Sunday, 22 November 2015

"Christ the King" is the festival - but what kind of king and what does it mean to be one of his subjects?

Revelation 1:4b-8

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

What kind of King?
Today we celebrate the festival of Christ the King, but what type of King is he? I want to suggest that at least a part of the answer to that question lies in when it is being asked. In the time frame in which we are currently in I would have to say that he is the king of a hidden kingdom, which is what we find in the Gospel, whilst Revelation provides a different picture. Both, however, will help us to consider what kind of subjects we should be from what type of King he is.

Let's look first at the Gospel reading to get some idea of what I mean by that. The events in the reading take place in the last few hours before the crucifixion of Christ. He has been arrested, most of his disciples have run away and Simon Peter has denied he ever knew Jesus. Pilate is questioning Jesus closely to try and understand what is actually going on here and there is a sense of Pilate being ill-at-ease.  He knows that the Jewish leaders are using him to get what they want. He's a shrewd political operator; how else could he have risen to being in charge of Judah? And the writer, John, seems to be portraying Pilate as someone who is trying to find a way to let Jesus go. When Jesus hears Pilate ask him if he is the King of the Jews, Jesus smells a rat. No one in Pilate's position would think up a title like that.

'Is that title your idea?', asks Jesus. 'Of course not,' responds Pilate, 'It's your own people who have handed you over to me.' Jesus then explains to him that the kingdom of which he is a part is not based in this world, and the evidence for that is that, if it was, his disciples would be fighting to free him. I wonder if, in part, Jesus is saying those words to point out to Pilate that his disciples present Rome with no danger and that they need not be arrested.

Was Jesus preserving their safety and the future of the Gospel with those words? Certainly the disciples were scared after the crucifixion and locked themselves away, fearing the Romans would come for them in the way that they usually came for troublemakers after catching the ringleader. But Jesus has underlined that he isn't here to become a Judean king in the present world. He presents no threat to Rome. We can see this to be true if we look back through the Gospels. Do you remember that there are a number of occasions when his followers try to take him by force to be king? Do you recall the number of times Jesus walked off into the wilderness or up a mountain to escape them, his very own followers?  Or the occasion when he was so straight with them about what following him would cost them that most of his followers left him, leaving Simon to respond to Jesus questioning whether they would also leave with the words, 'Where else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.' Never once in his ministry did Jesus try to gain worldly power.

And we can trace it right back to his temptations at the hands of the devil when he is offered all the worldly power he wants, but he walks away from it. The kingdom of Jesus is a very different one from modern democracies and dictatorships because it is about stepping away from power and control. If Jesus had cultivated earthly power then his arrest would have sparked a revolution.  The very fact that it didn't testifies itself to the way in which he had conducted his ministry. Truly his kingdom was otherworldly, with different priorities and rooted in a different place. 

 This is something that so-called Christendom has got wrong throughout the ages as we have sought and taken political power for ourselves, and Jesus says, 'My kingdom is not of this world'. Even the action of seeking power for ourselves is wrong. Let me put it another way; 

When Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world, he doesn't just mean location, he also means values.  
This is one of the biggest issues for me today in the way that Christians conduct themselves. I have so many friends outside of the church who are there because of the way that they have been treated by Christians who need to be in control, who need to be in charge. But the kingdom that Christ rules is an otherworldy kingdom in which the first become the last, and the least important in this world become the most important in his kingdom.

Is that how we are living? Do we value the needs and opinions of others? Because if it not, then the plain truth is that, whatever we call ourselves, we are not a part of his kingdom. In fact I would go so far as to say that there may be others who attach different religious labels to themselves, yet by their behaviour towards the least in the world show themselves to be a part of his kingdom.

There are plenty of occasions in the Bible where the righteous ones are not those who were either Jewish or Christian. Think of Job, declared to be righteous and a follower of God, running away from evil. But he lived in Uz. He wasn't Jewish. If the kingdom of Jesus is not of this world and the values of Jesus are not of this world, then when we adopt this world's values, when we seek power and authority for ourselves or for the church we must ask the question, 'Are we actually of Christ's kingdom?'

Those who were at last week's River service might hopefully remember the verse we tried to memorise together, John 13:35, where Jesus says, 'By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ Love and power are utterly mutually exclusive. If you love someone you cannot have power over them. If you try and have power over them then you do not love them. This is not the same as proper authority, obedience and allegiance. I have no difficulties with my oath of allegiance to the Bishop, for example, but he is a servant, same as I am, same as you are, and we all serve Christ who is himself the servant king. His kingdom is not of this world, either in values or in place.

So if he's not a king in this world, where is he king? And what is the future of his kingdom?

The book of Revelation presents a different picture; the 'when' is including a look to the future. The imagery begins with the Trinity. First there is the God who is, who was and who is to come, which is a description of the one we call 'Father'. The next reference is this curious one to the seven spirits of God. Remember that Revelation is written in the style of Jewish apocalyptic.  That means that large portions of it are intended symbolically. The seven spirits probably refers to the Holy Spirit with seven being the perfect number attributed to God. Listen and count to how Isaiah describes the Holy Spirit in chapter 11:2: 'The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.' Seven attributes.

And then there is Christ as the firstborn from the dead. He is also described as the ruler of the kings of the earth, but note there is no indicator of their obedience to him; and that on his account the tribes of the earth will wail. But notice how John describes us as the kingdom. Once again it is a kingdom not of this world.  But John does foretell a future day where heaven and earth are to be united. I don't want to go too far down that route because that is more of an Advent theme for the coming weeks. But it's worth asking the question, why does his return, depicted here, cause so much horror on the earth?

I suggest that it is because he is described as the one to whom all authority is given and the one whose example all rulers, at whatever level, should follow.  His return to earth is something of horror because rulers tend to seek power for themselves whereas the model of Christ is to serve, to give power away. Those who want to have power rather than to give service, whether they profess themselves Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, Atheist or whatever, are not going to appreciate the end of the kingdoms of earth.  You see the Christian faith holds that the kingdom of heaven will one day take over the rule of earth; that the ways of justice and righteousness will be established here by Christ. The Old Testament name for this is The Day of the Lord, but it is not necessarily something to be looked forward to. The Old Testament prophets who speak of it do so in terms of judgement.

We can perhaps think of it as the values of the kingdom of Christ, values that we have just thought about, being imposed from above with authority. You may recall Christ's saying, 'The meek shall inherit the earth.' No religious affiliation is implied there. It is, instead, about the values of the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of Christ being established in the present.

And of course, if those values are imposed, then we should perhaps expect judgement on those who have lived according to their own gain and their own power, which brings the story back full circle to put ourselves as the subjects of what is being said. Christ's is a hidden kingdom. It is not of this world, yet we profess to be of that kingdom but we do live in this world.

So I want us to consider what we value and how we behave. I once heard a preacher declare, 'The way you treat the person you like the least is the way you love God the most.' How do we treat those we dislike or are uneasy with? How do we cope with our own internal ambitions? How do we go about garnering power in order to use it for our own ends?

Those who profess to be Christians place themselves under the authority of Christ the King, but his kingdom is a very different one from an earthly one. His kingdom is upside down, where the most powerful and the most authoritative will lay down their lives for the sake of others and where the last in line become the first. Those are the rules of his kingdom, and if we want to think of ourselves as his subject then we need to be prepared to live by those rules because that is what it means to be a Christian.

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