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Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Christ the King

Today is the very last Sunday of the Christian year, and it is the day on which we celebrate the feast of Christ the King.

I wonder what sort of images go through your head when you hear the word “King”. Often, one things of pomp and circumstance, the gold State Coach, jewels, servants, money…. and perhaps scandal, too. What do you think of when you think about a king? The modern monarchy is largely ceremonial, but I tell you one thing, I’d rather be represented by a hereditary monarch who is a-political than by a political head of state for whom I did not vote, and whose views were anathema to me! But it hasn’t always been like that.

We think of good, brave kings, like Edward the Third or Henry the Fifth: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”. We think of Elizabeth at Tilbury: “Although I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England, too, and think foul scorn that Parma, or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.” Or Richard the Lionheart – I’m dodging about rather here – who forsook England to fight against Muslims, which he believed was God’s will for him. Hmm, not much change there, then.

But there have been weak kings, poor kings, kings that have been deposed, kings that have seized the crown from others. Our own monarchy is far from the first to become embroiled in scandal. Think of the various Hanoverian kings, the Georges, most of whom were endlessly in the equivalent of the tabloid press, and cartoonists back then were far, far ruder than they dare to be today. You may have seen some of them in museums or in history books. The ones in the history books are the more polite ones.

But traditionally, the role of a king was to defend and protect his people, to lead them into battle, if necessary; to give justice, and generally to look after their people. They may have done this well, or they may have done it badly, but that was what they did. If you’ve read C S Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, you might remember that King Lune tells Shasta, who is going to be king after him:
“For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there's hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”

And when we think of Christ as King, we come up against that great paradox, for Christ was, and is, above all, the Servant King. No birth with state-of-the-art medical facilities for him, but a stable in an inn-yard. No golden carriage, but a donkey. No crown, save that made of thorns, and no throne, except the Cross.

And yet, we know that God has raised him, to quote St Paul, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Christ was raised as King of Heaven.

And it is the Kingdom of Heaven that he preached while he was here on earth. That was the Good News – that the Kingdom of God is at hand. He told us lots of stories to illustrate what the kingdom was going to be like, how it starts off very small, like a mustard seed, but grows to be a huge tree. How it is worth giving up everything for. How “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus does lead us into battle, yes, but it is a battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And through his Holy Spirit, Jesus gives us the armour to enable us to fight, the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of righteousness, et cetera, et cetera.

Jesus requires that His followers forgive one another, everything, all the time. Even the unforgivable things. Even the abusers, the tyrants, the warlords…. Even Osama bin Lade! We may not hold on to anger and hatred, for that is not the way of the Kingdom.

In our Gospel reading this morning Pontius Pilate clearly wondered what it means to name Jesus as King.

Pilate, who served the most powerful king in the world, knew what a king was. He knew about the power that a King has, the authority that he wields, the unquestioning obedience that he demands, and the power that he has to compel that obedience should it not be volunteered.

Pilate was a creature of his time, one who knew and accepted the rules – one who in fact was charged with making and enforcing the rules, and while he, like people today, sought to use those rules to his advantage, he knew what the consequences of ignoring or scoffing at the rules were.

One of the rules that Pilate was called to enforce was the rule that anyone who claimed to be a king, anyone who dared to set themselves up as an authority over and against the lawful authority of Caesar, was to be executed.

It was a rule that Pilate had no scruples about enforcing. It was a rule that he had enforced thousands of times throughout Galilee.

And so when Jesus is brought before Pilate the charge that is laid against
him is that he is a revolutionary – that he is one who unlawfully claims to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews.

The very idea that the bruised and beleaguered man that stood before him could be taken for a king must have seemed ridiculous to Pilate. He knew what Kings acted like. He knew what they looked like. He knew what even those who pretended to be kings acted like and looked like. And Jesus was not like that!

As we have seen, Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world. He is the king who rides on a donkey, the king who requires his followers to use the weapon of forgiveness, the king who surrendered to the accusers, the scourge, and the cross.

But he is also, and let us not forget this, he is also the King who was raised on high, who triumphed over the grave, who sits at the right hand of God from whence, we say we believe, he will come to judge the living and the dead.

So are we going to follow this King?

Are we going to turn away from this world, and its values, and instead embrace the values of the Kingdom? I tell you this, my friends, most of us live firmly clinging to the values of this world. I include myself – don’t think I’m any better than you, because I can assure you, I’m not, and if I didn’t, Robert soon would! We all cling to the values of this world, and few of us truly embrace the values of the Kingdom.

But if Christ is King, since Christ is King, then we must be aware that he is our King. If we are Jesus’ people – and if you have never said “Yes” to Jesus, now would be a terrific time to do so – if we are truly following Jesus with our whole hearts and minds, then let us remember our King calls out to us from the cross and invites us to follow him and to pray fervently for the coming of his kingdom –
• a kingdom which welcomes those whom the rest of the world might find most unlikely followers,
• a kingdom in which we can ask for forgiveness from those whom we have hurt, and come to forgive those who have hurt us.

As we reach the end of one church year and look to the beginning of a new one, may the one whom we know to be King of the universe and ruler of our lives guide us in our journeys of welcome and forgiveness that our churches may include all whom God loves, and our hearts may find healing and wholeness. Amen!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Lazarus and the Saints

Our Gospel reading today concerns the raising of Lazarus. You know the story, of course – Lazarus was the brother of Martha and Mary, and Jesus seems to have been a frequent, and beloved, visitor to their home in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. It’s possible, if not probable, that he stayed there most years when he came up to Jerusalem for the Passover, and they certainly seem to have been among his closest friends.

Anyway, Lazarus falls ill, and they send to Jesus to come and heal him. But Jesus, unaccountably, delays for another two days. And when he does set out to go there, the disciples are rather worried, as they fear for his safety. But he explains that Lazarus has died, and God wants him raised from the dead.

And when he gets to Bethany, both Martha and Mary disobey tradition, and come out to meet him. Normally, relatives of the deceased were expected to stay seated on low stools while the visitors came to them to offer their condolences – it’s called sitting shiva, and I understand it’s done in Jewish families to this day. Anyway, Martha and Mary run out to meet him, Martha first. Jesus has this wonderful conversation with her which culminates in him saying to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” and Martha replying with that wonderful declaration of faith: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Martha said this. Martha. A woman – and not only a woman, but a traditional woman, usually more concerned with getting a meal for Jesus and the disciples than in learning what he had to say! It’s amazing.

Anyway, then we come to the bit we just read, where Mary comes out to Jesus in her turn, and Jesus weeps at his friend’s grave. And then he calls for the stone to be rolled away and Martha, wonderful, practical Martha, complains that it’s going to ponk quite dreadfully after four days.... but the stone gets rolled away, and Lazarus comes forth, still wrapped in his graveclothes.

Now, it’s a wonderful story, and I expect you, like me, have heard many great sermons and much wonderful teaching on it. But the reason why we had it this morning is because today is All Saints’ Day, when the church is asked to celebrate those who have gone before into glory. What is sometimes known as the Church Triumphant; we here on earth being the Church Militant. And tomorrow is the Feast of All Souls, when many churches will have special services to commem­orate those among them who have died during the year, although some will concatenate the two and have the service today. Some churches, particularly Anglican ones, will have invited the families of all those who have been bereaved – probably known because the vicar took the funeral – to come to church either today or tomorrow to commemorate their loved one. Rather a nice idea, I think. In France, All Saints’ Day is a Bank Holiday – well, this year it will be All Souls’ Day, of course, as All Saints is a Sunday! Anyway, the tradition there is to take flowers – usually chrysanthemums – to put on your loved ones’ graves.

But All Saints itself is about life, not death. Jesus said “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

It’s a funny word, “saint”, isn’t it? We seem to give two meanings to it. It seems to me that there are two sorts of saint. The first is a Saint with a capital S. These are often Bible people, like St Paul, of course, but there are also lots of Saints who were, in life, totally dedicated to being God’s person. To the point where, very often, they got into serious trouble, or even killed for it. There was St Polycarp, who was put to death, and when he was given a chance to recant, to say he wasn’t a Christian after all, he said very firmly that he’d served God, man and boy, for something like eighty years now, and God had never let him down,
so if they thought he was going to let God down at the last minute, they’d another think coming. Or words to that effect.

There were Saints Perpetua and Felicity, her servant. Saint Perpetua was a young mother, whose husband and father both roundly disapproved of her being a Christian, and Felicity, also a Christian, was expecting a baby when they were taken and put on trial. They were left until Felicity had had her baby – a little girl, who was brought up by her sister – and then they had to face wild beasts in the arena. And so went to glory.

There are lots of other saints, too, whose story has come down to us. Although sometimes their stories are rather less exotic than we once thought. St George, for instance, the patron saint of England: he was born in Cappadocia of noble, Christian parents and on the death of his father, accompanied his mother to Palestine, her country of origin, where she had land and George was to run the estate. He rose to high rank in the Roman army, and was martyred for complaining to the then Emperor about his persecuting the Christians – he ended up being one of the first to be put to death.

And his dragon? Oh, that was a bit of a misunderstanding. The Greek church venerated George as a soldier-saint, and told many stories of his bravery and protection in battle. The western Christians, joining with the Byzantine Christians in the Crusades, elaborated and misinterpreted the Greek traditions and devised their own version. The story we know today of Saint George and the dragon dates from the troubadours of the 14th century. Of course, you can look at it, as they did, in symbolic terms: the Princess is the church, which George rescued from the clutches of Satan. I imagine football fans often see places like Brazil or Argentina as the dragon, especially during the World Cup!

But not all Saints belong to the dawn of Christianity. There is Thomas More, for instance, who was put to death by Henry the Eighth as he wouldn’t admit that the King’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon was valid, or that the King was Head of the Church. And in our own day, Mother Theresa looks likely to be made a saint, if she hasn’t been already, although she died in her own bed. She has been beatified, which is the first stage towards being made an official Saint You don’t absolutely have to be a martyr to be made a Saint, although it helps.

So, anyway, those are just a very few of the many “Saints” with a capital S. No bad thing to read some of the stories of their lives, and learn who they were, and why the Church continues to remember them.

And then, of course, there is the other sort of saint, the saint with a small “s”. St Paul often addresses his letters to “The Saints” in such-and-such a town. He basically means the Christians. Us, in other words. We are God’s saints. We are the sanctified people – sanctified means “being made holy”, or being made more like Jesus.

And you notice that it is “being made holy”, not “making ourselves holy”. We can do nothing to become a saint by ourselves! We can’t even say that God has saved me because I believe in him – our salvation, our sainthood, is a free gift from God and we can do nothing to earn it, not even believe in God! We aren’t saved as a reward for believing – we are saved because God loves us!

We believe that, like Lazarus, we shall be raised from dead. But unlike him, we shall probably be raised to eternal life with Jesus, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And we are also told that Jesus came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. That applies to the here and now, too, not just pie in the sky when we die! Our whole lives now have that eternal dimension. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we won’t experience great sorrow here – sadly, that is part of human existence. And I don’t think it means that we can live just as we like, doing whatever we like, because God has saved us. Rather to the contrary, I think personal holiness is very important. We need to do all we can to avoid sin. Jesus shows us in some of his teachings what his people are going to be like: poor in spirit – not thinking more of themselves than they ought; mourning, perhaps for the ungodly world in which we live; meek, which means slow to anger and gentle with others; hungry and thirsty for righteousness; merciful; pure in heart; peacemakers and so on.

St Paul gives other lists of characteristics that Christians will display; you probably remember from his letter to the Galatians: Love, joy, peace, patience and so on. And he gives lots of lists of the sort of behaviour that Christians don’t do, ranging from gluttony to fornication. Basically the sort of things that put “Me” first, and make “me” the centre of my life.

But the wonderful thing is that we don’t have to strive and struggle and do violence to our own natures. Yes, of course, we are inherently selfish and it’s nearly impossible to put God first in our own strength. But the whole point is, we don’t have to do it in our own strength. That is why God sent the Holy Spirit, to come into us, fill us, and transform us. We wouldn’t be very happy in heaven if we were stuck in our old nature, after all!

But if we let God transform us, we can have abundant life here on this earth, and then we leave our bodies behind and go on to be with Jesus. And that, we are told, is even better!

Jesus asks us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Can we reply, with Martha, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”