘Spiritual Exercises’, invites the retreatant to pray an exercise which he entitles ‘The Call of an Earthly King’. It’s in two parts and, at first blush, it seems to equate the kingship of Christ with that of an earthly king. In the first part we place before our minds a human King chosen by God, who addresses all his subjects with the words: “It is my will to conquer all the lands of the infidel. Therefore whoever wishes to join with me in this enterprise must be content with the same food, drink, clothing etc. as mine … as he has had a share in the toil with me, afterwards, he may share in the victory with me.”

Ignatius says we should consider what the answer of good subjects ought to be to a king so generous and noble-minded. If we should refuse, we would deserve to be looked upon as an ignoble knight. Well, with Ignatius we are still in the medieval world of knightly honour. Surprisingly few retreatants seem to have any difficulty entering imaginatively into this scenario today. Ignatius is setting before us the image of the most attractive and honourable earthly aspiration – one we can’t but admire.

Then in the second part of the Exercise we apply the example of the earthly king to Christ our Lord, along the lines of “how much more worthy of consideration is Christ our Lord.” This Christ says: “It is my will to conquer the whole world and all my enemies and thus to enter into the glory of my Father. Therefore whoever wishes to join me in this enterprise must be willing to labour with me, that by following me in suffering, he may follow me in glory.” Ignatius adds, for our reflection: “Consider that all persons who have judgement and reason will offer themselves entirely for this work”.

Does Ignatius then think the kingship of Christ is the kingship of an earthly king writ large? No, of course not. The point of the exercise is that our strongest motivations are not going to be realised in power or conquest or in any of the earthly goods beloved of kings and commoners alike. Ignatius is encouraging us to stir up our wills, our strongest motivations, by finding in Christ, who bears all wrongs, who takes upon himself all our ills, a nobility, a worth, that is beyond anything else we can know in this world: - “Take courage,” says St John’s Jesus on the same night as his arrest and trial - “take courage; I have conquered the world!”

The kingship of the man standing bound before Pontius Pilate is a complete inversion of earthly authority: “My kingdom is not from here.” It compels … by love of others - the unquenchable divine love which we find taking root in our own hearts. So Ignatius invites us to pray in response: “Eternal Lord of all things … it is my earnest desire and deliberate choice to imitate thee in bearing all wrongs and all abuse and all poverty” – “provided only it is for thy greater service and praise”.

This, perhaps, is not so far from the reason that prompted Pius XI to inaugurate the feast of Christ the King. To overcome earthly vainglory by stirring up the wills of Christ’s faithful people to imitate him; to heed the call of Christ our King. Amen.

                            Oswin Gartside CR