Feast of Christ the King – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 21st November

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33b-37

Today we celebrate the final Sunday of the Church’s year, the Feast of Christ the King. It’s the climax of our year’s pilgrimage, from the anticipation, and then the birth of, Christ, at Advent and Christmas; through the mystery of Christ’s life, and death and resurrection that finds its focus at Easter; and then through the long season of Pentecost as we learn what it might mean to walk that way ourselves in the power of the Spirit. And so to this climax of the year, as Christ is proclaimed as King: our readings from Daniel and Revelation rejoice in the setting to right, the drawing into worship of all creation, that is at the heart of the King and his kingdom that we proclaim today.

And yet, and yet, in our Gospel reading, under Pilate’s questioning, Jesus quite pointedly deflects, refuses even, the title of King. It’s a gospel that places a question mark, at the very least, against any easy triumphalist acclamation of Jesus as King; certainly against our usual ways of understanding that title: ‘So you are a King?’ Pilate asks Jesus. And Jesus answers: ‘You say that I am a king.’

We are taken back, in our Gospel reading, to that moment of extreme conflict and brooding violence, in the early hours of Good Friday, as Jesus stands before the authority who will decide his immediate fate. And he is given an opportunity to defend and justify himself: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ asks Pilate.

And in that place of conflict and brooding violence and powerful authority, Jesus does two things, which place that question mark at the heart of what we celebrate today. First of all, Jesus asks Pilate where he stands. He asks the one who apparently has the authority at this moment, to give an account of himself. ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Why do you care, asks Jesus. For to all intents and purposes, Jesus is clearly not a King in any way that makes any sense to Pilate, or to us. Here he stands, helpless, friendless, deserted by his followers. And yet, from a deep well of courage and conviction, he throws the question back at the one cloaked with the authority and power: where do you stand, what’s in this for you?

And Jesus then goes on to say something even more radical to the uncomprehending Pilate: ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’

Not from this world – in this place of conflict, Jesus identifies himself as being from somewhere other-worldly. It’s a common accusation thrown against those who come at things from a faith perspective – that we are just being other-worldly, and it’s not usually a compliment. But here, it is the hard-edged reason for Jesus’ refusal to get involved in the conflict on the usual terms: ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.’ But Jesus isn’t going to get drawn into that fight; instead, he draws strength from a place that is not from here; he is subject to a different set of rules and demands.

In a world which constantly seeks us to take sides, get drawn in, arm ourselves, define ourselves as not like them, Jesus points to a kingdom not from here. Faith is characterized as the practice of going to that place, that kingdom not from here, which resources and strengthens us; it is that travelling together in the company of others who strengthen and renew us; it is the practice of prayer and self-discipline, that equips us with power that is not from here. ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world,’ says Jesus, ‘to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Pilate famously dismisses that claim: ‘What is truth?’ he exclaims. To the one who trades in the might of the sword and empire, truth is simply the wielding of that power and authority. Pilate ends the exchange uncomprehending; and the friendless, helpless prisoner before him makes his way to the cross. But we gather here as those who do listen to his voice, who gather as subjects of that kingdom that is not from here. We listen to that voice even as he makes his way into suffering. For the King we celebrate is found not robed in majesty, but walking the way of the cross; not wielding power and might, but offering himself for the life of the world. He asks his followers not to take up arms and fight on his side, but to follow him in finding the strength for acts of costly, forgiving and life-giving love. To be subjects of this kingdom, to listen to his voice, means growing in faith in the possibilities which that forgiving love open up; it is about being drawn into that kingdom not from here. That kingdom which on the far side of cross and resurrection, on the far side of costly forgiving love, is revealed as that which judges the uncomprehending and blustering power of Pilate, and Prime Minister; judges the preening power of might and authority found in different degrees in all of us, with the truth of forgiving love.

And so the question that the helpless, friendless, and yet faithful Jesus offers Pilate lies at the heart of our celebrations today: ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Where are you before this man; where am I before this man? Shall we trust in the might and power that is all too evident in the world around us? Or do we recognize our deepest truth in the journey this man makes, and so find our selves strengthened in his broken body and outpoured blood, strengthened by his kingdom not from here. Amen.

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