A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Feast of Christ the King
Sunday 25th November 2018
Three Children were baptised during this service.
“Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
There is a well-know story of a man who was at a reception and recognised an old lady he thought he knew. He smiled and made his way over to her, although he was embarrassed to say he couldn’t quite place her. “Hello,” he said, “How nice to see you again.” “Likewise.” came the reply from the sprightly lady. “How are you.” “Very well thank you. And how are you?” “I’m very well too, thankyou.” Typical cocktail party small talk, so far. “How are you family?” he asked. “Quite well thank you.” “And your daughter? What’s she doing these days?” the man ventured. The smiley faced old lady looked the man straight in the eye. “Oh, she’s still Queen.”
Friends, on this day of the Feast of Jesus Christ the King, we are invited to remember that Jesus Christ is still King, still the Lord. Jesus still greets us, and he greets these three children to be baptised today, with the same words of grace and peace as he did John on the island of Patmos when he received his great Revelation. And he makes that greeting, not as some noble teacher whose teaching echoes down the ages, although he is that; not as some moral exemplar whose life still inspires great acts of mercy and justice, although he is that too. No, the words of grace and peace to you and me come from the risen Jesus, the one who holds your life and mine in his hands while at the same time sustaining the whole of creation. “Hands that flung starts into space” are now held out to you in loving greeting. Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
When we hear the word “Lord”, perhaps our minds are drawn to the State Opening of Parliament, with ermine-clad peers in their serried ranks paying homage to the Monarch. Or perhaps we think of semi-feudal villages where men and women still doff their caps to the Lord of the manor. I can remember visiting a stately home in Suffolk on holiday a few years ago and our guide referring to the owners of the house as “his lordship” and “her ladyship”. Echoes of a lost age. Tony Benn perhaps once captured well the problem we have with this image of “Lord”. He said “I don’t talk about the Lord God – after all, I don’t believe in Lords!”
But Tony Benn missed the point (as so often he did, some of you will no doubt say!) because we need to go back beyond our feudal past to the meaning of the title “Lord” as it applies to Jesus in the first century, where lords like that didn’t exists. Instead, “Lord” is the title that refers to God and God alone. When first-century Jews used this word they were talking about God – God in majesty, God in divinity, God above all things. So, when the disciples started talking about Jesus as ‘Lord’ after the first Easter Day, and when they started worshipping Jesus as Lord in those heady days after the resurrection, they were identifying Jesus as this majestic, divine, ruler of all. When we talk about Jesus as Lord we are talking about Jesus as God, the firstborn from the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth. Those first Christians who proclaimed Jesus as Lord were saying that he is now the ruler of all things. And today it’s just the same. The church – the community of believers – believes and proclaims that Jesus is still Lord, and that he is God over us all who choose to follow him and those who do not; not the claim of a tyrant over slaves, but the claim of a loving One who reigns in the same way as he lived – through love.
So Jesus is Lord. Lord of creation, Lord of all. But, you will rightly say, look around. He may be Lord in the hearts of his people, but he certainly doesn’t appear to reign as Lord of love on earth. How do we get to that point when Jesus rules? This reign of love and peace and compassion and mercy – it’s certainly not what we know in the here and now is it? How does it come about?
Well, friends, that’s where you and I come in, and where Sebastian, Angus and Ffion do as well. God is establishing his rule on earth through Jesus but he has chosen to do it not by and imperial decree announced by a herald, or by the wave of a divine hand, as if he were a magician. No, God establishes his rule by creating a people. The People of God – the church – we are the people who are called out of the world into a new sort of relationship with Jesus and with one another. And that new relationship is founded on our willingness to allow Jesus to be Lord in our lives and in our church and to follow our Lord of love by living lives of love. The way we become Christians isn’t through being Church of England or being born in a Christian country. It’s not even through following the Ten Commandments. It’s through saying “Jesus is Lord”. And the church – the People of God – are those who say that Jesus is Lord. The church is Jesus’ people: the people who model their lives as individuals and as a community on the loving, merciful and compassionate presence of Jesus the Lord.
Imagine if we were to live like this. Imagine what we might become and what this world might become.
For example, when God’s people say “Jesus is Lord”, we are recognizing that Jesus is the God our lives. He is the ruler of them. In an age that worships autonomy we don’t like the idea of anyone ruling us. We’re so used to making our own decisions, controlling our own futures, shaping our own destinies that we can easily forget that, as Christians, God in Jesus Christ has first claim on our lives. But think for a minute about how freeing that might be. What might it be like to be free from feeling we have to keep up with the Joneses or the latest fashions and trends? What might it be like to be free from the dog-eat-dog culture that defines so much of the corporate world today? What might our world look like if our first word was one of encouragement and hope rather than cynicism or despair? What might our church be seen as if we were practising forgiveness when we are wronged by someone? What might our lives be like if our decision-making and priorities were shaped by the loving Creator of all things? Do we want to be more loving, more hopeful, more giving people? Do we want these children to be? When we say Jesus is Lord, God gives us his Holy Spirit to help us be just those very people. Jesus invites us to allow his agenda to define ours. He claims our lives.
But the way he does it is gently and lovingly. Over the years I have been a priest, indeed a Christian, I have seen a few people come to faith suddenly and dramatically. But I have seen far, far more people come to faith slowly, gently and gradually, often with quite a few false starts. Gently but definitely they have caught a glimpse of God’s presence in their lives and slowly it has made a difference. That’s what it means to allow Jesus to be Lord – to slowly cede our lives to his just and gentle rule. Perhaps we should talk to one another about this more often.
Of course, it would be false to admit it wasn’t challenging. There are plenty of very human reasons to be anxious about giving up control of our lives and allowing Jesus to be Lord of his Church. Do you know that story, for example, that story of the rich young ruler in scripture whose wealth was a barrier to discipleship as he had much to lose. It could be wealth, it could be status, it could be the way we make decisions in our lives that are the barriers we put up or find it hard to give up as we think about Jesus being Lord and King. No-one is promising that it is easy to give up those things. But, in part that’s what the Christian community is for. When we become a people who together struggle with these sorts of challenges, when we learn to give up a little of our autonomy and privacy for the sake of becoming more of a person in community, so we learn and help one another on the journey face these very challenges. There is a great prize ahead – God’s wonderful presence, his rich love, his abundant peace. Aren’t they worth more than money, and status, the love we have of getting our own way, our desire prestige, our addiction to privacy?
So Jesus claims our lives. But when we say ‘Jesus is Lord’ we also mean something radical about the church. It means that St Mary’s is Jesus’s church not ours – not mine, not yours, not the PCC’s – but Jesus’ church. We are Jesus’ people.
And it is part of my calling to help St Mary’s become Jesus’s St Mary’s. The clergy are here to baptise, bury and visit the sick; yes, we are here to guide, advise and counsel; yes we are here to preach, preside at worship and pray. But what it is our calling to do above all is to serve the people of God so that, more and more, we at St Mary’s allow Jesus to be Lord of his church in this place. It sometimes falls to me – just as it sometimes falls to each of us – to remind us all that this is what being a Christian is, at heart, all about. Sometimes we forget that this is Jesus’ church. Sometimes – often – I forget that Jesus is Lord and I need to be reminded; sometimes – individually – you forget that Jesus is Lord of your life and you need to be reminded; sometimes – corporately – churches forget that Jesus is Lord of his church and churches need to be reminded. Sometimes, it is the priest’s ministry to remind God’s people that Jesus needs to be allowed to be Lord of his Church and that when he is then God’s people are alive with God’s life and wonderful things begin to happen. Like the Queen Mother at the cocktail party, sometimes it is the clergy’s job to say, “Oh, he’s still King.”
But let me finally return to Jesus the King who is Lord of the Church. This Jesus is not a despot or a tyrant but a Servant King. I think this is so important as we think about what it means to be a church. When we look at the Lord of the Church we see a King who rules with scarred hands and a broken body. He bears the scars of the cross. And he invites us to allow him to bear our scars as well. If Jesus is Lord and if Jesus is a wounded Lord, then his presence in the church means that you and I can reveal our wounds too. Brothers and sisters, if Jesus is Lord of his Church then he is also the Wounded King, who holds us in scarred hands. Church is not a place for people who have all the answers; rather it is place where the questions of life can be shared, prayed through and met with the wounded hands of the Lord of the Church. I heard a great quote this week, which sums it up beautifully: “Religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there.”
Jesus is King. He greets us with his scarred and wounded hands. Jesus is King. He asks us to allow him to be so in his church and in our lives. Jesus is King. And all the people said…Amen.