Sermon preached at the Mint Methodist Church, Exeter,
“What I have written, I have written”
The Feast of Christ the King
Our Church Year begins on Advent Sunday. Today is the Sunday before Advent – in other words the very last week of the Church’s year before we begin again with Advent Sunday.
Traditionally this Sunday was known as 'Stir-Up Sunday' - named after the opening of the old collect for today: 'Stir up, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.' And traditionally, it served as a timely reminder to the cook in the house to get on and stir up the Christmas puddings too.
I don’t know how many of you get your Christmas pud from M&S these days, and how many still stir up your own – but the old stir up prayer from the 1662 Prayer Book is still there in our MWB (p560) as one of the 2 collects for today.
up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people,
that they, bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be richly rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
But over the last 80 years or so, this Sunday in the Church’s year has, to use the modern phrase, been “re-branded”. Today – together with Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and many more across the world, we celebrate the Sunday before Advent as the Feast of Christ the King.
And that incidentally is why the MWB offers another collect for today, which begins:
Eternal Father, whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven, that he might rule over all things as Lord…
In fact The Festival of Christ the King has a lot in common with Ascension Day – although those of us who struggle with the “up and down escalator” mythological imagery of the ascension maybe feel more at home with the image of Christ the King of all.
Today is a day when we celebrate the ultimate authority of Christ over his Kingdom – on earth and in heaven.
It was only initiated as a special day in the calendar in 1925 when Pope Pius XI established it as a Roman Catholic feast day on the last Sunday in October — In 1969 the Roman Church moved it to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, and it is now recognized by most Churches. So today, most of western Christendom — Romans and Protestants — observe the Festival of Christ the King on the last Sunday of the church year. A new feast celebrating a timeless truth.
It is thought provoking to think back to the early days of the new Church Feast.
The Europe of the1930s was a hardly the place where Christ appeared to be King. German Nazis and Italian and Spanish fascists and Russian Stalinists ruled by the jackboot and the violence of heartless force.
Against that backdrop, the Church begins to celebrate a new Festival – one which summons the faithful to meditate on the sovereignty of Christ over all creation – a kingship exemplified not in political oppression, but in sacrificial love.
They must have asked themselves – who is King in my life – Christ or Caesar?
And like them, on Christ the King Day we
inevitably remember the scene on Golgotha, when above Christ’s cross were
inscribed the words “The King of the Jews” (John 19:21)
And the religious leaders objected that Jesus was not King of the Jews – indeed that there was only one King, Caesar – then did Pilate of all people say “What I have written, I have written”.
Whether or not Pilate knew what he was saying, we know that Christ’s Kingship is no piece of empty bravado – it separates him from the Caesars, Mussolinis, Hitlers and Stalins of the world – for he is the King of Kings.
There is a famous hymn about Christ the King (sadly not in HAP). It was written in the 1930s by Bishop George Bell, Bishop of Chichester who has been described as one of the greatest Archbishops of Canterbury who never was. Bell was fearless in criticising what he saw as the abuse of power – whether by Hitler and Mussolini or by British blanket bombing of Dresden towards the end of the war.
Bishop Bell was frequently vilified and cold shouldered by the “powers that be”.
And yet, as the lights went out across Europe in the 1930s, he wrote this marvellous hymn to Christ the King – all the more marvellous when we think what was happening around him –
Christ is the King - O friends rejoice.
Brothers and sisters with one voice
Tell all the world he is your choice. Alleluia.
As George Bell watched his world collapse into power hungry violence, he knew that here of all times was the need to celebrate true power and the true King
Let Love's unconquerable might
God's people everywhere unite
In service to the Lord of Light. Alleluia.
And we await the results of arms inspectors’ visits to Iraq. There is no guarantee that our world may not be on the verge of hugely escalated violence, be it in the form of terrorist attacks or – just as frightening – nation states fighting by terrorist rules.
And this is therefore a good time to stand on Golgotha’s hill and say with Christians down many dark ages – the world may look a dark and dangerous place, but we rejoice in the one who wields ultimate power – the power of the King of Love.
Greatest Briton? - Left and Right Handed Power
I don’t know if you’ve been watching the “Great Britons” series on BBC TV and deciding who you think is the greatest Briton. It seems to me like the Thinking Man and Woman’s Celebrity Big Brother.
But when you look at Churchill and Diana, at Nelson and Lennon – all of them incidentally flawed characters like the rest of us – you realize that they all wielded power and influence, but in very different ways.
Some ruled by external might; others sought to win hearts; others combined the two types of power.
The two kinds of power – authoritarian rule by external force and internal conquest of the heart – are sometimes described as right and left handed power.
Right-handed power is to do with insisting on rules and obedience. And it has its place in the world – A state without right-handed power is a state without a police force and without a judiciary.
Right handed power makes very practical demands – but unless it is exercised within a loving and moral framework it can wreak havoc.
The power of Caesar and Pilate, of Hitler and Mussolini, of the tyrants and dictators of our modern age, show what happens when right handed power is let off the leash of morality.
Right handed power alone is deeply flawed. At it’s worst it destroys. At its best it can limit injustice and abuse. What it can never do is redeem and recreate. We need to complement it with left handed power.
When you pick your Greatest Briton – reflect long and hard before you choose someone who wielded only right handed power – and ask whether, however lethal the Mohammed Ali punch can be, it can ever make you the greatest??
Left handed power respects, trusts, and nurtures the other person. It encourages or discourages without demanding. It is strong enough to forgive and restore broken relationships. It is not afraid to be humble. It has the inner strength to make sacrifices.
That is the power of God, shown supremely in the cross.
But the two kinds of power are at work in our lives as much as in the world’s leaders.
We all need to learn – yes – to use physical force in places, but to rely on the deeper power of love for the ultimate victory.
“Robert Capon reminds us that it is the sort of power wielded by a mother crossing a busy street with a four-year-old. "you must hold my hand and come with me: this is a dangerous road and I'm not having you sitting down in the middle of it". "No, you cannot have the box of matches to play with, I don't care if your best friend's mummy lets him play with matches, YOU ARE NOT, so that's the end of it, and let's have no argument". But let her try that sort of power ten or twelve years, on and she's got trouble. At that point there has to be a turn-around, a totally different power game, one in which, paradoxically the power-wielder has to be the one who is willing to be defeated, which is why Martin Luther somewhere referred to the Cross as the Left-Handed Power of God.”
[Leslie Chadd in “Crucible” 1989]
And so from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King – who used to say to his tormentors that "our capacity to endure suffering will outlast your capacity to inflict it."
And once again we are back to the cross – and the knowledge that ultimately suffering defeats violence and love defeats hate. And because God is prepared to hang on the cross to the end of time for you and me, there is no contest – though the powers of evil throw their all at him, he will simply soak it up and remain the King of Love in whom is the victory.
So today we celebrate the King of all power – the King who reigns – the King whose hands, left and right, are not clenched but open and pierced, the King who reigns from the cross.
Let us pray that the power brokers of our new century use their power well and wisely.
But ultimately, thank God, it is not in them that we put our trust, but in the King who reigns form the tree.
His power will bring us all safe home at the last – of that never fear –
Meanwhile let us enlist in his army, and use his weapons of love and peace
And pray, as he taught us,
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.