Feast of Christ the King – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 20th November

Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43

Those of you familiar with this part of Edinburgh will know well the National Gallery of Modern Art just down the road, and the installation piece by Martin Creed emblazoned in neon across the Gallery’s frieze. ‘Everything is going to be alright’ it tells us. I wonder how you react to that sentiment, truism, statement of faith? It is of course a deliberately playful piece – its possible banality, and our reaction to that, is at its heart. Everything is going to be alright. Perhaps you react to it alongside his other piece, installed in the grounds of Modern 2, where countless tourists have photographed its proclamation that ‘There will be no miracles here’ with the spires of this building in the background. I leave you to insert your own joke at this point…

Everything is going to be alright. It may provoke an ironic hollow laugh in a world that feels a long way from alright. Or maybe it expresses in deliberately simple and colloquial terms a longing and faith that everything will be alright – a modern rendering of Julian of Norwich’s famous aphorism that ‘All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.

In Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s popular film podcast, the phrase has become one of their many catchphrases, as they gently and humorously use film to talk about life. Over the months, a number of listeners have written in, in various states of trouble and distress, asking to hear Mark’s resonant tones declare Everything in the end is going to be alright. Some have however have questioned the accuracy and usefulness of the phrase, which has led to it being finessed, so that now Mark declares Everything in the end is going to be alright; and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.

Today we celebrate the end of the Church’s year – the Feast of Christ the King, and look ahead, anticipate, the end of all things. If Christ is King, then everything will be alright: as Colossians puts it, ‘all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’ Despite appearances, Christ reigns we proclaim – the kingdom of love and truth, which he proclaimed and lived, is the final reality. Despite appearances, today we assert our faith that in Christ all things hold together, even as things fall apart.

We might expect that assertion of Christ’s kingship to be triumphant, but triumph is not an emotion that sits well with Christian faith. There is deep in the DNA of Christianity a suspicion of it: the other time we are invited to experience it is on Palm Sunday, and we know how that ends – what the crowd’s triumph transforms into.

And so it is today: our Gospel for this Feast of Christ the King, is Luke’s account of Christ’s crucifixion. To see the majesty of this King we must not look up, but look down – this majesty is revealed in someone who is deeply humiliated, helpless. He is told twice over, in mockery, to ‘save himself’; the title King is affixed as an inscription above him to ridicule him.

Just as in Martin Creed’s artwork, there is irony here: the reconciliation of all things is glimpsed in ways that overturn our usual understandings of majesty and kingship. The majesty of Christ is found not in glamour, but in poverty. The usual end to be celebrated is to be rich and beautiful, influential and successful. The slogan ‘Save yourself’ in our world is no ironic jibe, but the dominant philosophy of life. If we cannot help ourselves, then we are tossed aside as useless.

Useless as a dying man on a cross.

The Feast of Christ the king overthrows our ways of imagining the world. Jesus has spent his life overturning the usual order: through forgiveness, restoring relationship where there was none, calling the unworthy and overlooked into discipleship. And now that way of life has brought him and us to this place of crucifixion, where outcast, Jesus finds himself among those, fully identified with those, he has sought to include and restore.

And on the cross, Christ is the living embodiment of the truth that ‘everything will be alright; and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.’ Living embodiment of that faith as he finds the strength to forgive those who crucify him.

And so it is for us:  today we look to the end, celebrate that end, even as we know it is not the end. In our Gospel reading, Jesus is addressed by the two thieves crucified alongside him, on his right and left. With which thief do we identify? Are we the one who mocks, ‘What kind of King is this?’. Or do we stand with the thief who sees in this man, and his way, a kingdom that he might be part of.  ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus replies, Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’. The latter thief offers an action of hope in the darkest place, and finds what is at the end coming to meet him where he is.

After today’s service, we hold our AGM – an opportunity to reflect together on the past year, and look ahead. And that is the question that should shape our reflection: what are the actions we are taking, acts of neighbourliness, common humanity, kindness and forgiveness, that mean the end comes to meet us where we are.

Today is not some climactic great triumphant end, for we are not yet at the end. But it is a claiming of the faith in that end, while we still journey on. For that promise of paradise where Christ is King, is the final and fundamental reality, breaking into our world today, here and now in hidden, overlooked acts of generosity and kindness, and surprising forgiveness.

For as we shall say in our post-communion prayer, ‘Father, your steadfast purpose is the completion of all things in your Son.’ Amen.