We have no King but……
November 22, 2009
Sermon for Christ the King Sunday Yr B (2 Samuel 23, 1-7; John 18, 33b-37)
I wonder what image comes into your mind when you think of a king?
Henry V ( or Laurence Olivier as Henry V!) all done up in his shining armour, leading the English into battle at Agincourt? Or Henry VIII, grotesque and cruel, disposing of wives at will? Or Charles I, going to the scaffold to maintain the divine right of Kings? Or George IV or Edward VII, living lives of pleasure and debauchery?
I suspect we tend to think of kings in historical terms, because it is difficult for most of us in the United Kingdom to have a contemporary image, since we haven’t been ruled by a king for nearly 58 years. We are becoming like the late Victorians, whose female monarch lasted so long that her image defined monarchy for them.
Our readings today are both about kings.
The first, from 2 Samuel purports to be a psalm written by King David at the end of his reign ( though it probably came from a later period). In it the eternal covenant between God and the house of David is affirmed. David is defined not just as ‘the son of Jesse’ ( his earthly lineage) but as “the man whom God exalted, the anointed ( messiah) of the God of Jacob, the favourite of the Strong One of Israel” affirming that his authority and legitimacy come from the divine. David claims that ‘The Spirit of God speaks through me’ (a claim echoed by Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry) and that God’s support of his descendants will last for ever.
But the passage also informs us that God’s support for this king and his line is not unconditional. The one who rules with God’s authority must rule ‘in the fear of the Lord’, justly, and, as the other covenants of the Old Testament repeatedly emphasise, with a special care for the disadvantaged – children, women and the poor.
The second reading, from John’s account of the trial before Pilate, might seem a strange one for this time of year. Next week, we will be into Advent, and heading full pelt towards Christmas, with our minds full of the baby Jesus, cuddly lambs, exotic wise men or kings from the East, and all the rest of that rather escapist sort of religious celebration. But this week, the last Sunday before Advent, the Gospel pulls us firmly back into reality, makes us look on to the end of the story, and forces us to look clearly at the manner of king whose birth we are preparing to celebrate.
In our church, we have an picture of that king to help us to get our thoughts straight. On the wooden screen behind the Lady Chapel altar, we have an image of Christ the King. He is dressed as an earthly king, wearing a crown and a robe and girdle of gold; but the lining of the cloak is blue, hinting at a heavenly dimension to his kingship. His arms are stretched wide: to receive acclaim? Or because they are fixed to the cross on which he is suspended? His kingship is clearly not from this world.
The Gospel reading describes a confrontation between two concepts of kingship. Pilate, who has the power of the Roman Empire behind him faces Jesus, who, even more than David, has the power of God behind him. Who is actually in charge of what is happening? Who is really king? Who has the real and lasting power?
From the perspective of the 21st century, we know the answer. We know that the power, authority and influence of the Roman Empire crumbled, in the same way as the houses of many monarchs since have fallen. As Shelley’s poem reminds us:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
But the kingdom of Christ, to whom we now give the title of ‘King of Kings’ has endured: as the lines from that favourite evening hymn tell us:
So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
Till all thy creatures own thy sway.
John’s Passion narrative is full of irony. Pilate seems to hold the power of life and death over Jesus, who is apparently a helpless captive. Yet it is Pilate who is terrified. He does everything he can think of to try to avoid exercising his power and putting Jesus to death. He blames the Jewish authorities; he tries to get Jesus to condemn himself out of his own mouth by claiming to be the King of the Jews; he tries to get the crowd to shout for Jesus to be freed; and finally, he washes his hands of responsibility.
In earthly terms, Jesus should be the one who is terrified. But he is calm, because he knows he is obeying the One who decides about eternal life or death. So he controls the conversation. Pilate wants to talk about power, conspiracy and politics. Jesus talks about ‘truth’ – a concept that Pilate simply doesn’t understand, asking in frustration “And what is truth?”
Jesus distinguishes quite clearly between the concept of kingship with which the secular world operates – the one in which the king’s will is enforced by fighting with iron bar and shaft of spear (images that come into both readings) and the concept of divine kingship, based on justice and truth and the word of God. HIs words give the lie to the notion that the divine right of kings is something that can be imposed by force; it has to be demonstrated by sacrifice and service. That is the only concept of kingship with which the Church should operate.
At the moment we are without a parish priest in this church. One way of referring to our situation is that we are in an interregnum (that is, ‘between kings’). It’s a rather old-fashioned way of describing the way a parish is run; one which fits best with a parish headed by a ‘rector’ a word which comes from the Latin for ruler (although technically in C of E terms it means a priest who has the right to the tithes). We didn’t have a ‘rector’ we had a ‘vicar’, a word which comes from the Latin for ‘substitute’ or ‘in place of’ (because in Church of England terms, he did the work in the parish in place of the person who took the tithes!). But it can also be interpreted as being a substitute for Christ – ensuring that the kingship of Christ is what holds sway in the life of the parish.
However, he was an ‘incumbent’ which means he held the freehold, which gave him certain rights, including the right to stay as vicar for as long as he wanted. That won’t be the case with his replacement, since the ‘living is being suspended’ which simply means that the next occupant of the office won’t be an incumbent and won’t have freehold. What we are promised, in time, is a ‘priest in charge’.
I haven’t used the term ‘interregnum’ since I heard Bishop Robin Smith, the previous Bishop of Hertford, saying it was a totally inappropriate term to use of the work of a minister in the church, since the only king we have in the Christian context is Jesus! I think that is a good comment for both clergy and laity to keep in mind.
The other term usually used for our situation is ‘vacancy’. But that, again, is not really a good description. Yes, the office of parish priest is vacant; yes, the vicarage is vacant. But the church is not ( or shouldn’t be!) vacant.
We are in a situation where no one person in the parish is the central figure of authority, the ‘king-pin’ – and some people find that situation uncomfortable. The sad truth about human beings is that many prefer to be in a situation where there is a centre of power or authority, because it means they don’t have to make decisions or take responsibility themselves.
In our present situation, there are a number of people with different forms of authority – the bishop’s authority as licensed ministers or as churchwardens, the authority that comes from being elected to serve in different offices, the authority that comes with being entrusted with a particular task in the life of the church. The parish will run most smoothly, and will most clearly reflect the kingship of Christ, if everyone, in whatever role, and with whatever authority they exercise, works together and co-operates for the good of all, as well as with a particular care for those who are most vulnerable.
And that situation won’t change after our new priest is appointed ( particularly since he or she will only be paid to work with us half-time!). Collaborative ministry is the buzz-word of the moment – and that implies not just collaboration between people in different forms of authorised ministry, but also between those in ‘official’ ministry positions and those who exercise other forms of informal ministry in administration, in music, in church maintenance and fundraising, in hospitality, in pastoral care and in prayer.
When Pilate tried to avoid exercising the authority he had to free or condemn Jesus, the crowd responded by saying “We have no King but Caesar”. When we in this parish try to work out how we can ensure that the parish thrives during the period until our new parish priest is appointed ( whatever we call that period!) we need to say to ourselves, “We have no King but Jesus Christ”.
That way we will be inspired to work together to serve the people of our parish after the model of Christ the King, with the word of God on our tongues, the Spirit of God providing our strength, the truth of God in our hearts and the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as our pattern.