A king and a cross

ChristusThis Sunday was the feast of Christ the King. Here’s what I said.

Jeremiah 23.1-6; Luke 23.33-43

I know that we have people here who enjoy quizzes – whether on the TV or radio or the quizzes we have from time to time at one of our social events here at St. John’s. I’m a great listener to radio quizzes, mainly because there is usually one on Radio 4 at 11pm on a Saturday night, so I can listen to one before retiring for the necessary beauty sleep I need to get up ready to take the 8 o’clock communion service. At the moment we are getting the Round Britain Quiz where the questions consist of three or four apparently unconnected facts and the teams have to find what links them.

Well, here’s a question for you this morning. I used this with the children at school this week, though they got the benefit of pictures to go with the question. What is the link between these.

  • A potato
  • A gorilla
  • Elvis Presley
  • A pub in Caterham-On-The-Hill
  • Camelot
  • Henry VIII

The link is of course the word ‘King’. Starting with King Henry VIII, we then have Camelot which is the home of King Arthur, the pub is the King and Queen, Elvis Presley is the king of rock and roll, King Kong was a giant gorilla, and the potato is a King Edward.

The children at school did superbly. Apart from the fact that none of them knew what a King Edward potato was – I had to elicit the answer to that from a teacher – they all got the link and knew that the connection was with the feast of Christ the King.

Today is, of course, the feast of Christ the King – the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year and a day when we reflect on what it means to have Jesus as our King. We think about what the title means and how Jesus himself interpreted it.

But what we think about when we think of the word ‘king’ has changed so much over the years. Think about 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 and often through doing nothing wrong. He was the kind of person that when you left his presence you checked to see whether your head was still on your shoulders. We simply wouldn’t accept that kind of king today.

Our attitude to monarchy has changed over the years, and noticeably so even since the Queen came to the throne. 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, yet at the same time there is a very critical attitude towards their human weaknesses. And people feel free to express that critical attitude quite openly – imagine how Henry VII would have reacted to criticism! And we longer feel that we have to obey their every whim or even be polite about them. The reality of living in a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy is that the monarch only rules with the consent of parliament and ultimately the people – and that’s something that’s been in the news recently following the referendum, it’s something we fought a Civil War over. And if we want to criticise our monarch we are free to do so without fear of losing our heads.

And this presents us with a real problem today on this feast of Christ the King. Because we don’t quite get what someone at the time of Jesus would have understood by the concept of Jesus as a King and how that related to their general understanding of what a king was. 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 think about monarchs today we bring with that all those modern cultural expectations of constitutional monarchy.

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. The king wielded total power and held your life in his hands.

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, absolute power. 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. And not only that. As well as being completely revolutionary in his attitude to kingship, he is totally revolutionary in his attitude to those who accept his authority as king. They are not people to be downtrodden and worked and taxed in order to give the king a luxury-laden lifestyle. They are people to be raised up to share the life of the king as equals – as free people, not as subjects.

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.

The prophet Jeremiah prophesied that God would send a king – but a king unlike anything anyone had ever seen or would expect. A king who would also be a shepherd for his people. By which Jeremiah is saying not only would this king look after his people, but also that this king is identified as being like one of the lowliest of people – shepherds were not much thought of in Jewish society. To a society that was used to totally absolute monarchy, the kind of king that God promised he would send, the kind of king that Jesus showed himself to be, was – quite frankly – mind-boggling, even somewhat disturbing for self-respecting people.

And here we are, as at the end of the church year we celebrate the feast of Christ the King and encounter in our gospel reading not a king who rules with great power and great pomp but a king who hangs upon a cross. What are we to make of it all?

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. And he grasped what so many people struggle to grasp – that Jesus is a king who chose to rule not from a throne of gold but from a throne made of two pieces of wood. And so the thief asked to be a member of his kingdom. He recognised that Jesus was a king, and that like any king he owed Jesus his loyalty. And in return he was promised a place in the kingdom of Jesus.

Today, as we pay homage to our king, we are also called to stand and look at Jesus on the cross. And we are called to worship him as our shepherd-king. The king who came down from heaven to come and walk with his people. The king who rules from the throne of the cross and who says to us, “This I do for you – now come and be with me in my kingdom.”

I’m going to finish with the prayer I used with our school children this week.

Let us pray.

You didn’t live in a palace;
a cross was your only throne.
You didn’t have lots of servants,
or even a home of your own.
You didn’t wear costly jewels
or own much of anything.
And yet, our dear Lord Jesus,
you are our heavenly King.