Today this Sunday is called Christ the King Sunday. For many folk today Kings and Queens have become something of an anachronism. And now Christ the King – another king – yes – but what sort of king and more importantly a king for who? Can we honestly say we live different lives or even that we can find the glory of the king in the picture of a crown of thorns?
We Methodists haven’t always been very good at dealing with this question. For example, older Methodist hymns seemed to have an Old Testament notion of king rather than the portrayal that Jesus appeared to teach. The traditional Methodist hymn book often used hymns that refer to the king, yet in one study by the contemporary hymn writer Brian Wren looking at how these hymns portrayed the idea of king, Wren discovered something like 80% of the masculine images of the king implied power over others and something like 60% references to Jesus as king were images of power with very few hymns using concepts of humility and servant-hood.
Even if we were clear about what sort of King we should see in Jesus, it does not follow that we would be clear about what it means to honour such a king. Appropriately honouring leaders is not necessarily something that comes naturally. It may not be politically correct but it seems to me that in a world and a community where some values are clearly wrong, a king – or for that matter any leader who asks for radical change of attitude is hardly likely to be fobbed off with songs with repeated phrases of praise.
Think back to the end of the previous Presidential election in the United States where by courtesy of CNN we witnessed scenes of delirium and joy at President Obama’s Democratic election headquarters – and equally scenes of shock depression and deep disbelief from Mitt Romney’s home crowd.
The title might now have been secured for the incumbent’s second term, but although he was clearly the winner on the night there were few signs that the devastated Republicans recognized him as the rightful title holder. The Republican dominated US stock exchange promptly plunged and to cynical onlookers if anything the Republican dominated Congress became even more obstructive to the President’s legislative plans than they had been the first time around.
Titles such as President, Prime Minister, or King may tell us about intended status but what they don’t tell us is to what extent the status is respected and listened to by the majority.
Knowing that Queen Elizabeth the Second is Queen of England is certainly an item of knowledge that goes far beyond the shores of England. Yet among the millions who might know her title, the vast majority are those for whom the title has no personal meaning. There is a world of difference between those who know her to be queen and those who know her to be their queen.
By analogy, when it comes to Jesus as Christ the King, the first decision those of us who want to be called his followers might ask of ourselves is whether or not by our actions and even our thoughts we show he is our king, or alternately, is it that we think and act as if he is merely a memory of a king for others.
It would be arrogant and inappropriate for me to answer that question for others in this Church, yet I suspect there is still value in the question, in that each of us must be open to the leading of our own conscience. It is an entirely private question but still reasonable to ask ourselves if there are in fact discernible differences in our thoughts and actions because we have chosen to follow the Christ we understand to be our king?
I want to suggest that simply showing up in Church on a Sunday may not settle the question. Perhaps if we return to the current Royal family the issue might become clearer.
When Prince Charles and Camilla came to New Zealand recently there were the usual crowds of Royal watchers. For those present the main task seemed to be if they could actually see the couple in the flesh. Yet if the royal watchers took it a step further, perhaps they might have paused to wonder how their behaviour should be affected by the sorts of things Prince Charles is into teaching. Among other things Prince Charles is clearly interested in preserving heritage buildings, architecture, organic farming and developing National parks.
I am just guessing but I suspect that if Prince Charles had a choice on one hand between meeting flag waving amateur photographers, or on the other, inspiring others to take up his causes, there would be no contest.
I guess what I am trying to say is that looking at the future king is not quite the same as following the future king.
To change the illustration to one once suggested by Tom Wright and one to which I can personally relate, Shirley and I have owned two dogs. Both of them were difficult to train and shared the same failing. When we pointed to something we wished to draw to the dog’s attention, the dog would look at the hand.
Perhaps it is a trite comparison yet I wonder if focusing on Christ as a phenomenon to admire and labelling that focus as the point of our worship is to make the same mistake. We are always in danger of reacting to a popularist image of Christ rather than reacting to the essence of his teaching. Perhaps it is overstating the case yet I suspect that some prefer singing familiar songs drawing attention to the majesty or praise worthy nature of Christ – and giving far less attention to songs calling us to follow the direction he points.
There is always a tension between the type of King that would most satisfy a population and the sort who might be drawing the people’s attention to what they need to hear. There is a story some of you may have heard of a religious tourist walking past the spectacular treasures of the Vatican museum and who then made the comment to his guide. “Well at least St Peter can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none’. ” “Well”, said the guide “ Perhaps by the same token he can no longer say “in the name of Jesus rise up and walk.’ ”
Israel did not always have a King. If we read 1 Samuel carefully we might note that the Judge and prophet Samuel managed to subdue the Philistines yet the people he served appeared to want a stronger military solution. In Samuel we should remember that although David and Solomon were later remembered by the people as representing the golden age of Israel, in I Samuel the people’s desire for a King to bring their nation to a point where other nations would respect them was portrayed as disobedience against God. Nor were David and Solomon necessarily always leading in a moral or positive sense.
I would suggest that the people’s perceived need to have the sort of leader who commands respect by force continued through New Testament times and I would further suggest even continues to the present. To suggest that our nation is primarily concerned with Biblical understanding and values may not necessarily match our attitudes and actions to our neighbours – whether they be living in a distant land – or merely living next door.
Have you ever heard the type of quiz question where you have to name a person or an object from an unfolding description. Each statement brings you closer to the answer.
So pay attention. The quiz question is under way. We start with the description from contemporary Roman historians.
Son of God, born of a virgin, miracle worker, prince of peace, could raise people from the dead ….. pretty easy ………it was of course …ta rah …. no, not Jesus …at least not the intention of the same Roman historians’ accounts…. For them it was Caesar Augustus. And that was only some of his titles.
In John’s gospel, when Pontius Pilate is portrayed asking Jesus are you the King of the Jews? it is most unlikely that he and Jesus could possibly mean the same in using the term King. When we look at the slogan “King of the Jews” that Pilate ordered for the cross what will the words conjure for us.
This happens to be Christ the King Sunday, and next Sunday we move to the season of Advent when we start to retell our Church story of the coming of the one we call Christ the king. Our challenge will be to remember the one who comes in humility, whose message starts with a manger rather than a pretentious jeweled crib, a king whose feasts are with fishermen, beggars and prostitutes, a king concerned with justice rather than finery and possessions, a king who despite resurrection bears the signs of the cross and a king who asks for followers rather than admirers.
We need to stay with these images not just for Advent but in the days to come lest we forget the meaning of this special day of remembrance for Christ the King.
(A question for the reader: Can anyone out there suggest hymns that fit the sentiments of this sermon?)