Sermon – 26 November 2017
Christ the King
Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46
‘There are three kinds of Christian.’ I don’t know whether you have the same reaction, but this is the sort of statement that immediately puts me on my guard. You just get a sense that it’s not going to be flattering. It also reminds me of a quip about the presence of the fairer sex at my old university: ‘There are three kinds of women at The University: the beautiful. The intelligent. And the vast majority.’
But back to the Christians. Surprisingly, perhaps, this wasn’t a sneering statement by a member of the Islington Intelligentsia. It was the product of a life’s thought and prayer, and was delivered gently and humbly by a former Bishop in this diocese, now well into his eighties, Michael Marshall. ‘In my experience,’ he said, ‘there are three kinds of Christian: those who want the King without the Kingdom, those who want the Kingdom without the King, and those – and, God help me, [he said] this is the category into which I am most likely to fall – who think that the Church is the same as the Kingdom.’ I wonder where you place yourself among those categories.
Those who want the King without the Kingdom. On this Feast, we are reminded of the Son in glory high and lifted up, with the nations before him – Christ triumphant, with dominion over all. This is the stuff of our spiritual highs – those times when we know that, in the words of the psalmist, ‘[T]he Lord is a great God, and a great king above all gods.’ Especially as we look towards our Advent time of waiting, we need to be reminded of the splendour of our King.
This glory is beyond our reach. That’s the wonder of it. But if we’re not careful, it can lure us into thinking that our spiritual lives are on a different plane from the rest of the things we think and do. We worship our ascended Lord, but our allegiance to him has little impact on us, or on those whose lives we touch, because our eyes are fixed upwards. When the Christian woman Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for her beliefs in Pakistan in 2010, the question was asked of us: if the same thing happened to you, would you have to plead guilty as charged? Would our behaviour have given us away? Or is our faith too much of a comfort and not enough of a challenge? Is it what makes our lives distinctive? Would the Christ of the wedding banquet welcome us in or say, as we heard a couple of weeks ago ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you’ – because we had forgotten that following the King means living in and for the Kingdom?
What about those who want the Kingdom without the King? I expect all of us know very good, kind people who put the needs of others before their own, but who have no faith in God. There are quite a few of them in my family, and they make the world a better place. But if we’re not careful, we too can latch on to the desire to do good and turn our eyes downwards to the needs of the world. We can be so busy doing good that we lose sight of why we are doing it. We are putting the cart before the horse – and we end up focussing on the Kingdom at the expense of the King.
There are some – most publicly and recently, John Humphrys of the Today programme – who think that Christianity is about being nice. Along with this goes the idea that the faith teaches that the nicer you are, and the better you are morally, the more likely you are to receive your reward and go to heaven. This makes for some marvellous caricatures of a spineless and hand-wringing Church of England. But it is rubbish. This is not what the faith teaches at all – it’s the wrong way round.
Our Gospel reading shows us the sheep and the goats – those who will be saved, and those who will be damned. But the deciding factor – the thing which determines whether you are a sheep or a goat – is not what you do in the world, but what you do for Christ. ‘I was hungry,’ he says, ‘I was thirsty, I was a stranger, naked, sick, in prison.’ On the face of it, neither group actually recognised him in the people around them. But at some level, as Paul writes to the Ephesians, those who love others in this way that Christ’s sheep do, have had the eyes of their hearts enlightened – they know what is the hope to which they are called. In other words, they know how infinitely they are loved by Christ, and so they are compelled to respond by bringing that love to others. This is completely the opposite of trying to haul yourself up to heaven by good works – here, the King gives us the grace to live for the Kingdom, and as we live for the Kingdom, so we draw closer to the King.
This holding together of the King and the Kingdom, the avoidance of those first two traps identified by Bishop Michael, has some interesting consequences. Straight after Jesus has finished saying this, he helps the disciples to confront the full horror of what they’re letting themselves in for: ‘ “You know,” he says, “that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”’ This is the backdrop against which he teaches them about the coming judgement. The hope to which we are called lies on the other side of crucifixion. It is a hope that pulls us through suffering and sacrifice.
This is no great surprise. One of the guiding principles behind some of our recent political trends – a principle which, consciously or otherwise, particularly appeals to young, social-media-savvy idealists – is the idea that utopia – the perfect place – is possible here and now. By contrast, Jesus is an entirely clear-eyed realist. He doesn’t deny the continued existence of the starving, the refugee, the prisoner. This is how it will be until the coming of the Kingdom. It is no co-incidence that this Feast of Christ the King was first celebrated in the wake of the First World War and during the rise of Communism. Our task is not to pretend that suffering is soluble, but to enter into death and new life through our King, and live out our ultimate hope that in him, evil is not merely dissolved but defeated. Holding together the King and the Kingdom is painful. But it is at the heart of our faith.
So what about the third type of Christian? These people, among whom Bishop Michael fears that he is in danger of belonging, think that the Church is the same as the Kingdom. It’s an entirely natural human reaction to the uncertainties of life, to band together in clubs of the like-minded. And once we have formed our institution, and dwell within it, there comes the suspicion of the outsider. The temptation is to think that we’re basically the sheep in here, and that there are a fair few goats marauding around outside. And looking at it the other way round, what about the people who aren’t here this morning? Do they see a club of the like-minded to which they don’t feel they could belong? Do they too think that we’re sheep and they’re goats? Are they silently assuming what my hairdresser said out loud a little while ago, for a laugh, but with some pain tucked away behind it? – ‘I can’t come to church – I think I’d be struck by a thunderbolt!’
One of the glorious and tricky things about Christ the King is that he is everywhere, and his Kingdom is offered to everyone. None of us has a monopoly. But almost unbelievably, we who have been baptised are called to work with him in that offering.
UA Fanthorpe, in her poem Getting It Across has a rather frustrated, deeply realistic, yet infinitely loving Jesus talking about the messiness of reality and of his disciples. ‘All they need / Is the cue for laughs,’ he says. ‘My sheep and goats, / Virgins, pigs, figtrees, loaves and lepers / confuse them… / Yet these are my mouths.’ There they go, he carries on, ‘Running absurdly away, or lying ineptly, / Cutting off ears and falling into the water, / Dying ridiculous and undignified, / They are the dear, the human, the dense, for whom / My message is. That might, had I not touched them, / Have died decent respectable upright deaths in bed.’ Two phrases sing out of the poem for me. ‘I alone must write on flesh,’ says Jesus. With him, and because of him, with us too, the medium is the message. But we don’t need to be perfect to be useful – Fanthorpe wonderfully captures the provisionality of us and our existence, and the pain of discipleship, when she has him say, ‘I am tattooing God on their makeshift lives.’ Ours are those makeshift lives, made real and whole by the tattoo we bear from him. But we might need to be prepared to broaden our horizons from the decent, the respectable, and the upright, for our tattoos to become visible.
Bishop Michael, with the wisdom of one who has loved the Church through many decades of its existence, and with a hefty dollop of realism combined with a vivid and living hope, said, ‘Churchgoing as we know it will have stopped within a generation.’ He might be exaggerating the timing a bit. Or he might not. But none of us can deny that all the statistics are pointing in that general direction. Sunday morning churchgoing – the model which we cherish and have inherited – does not seem to be sustainable. So, he went on, we need to think, not in terms of despairing or giving up, but instead, in a lively and hopeful way, in terms of how we can and must make disciples in the generations to come. This need to make disciples is already prodding us to think about the Church and the Kingdom in new ways. To make our edges blurrier, to reflect the abundance of Christ’s welcome. This is not a nice add-on to our faith, but instead a loving, grace-filled, sometimes messy and uncomfortable necessity if we are to be a Church which is faithful, both to the King and to his Kingdom. It is through our flesh that God will bring this about.
Whether beautiful, intelligent, or the vast majority, we are the dear and the human. And this is our calling.
Rev Kathryn Percival, Vicar of Lingfield & Dormansland, and Area Dean of Tandridge