Christ the King
Sunday, 26 November 2023
Marion Chatterley. Vice Provost
Leadership for the whole of creation
We’re at the end of another year in the life of the church on the Sunday that focuses on Christ the King. Christ as king is very interesting imagery, particularly given that this particular Sunday was only designated in 1925, by which time many parts of the world had become republics or were rethinking their relationship with an inherited monarchy. Leaving aside any discussion of monarchy in our own nation, there is no doubt that the title, king, carries complex connotations. We don’t need to look very far back in history to see examples where the king had absolute power which can easily be abused. And there are some places in our contemporary world where the power of the king, or sometimes the de facto king, is abused in ways that are nothing short of abhorrent.
But, in 1925, Pope Pius XI led the Christian world into this particular emphasis. So today I would like to tease out, perhaps reclaim, the idea of Christ as king. I’d like us to find a way into the thinking behind the title, a way into wanting to know more about this particular facet of Christ.
The fundamental task for the king, perhaps the only actual task for the king – whoever and wherever they are - is to have oversight of the needs of all of their kingdom. To rule over the particular dominion for which they have gained or inherited responsibility. There are clearly ceremonial responsibilities that kings are called upon to perform, including making speeches that will be heard by a large number of people. Kings need to choose their words carefully; they need to recognise the power they have and to use it wisely.
A good king is perhaps one who is able to see a big picture, to guide their people, or government, towards decisions that benefit the many. The good king is surely one who strives for an environment in which the well-being of all of their subjects is taken into account. And more than that, the good king has thought for all that has life within the kingdom. For the land and its eco systems. For the birds of the air and all that grows on the land. The good king cares for the people and that which sustains life and communities. The good king is interested in the many, not the few. The good king has absolute power that is exercised wisely and thoughtfully.
Now this is an interesting way of thinking about who Christ is and what it means to follow him. Much of our engagement with scripture, much of our teaching about prayer, much of our acts of worship is focussed on a personal relationship with Jesus. We read about Jesus calling the first disciples and think about what it means to us to be called. We read about the struggles of those who have gone before us in the faith and they give us the hope and the confidence to keep going in our own journeys of struggle. Many of our hymns have a personalised focus – O Jesus I have promised… and so on.
But today we are challenged to broaden our perspective. To think about what it means to follow the Christ who is king of all. To follow the Christ whose care and concern is for all people, all creatures, all that is has been created, and to share and respond to that concern, for all that God created. We know perfectly well that it’s not easy to balance the needs of our planet with the needs of people whose livelihoods are dependent on fossil fuels. We know that it’s not easy to balance the needs of people who are starving with the needs of people whose livelihoods are dependent on farming livestock.
We know that it’s not easy to find a balance between the way we have come to live our lives and the way that we perhaps know we ought to be living our lives. We may feel that 2 weeks in the sun is good for us, but jumping into an aeroplane isn’t good for our planet. What we need to remember is that these are not simple binary choices – in fact, that most choices or perspectives we’re faced with may appear binary but are probably much more complex than that.
This morning’s Gospel begins with a few verses about separating out the sheep from the goats. And we can, no doubt, create a narrative that says sheep are better than goats, or the opposite. They are actually pretty similar. They eat different things and their horns are a bit different from one another, but there’s not a whole lot to choose between them. There may be many reasons for a shepherd to separate them, but it’s not because one is more valuable than the other. What if the shepherd had put the goats on his right and the sheep on his left? That wouldn’t change the essence of the story; it wouldn’t actually make any difference to what Jesus was saying. It might, however, make a difference to how we hear it.
And that, I think, is at the heart of the importance of this particular Sunday. The lesson is about how we hear the teaching that we are offered. It’s about how we respond to the call on our lives. And today, that call has an outward looking focus. We’re not being asked to think about whether we treat people as though they were the sheep or the goats. We’ve not even being asked to think about the ways that we, consciously or not, divide people up into those on the right and those on the left hand. It’s about seeing God’s people, God’s creation, God’s purpose with eyes and hearts that are open to something more than our own agendas.
And here’s the thing. This king, this leader of all people and creatures, is simultaneously out there at the front showing the way and at the back taking care of the stragglers. This king isn’t a king for the strong and the capable; this king is for all of our world.
Later this week, world leaders will gather for COP28. The COP could easily be overshadowed by other world events, but we shouldn’t underestimate the urgency for the COP to do some serious business.
Climate change is a factor in some of the most problematic situations in our world. As we head towards COP28, it may be helpful to hold the imagery of Christ the king in our minds. It may be helpful to listen to the discussions and reflect on the resolutions through that particular lens.
It will be all too easy to observe the COP from a distance and to convince ourselves that it’s not got very much to do with us. Someone else out there needs to make big decisions that will make the significant difference. All we can do is tinker at the edges. And to some extent, that is true.
But it’s not a reason to let ourselves off the hook. The challenge to each one of us today, is to get beyond seeing Christ as our personal teacher, our redeemer, our companion on the journey, and to hold alongside all of that the Christ who takes responsibility for oversight, the Christ who weeps with us and for us and with our world and for our world.
Christ the king is modelling something about good governance, about leadership, that has Gospel values at its heart. We are called, in part, to hold our leaders to account. To challenge them when they fall short of the example that Christ showed us. To remind them, and remind them again, that their responsibility is for all people, all creatures, all creation. We, and they, and our world, deserve nothing less.