Monday, November 26, 2012

Christ the King: John 18.33–37

I want us to start with a game. Who remembers Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It was a quiz show from the late 90s. At the start of each game you had to put a list of things in chronological order, or something like that. So I want us to do that this morning with Christian Festivals! Here are the four festivals which I want you to put in chronological order with the oldest first: Corpus Christi, Easter, Christ the King, Christmas/Epiphany…

Those of you who put Easter as the oldest festival are correct. We first hear about it in the second century, it was probably a combined celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it’s the only Christian festival which can have any claim to go right the way back to the time of the apostles.

Did anyone have Christmas and Epiphany next? They probably have their origins a bit later. Whilst Christians had always celebrate the birth of Jesus, Christmas itself became popular around the fourth century as an attempt to offer a christian alternative to winter solstice festivities, particularly the celebration Natalis Solis Invict, the birthday of the Invincible Sun on December 25. The first recorded celebration of Christmas was in the year 336 in Rome. Epiphany is probably a bit older, possibly going back as far as the end of the Second Century.

Then there is Corpus Christi, the feast giving thanks for the sacrament of Holy Communion, now that’s an interesting festival. You have to wait until the mid thirteenth century for that. An Augustinian nun, Juliana of Liège, had a vision which lead her to campaign for the institution of the feast. In 1264, pope Urban IV made Corpus Christi a feast.

What about Christ the King? Now, you would have thought that Christians had been honouring of Jesus the king for a long time. I mean, the gospels are all about Jesus the Messiah, the king, aren’t they? But despite it seeming quite natural to have a feast like this ‘Christ the King’ is a relative latecomer as far as the church calendar goes. It was in 1925 that Pope Pius IX instituted it. It took 1925 years for the church to need the feast of Christ the King as she needs it today. On the first celebration of Christ the King, Mussolini had been the leader of Italy for three years and an upstart called Adolf Hitler had been out of jail for almost a year after his failed attempt at leading a revolution in Munich in 1923, what we sometimes call the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’. Radical right wing philosophy was growing in popularity throughout Europe. And whilst all this was happening, the world was languishing in one of the deepest economic depressions of history. Despite the dire circumstances, despite the growth of fascism and the posturing or world powers, christians decided to re-focus on Jesus Christ, that he is the true king of the universe, despite everything pointing to the contrary.

We find that tension, between the way things appear and what is really going on in our gospel Reading. We find a beaten Jew on trial before a Roman governor who thinks he is the most powerful man in town. Later on in chapter 19 of John’s gospel, pilate says to Jesus, ‘don’t you realise that I have the power to free you or crucify you?’ (19.10). But despite Pilate’s inflated sense of self importance, he appears in our reading as a rather pathetic character. We begin to see John’s critique of human power and authority.

In this reading John shows us that Power is Precarious: If you were to read back a few verses, you would find Pilate constantly hopping backwards and forwards between his palace and a the Jewish leaders who have stayed outside to avoid defiling themselves before the passover. Pilate, desperate to avoid a rebellion in his province of the Roman Empire, is caught between the truth as he sees it, that there is no basis for a charge against Jesus (18.38) and what the Jewish leaders want. Not that Pilate isn’t suspicious of Jesus. His question ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’, is almost certainly a way of asking Jesus whether he poses a threat to the Roman state. Jesus’ response is particularly pointed, ‘is that your own idea’, he says, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’ To put it another way, ‘Is it you that has a problem with me, or have you been put up to this?’ Jesus is pointing out that the all powerful Pilate is being manipulated by the people he governs. Power and authority are very attractive, but are also very precarious. It is utterly impossible to exercise power by yourself, there is no such thing as a good leader without good followers. Pontius Pilate is a slave to the people he governs.

In twenty first century Britain we have, generally speaking, learnt that power can’t be held by a small group who have absolute authority. But sometimes we are tempted to have the kind of ‘strong’ leadership which commands our obedience. This temptation is present in the church too. I personally, was greatly disappointed with the way the Synod vote on the ordination of women bishops turned out on Tuesday, but I have to constantly remind myself that the way for the church to finally find its way to fully honouring the vocations of women is not through political manipulation, it is not through occupying the precarious ground held by dictators. We won’t find the unity of purpose we all desire by getting judges or politicians to enforce our will on others. We have to make the decision not to behave like this whatever our beliefs about women bishops are. The moment we start trying to use politics to enforce our will on others is the moment we cease to resemble Jesus Christ.

Jesus is a king alright, but nothing like any king you will ever find on earth. His Kingdom is not from this earth, building its foundation on coercion and manipulation. But it is a kingdom for this world. A kingdom which, when it comes, transforms and beautifies the world. His kingdom is a kingdom of truth. ‘What is truth?’ Pilate asks; What is really real? For Pilate, respect, honour and political power were real. For the Jewish leaders religious cleanliness, ritual and fidelity to an ancient tradition were real. Perhaps the Church of England needs to ask itself this question today. What is really real for us? Intriguingly, John doesn’t give us an answer to Pilate’s question, he doesn’t tell us what truth is. Instead he presents us with a person, Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. His kingdom of truth isn’t manifested through violence and coercion. The symbols of this reign are a towel and a bowl of water to wash dirty feet. They are a cross and a crown of thorns with which he suffered for us. The extent to which we are part of Jesus’ kingdom of truth will be show by the way we seek to use power. For our good, or for the good of others?

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