What I said this sunday – Christ the King

Here’s my sermon from this Sunday.

Matthew 25.31-end

In the name of the Living God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Spot the connection between these five things:

  • Henry the Eighth
  • Arthur Pendragon
  • Elvis Presley
  • A giant gorilla
  • Some potatoes

That was the task I gave the children at our school this week during my weekly visit to lead collective worship. They, at least, had the advantage of seeing pictures – they had to guess who or what each picture was and then tell me the connection.

They are, of course:

  • King Henry the Eighth
  • King Arthur
  • Elvis – the King of rock and roll
  • King Kong
  • and finally, King Edwards.

And if you haven’t got the connection it is the word King and we then went on to think about the feast of Christ the King. Though, I have to say, if you think children watch too much TV these days I would suggest they’re not watching enough – in both infants and juniors someone suggested that the picture of Elvis Presley was, in fact, a picture of Michael Jackson!

It was only afterwards that I got to thinking how the first two kings that I showed the children pictures of illustrated just how much our image of royalty has changed today. And how out of step our image of royalty is with that of people at the time of Jesus. King Henry the Eighth – famous (or notorious, depending on how you look at it) for being a king you were desperate to keep on the right side of so that you also kept your head. Henry was not someone you upset. A great many people lost their lives, including two of his wives, because they got on Henry’s wrong side. King Arthur, on the other hand, is a far nicer person. The picture I showed the children was that of King Arthur from the current Saturday night television series Merlin. And this is a very different kind of king, a king for the 21st century. In the TV series Merlin is Arthur’s personal servant. And while Arthur might be Merlin’s master, they are very much friends – they laugh and joke together,  sometimes Merlin doesn’t do as he’s told and sometimes he is even rude to the King. This is how, in a modern democratic society we think kings ought to be with their subjects. A kind of special friend, not the absolute monarch of old, to be feared and obeyed.

Our attitude to monarchy has changed over the years, and noticeably so over the past 50 years or so. With the spread of democracy around the world, coupled with the growth of the media – both news media and popular magazines and TV programmes – our attitude to royal families has changed considerably. The British royal family, in particular, has been under scrutiny in most countries in the world as people follow their fortunes in tabloid newspapers and glossy magazines. What emerges is that there still exist very high ideals for members of a royal family, and at the same time there is a very critical attitude towards their human weaknesses. And we longer feel that we have to obey their every whim or even be polite about them.

And this presents us with a very real problem today. Today we are celebrating the feast of Christ the King – a king very different from the kind of monarch that we usually think about. When we thing about monarchs today we bring with that all our modern cultural expectations of constitutional monarchy. And our expectations of what a king ought to be like show themselves in the way we portray King Arthur in the TV series Merlin. Or in how we view, and feel free to express our views, about our own monarchy in an age where we don’t fear losing our heads. Think back two thousand years. Try and imagine what the concepts of ‘king’ and ‘kingdom’ meant to people then. And try and imagine what went through people’s minds as they thought about the New Testament concepts of Christ as king and of God’s kingdom. For the only concept they had of kingship was that of absolute monarchy – and I mean ‘absolute’ in capital letters. Even by the time of King Henry the Eighth he had laws he had to follow, fearsome though he was – this is post Magna Carta remember. At the time of Jesus the kind of king people knew about was the kind that made the laws himself and did what he pleased.

And so when the New Testament writers talked about God’s kingdom; when they talked about Jesus as our king, the image that people would have had was that of absolute monarchy. And they would have held that picture in their minds as they came to terms with a king who completely overturned that traditional picture of monarchy. A king who was as different from the kings of the time as Merlin’s King Arthur is from our own King Henry the Eighth. For Jesus in his earthly life was a man who was both respected by many and yet despised by others, and at times, it was almost impossible to see any trace of majesty in him; but even so, he was a king. He is Lord of the Universe. And we, the New Testament tells us, are his brothers and sisters. It is important to realise that as brothers and sisters of the king, we are not simply subjects in God’s kingdom, we also members of the royal family. The New Testament reminds of this in words which I used to sing as a chorus on Church Army beach missions:
We are heirs of the Father,
We are joint heirs with the Son,
We are children of the kingdom,
We are family, we are one.

Imagine how that must have felt to a culture used to totally absolute monarchy.

And we are members of his royal family because through our baptism we have become full members of the Lord’s family and therefore we are truly royal people – a royal priesthood the Bible says. And – like members of our own royal family – we have high ideals to live to and official duties to carry out. We are called as our gospel reading reminds us to love and to serve each other, to work for justice and peace in our world, to relieve the needs of the poor and the suffering, and first and foremost to worship and pray.

However, we are all human. Just look at the royal families which still exist in our age. They fail, their weaknesses often emerge, at times they cannot live up to the ideals expected by those around them. Like them we are also broken and needy people. Those around us are the same. Being part of the kingdom of God means respecting also the brokenness of others. It means being with them in their weakness, even recognising their sovereignty in the midst of much confusion and pain. Think of the good thief hanging beside Jesus on the cross. There wasn’t much in the figure of Jesus, hanging on the cross, that spoke of royalty and kingship. Yet somehow, perhaps intuitively, the good thief recognised it. He honoured Jesus. He asked to be a member of his kingdom. And in return he was promised membership of the royal family of the Lord.

Christ the King is in heaven at the right hand of the Father. But you and I, the members of this royal family are here among his people. Today’s feast challenges us to live out our royal responsibilities and duties as completely as we can. It is ultimately about doing the will of our Father in heaven. For it is only in doing so that we can inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for us.