Collect for The Feast of Christ the King - 2008
ETERNAL Father, whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
keep, we beseech thee, thy Church in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace, and, of they gracious mercy,
bring the whole created order to worship at his feet; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Ezekiel 34, Vv 11 – 16 & 20 - 24
Ephesians 1, Vv 15 – 23
St Matthew 25, Vv 31 – 46
A few years ago I began a sermon by suggesting that the world is divided into three types of people; those who can count, and those who can’t. This morning I want to pose another sort of arithmetical conundrum for you. It is that the world is divided into two kinds of people; those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. I wonder if this is a sort of circular argument when I ponder on whether there really can be a group of people who don’t divide the world into two kinds of people. Just making the observation creates a division between two groups of people: those who divide the world into two groups of people and those who don’t. As soon as we say there is a group of folk who don’t make such a division, you’ve just made such a division! Why do I confuse you with this nonsense? All will, I hope, become clear. Today we keep the Feast of Christ the King, always celebrated on the Sunday next before Advent. It used to be called ‘Stir-up Sunday’, from the first words of today’s Prayer Book Collect. Since the First Sunday of Advent sees the beginning of the church’s New Year it seems appropriate to let the old year go out with a bang rather than a whimper; with thoughts of Christ the King rather than the mixing of Christmass puddings and cakes. So today, the last Sunday of the old year, the church celebrates the Feast of Christ the King.
My conundrum about two types of people applies equally to our discussions about the nature and person of Christ in a number of ways. The study of the nature and person of Christ is called Christology and it has its roots in the Fathers of the Church who, from the first century, began to study the emerging Christian writings and saw there a two-fold picture of their Saviour: the hungry, tired, Jewish teacher and the resurrected Lord; the outsider with no place to lay his head and the Judge of all the earth. Thus the early church leaders, those who had not known Jesus, were presented with a serious Christological problem: just who was Jesus? Was he simply a human teacher? Is he the Lord, the Word of God Incarnate? Is he both? Is he neither? In the first three centuries of the Christian church several heresies developed about the nature of Christ. The two most serious ones came from the minds and pens of the Docetists and the Ebionites. In the first of these the Docetists argued that Jesus was utterly divine and had only seemed to be human. They suggested that nature and matter were inherently evil and could not be associated in any way with Christ’s innate purity and undeniable divinity. They also contended that Jesus did not suffer, did not die and was, therefore, not resurrected. On the other hand the Ebionites stressed the humanity of Christ compared with his holiness. Ebionites tended to be Christian converts from a strong Jewish background, struggling to hold on to their strict Judaic monotheism. For them Jesus was human, a son of Mary and Joseph, the expected Messiah, appointed by God, but not actually God.
We know that neither of these heretical groups, or others like them, won the day if only because of the insistence of those early church fathers that Jesus was the Son of God and he had indeed become fully human, in what they called a hypostatic union. Among these Patristic Church Fathers were such luminaries as: Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen and Ignatius. But for these prominent theologians and their strong opposition to these heresies we should have had the early church divided into two opposing factions.
To go back to my earlier question: can there ever be people who don’t divide the world into two groups? The answer ought to be – yes, the Christians. In his letter to the churches in Galatia Saint Paul wrote, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’. The passage following today’s Epistle is a whole chapter in Ephesians on breaking down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles. For Saint Paul being a disciple of Christ meant living without distinctions between groups of people. But sadly we are not as good at being ‘one’, a united body in Christ, as the author of this epistle suggested or supposed. We still have very polarised views on many matters. I should add that the division of thoughts about the nature and person of Jesus has not diminished with the passing of time. The last quarter of the twentieth century saw the publication of two influential books, called, respectively, ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’ and ‘The Truth of God Incarnate’. In recent years there has been much academic research into the identity of what theologians call, ‘the historical Jesus’ and any number of books have been written on this subject.
In our divisions, one group is up and the other is down; one group is in, the other is out. We keep peace among the insiders by banding together against the outsiders. Jesus came to end all that by becoming an outsider. He let himself be declared a criminal and was executed on a cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Saint Paul went so far as to write: ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2 Cor 5, 21) You see, the most basic division of the people of the world is between the sinner and the righteous. God let Jesus be declared a sinner in order to show his righteousness of not allowing such divisions between peoples in the first place. Jesus came to put a stop to our habit of dividing the world into two.
Yet, the pictures we see of Christ still give us that impression of division. On our crucifixes we see a naked man, hanging on a tree, dying for the sins of the world, while often above, maybe in a stained glass window, we see him in priestly robes, sitting at the right hand of the Father and crowned in glory. We cannot somehow get away from this duality. Of course the crucifixion of Christ was a scandal in its own right. This is not to suggest that other brutal deaths are not shocking – of course they are, but with Jesus we see awesome brutality meted out to one sinless, human person who we believe to be divine. The victim of that particular atrocity was the man who later generations learned to call their Lord; the Prince of Peace; the Good Shepherd called by God the Father to care for the human flocks of every generation: in fact to be called, ‘Christ the King’.
Today we gather in Christian churches across the world to honour Christus Rex, the King of Heaven, our Great High Priest, Christ the King. We reflect, as I have premised, on the crucified man with the nailed hands and feet and wounded side; the homeless Jewish itinerant with the crown of thorns. But with these views very much in mind we see him resurrected, risen and ascended; his hands still pierced but he is no longer in pain; still crowned but now with gold instead of thorns. In our divided thinking on these matters we could see these as two distinct figures but we know that they are only one and on that ‘one’ we centre our reflection and our adoration and our prayers.
Yet there is still a place for polarity in our Christian thinking. As Episcopalians we accept that the church to which we belong is, in many ways, both Catholic and Protestant. We accept that our souls are nurtured by Word and Sacrament. We know that there’s more than one way to be faithful; more than one way to read the Scriptures; more than one way to study theology; more than one way to love; more than one way to pursue the kingdom of God. Should it be paradoxical, therefore, for us to accept that the oneness of Christ, that the one Son of God, of whom we spoke earlier, is both fully human and yet fully divine? Even as doubtful and divided thinkers, as evidenced earlier, we must accept the full truth: Christ the King the peasant sage; Christ the Great High Priest the wandering prophet. All of this is important, and if we don’t accept all of it we won’t understand our common identity or the mission we are called to pursue in his name. So we try to take it in and accept it for what it is – God’s deepest truth in all its lovely, wonderful and totally incomprehensible complexity.
It is the contrast between the reality of the earthly events – despair, betrayal, crucifixion – and the reality of the full heavenly story – resurrected, ascended, glorified – that, even today, seems to make the Christian faith so difficult for so many people. And yet, that is the way it is. Out of the shame, the darkness and the grim brutality of the crucifixion, shines forth the love of God. It is in Saint John’s Gospel that we find the idea of Jesus reigning from the cross; and it is the right idea, for Jesus our Lord does reign as Saviour, Redeemer, Great High Priest, in fact as Christ the King. In doing so, he reveals the love and mercy which is at the very heart of God, but it is love and mercy shrouded in a mystery beyond human comprehension: the love, mercy and mystery that is God, the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
to whom, be ascribed, as is most justly due, all honour, might, majesty, dominion, and power, now, henceforth and for ever more. Amen.
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