Reading(s): Luke 23:33-43. This sermon was given by Sally Kerson at St Mark and All Saints.
For some people Remembrance Sunday was the first time they had ever sung the National Anthem since Charles had become King. A conversation with a few people on the walk back to All Saints after the act of Remembrance service at St. John’s was how it felt strange singing the words ‘God Save the King’, and that it is going to take us a few years to get used to the change. When King Charles is crowned next year the shout (and it will be a shout) that will echo in Westminster abbey will be ‘God save the King’. But today we celebrate Christ as a King, and his rule over the Kingdom of God, which is already in place and evident in our lives, even while it has not yet been brought to full completion.
We are just about to enter the season of Advent, the season of expectation and hope, a season that is very much about darkness and light with the days getting shorter and even more gloomy. Advent starts next Sunday and yet visual preparations for Christmas in the secular world have been well underway for what seems a month already. Shops are full of Christmas food and presents whilst lights are already brightening up our towns and cities. I am convinced that as the years go by preparations start earlier each year, or is it my imagination? Today though marks the end of the church year, and so you may wish to start making some ‘New Year Resolutions’ although probably not, unless of course it is to be less grumpy and impatient whilst queuing in certain shops during the next few weeks.
In church over the last 12 months, we have followed the gospel readings according to Luke. Throughout Luke’s gospel you will notice that marginalized people are featured quite a bit, he gives special interest to the poor the sick and those who are overlooked by their families, friends and society, plus special mentions to the outcasts, the Samaritans and tax-collectors. Luke also gives women a place of honour amongst the male dominated society of the times. We should all have learnt a little more about our faith and ourselves from the writings of Luke, just as we no doubt will learn from Matthew’s gospel readings as they begin next Sunday.
On this Christ the King Sunday the gospel reading does not show us Christ reigning in splendour, it is certainly not what we would expect to see illustrating kingship, power and authority. There are no fine robes but a naked and scarred body. His crown has no jewels, only vicious thorns. On his hands there are no rings of power, just the nails which fix him to a wooden cross, and he is not sitting on a golden throne. There are no courtiers or servants around him, just two criminals sharing his fate and an assorted crowd of soldiers with some spectators taunting and mocking him. But before we turn away from this ghastly picture of cruelty and humiliation, we see the words above the cross “This is the King of the Jews” and we hear the voice of an unlikely believer a criminal saying, “remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Someone here has caught a glimpse of the glory that is hidden by the awfulness of this torture. And we hear another voice, the voice of authority coming from the defeat of the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. We heard the voices of mockery and hate. Now we hear the voices of faith and compassion, and it makes us stop and wonder. Is it possible that in this picture we are getting a glimpse of the sort kingship that can meet our deepest inner needs, the needs we sometimes dare not even face ourselves and which certainly aren’t met by the rulers of this world?
Here is a King who is prepared to suffer alongside us. This is not a King who holds himself aloof from ordinary folk. This is a King who experiences betrayal, savage injustice, brutal cruelty and utter humiliation and yet maintains his dignity and integrity. This is a King who has lived life as we live it, who has died as we must die but who now lives a new resurrection life. He reassures us and welcomes us into that same resurrection life in his Kingdom where we will know the peace and healing for which we have longed. And so the picture of Kingship in our Gospel story turns traditional kingship upside down.
Let us stop for a moment and think about which characters in this terrible scene are the ones which we identify with? Where do we see ourselves in this scene at the place called “Skull”? Are we among the Jewish leaders and the Roman soldiers, ridiculing and tormenting whatever threatens our personal power system? After all it is important to us to make sure we are seen to have that authority, we don’t want to be associated with the underdog. Do we therefore blindly unite with them, as the first criminal does, even when their power system may cost us our life? I am thinking of those countries where the leaders take every bit of power from the people and subject them to a kind of brain washing. Or do we stand to the side, with the silent crowd, unwilling to join in the ridicule, but equally unwilling to stand up to it? This is because we are frightened to say anything for fear that we may be punished or bullied by the crowd or worse be dragged away . Think of the countries where people are frightened to demonstrate for what is right because they know what will happen to them if they do. In our own country do we sign that petition, do we speak up, do we go and demonstrate and stand up for what we believe is right? Do we therefore identify with the second criminal, announcing Kingdom truth where we see it, even when all appearances point to a different view of reality? Oh yes we would like to think we identify with Criminal Number Two, wouldn’t we? We’d like to believe that, under any circumstance, we’d boldly stand and proclaim that Jesus is Lord. I wonder how many of us are honest enough to admit we are more likely to be found among the silent crowd, not ready to commit to being ridiculed along with Jesus, but not willing to turn our backs on him, either, because that would be the safest.
Although perhaps there are days when we are more likely to be found among the leaders and soldiers, feeling threatened by any shift away from the stability of our own privileged place. Generally I am sure we would like to identify with Criminal Number Two, announcing that Jesus is King of Heaven and Earth, even when death is staring us in the face and we feel frightening and desperately alone. Where we find ourselves in this story, which is God’s story, all depends on what kind of King we want. Do we want a king who dictates every aspect of our lives, so we don’t have to think for ourselves? Do we want a king who swoops in and wipes out our opponents with amazing power, so we don’t have to fight our own battles or, even harder, be reconciled to our enemies? Do we want the kind of king who puts on a great show of majesty and pomp, so we can admire from afar and not get too close? Calvary is the clearest expression of Christ’s kingship. He rules, not by coercion or force, but by self-giving love.
This Sunday is also known as “Stir up Sunday” for two reasons. Traditionally it was the time when the Christmas pudding needed to be started, since it does need some time to cook and “ferment”. It was the Sunday when the family would “stir” the Christmas pudding and make wishes for the forthcoming Christmas season. But, the “stirring-up” is more fundamental since the prayer book collect for today, which has in the common worship prayer book been transferred to the after Communion prayer, says “stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people”. Are we ready to have our wills stirred up? For that is what comes with faith. By stirring-up our wills, we are all also called to question our assumptions and expectations. What do we expect from our faith? More of the same, or some fundamental changes? Is the church itself stirring itself up enough? Like individuals, the church also should not be complacent about matters of faith. How do some aspects of modern life and economics challenge our understanding of the Christian faith? What should be the Christian response to climate change and the future of our planet, fuel poverty, refugees and racial discrimination? What effect is the rising cost of living having, not only on our lives, but the lives of those around us, how can we reach out and help in some small way? And why is it so vital to “stir up” the wills of people? Well, as the prayer ends “… that the people may bring forth the fruit of good works”. Our faith and comfort should be stirred up for the purpose of showing forth fruit, the fruit of the Holy Spirit. We need to radically address again what it means to be a Christian in the world of today. Or as C.S. Lewis said in his book Mere Christianity “When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world." but he also said "We are mirrors whose brightness is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us." Let us then be those mirrors this coming Advent and beyond so people will see a glimpse of Christ in us so we may help bring in his kingdom.