St Bride's: Sermons

Christ the King

Matthew 25: 31-end

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31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:

33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

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Last month I was invited to attend this year's Rory Peck Trust Awards evening at Sadlers Wells.  As many of you will be aware, it is a charity that supports freelance journalists, many of whom cover stories from the most dangerous parts of the world - without any of the help and support that a large news organisation can provide for its own staff reporters.  And we were shown some harrowing footage, from places like Aleppo and Mosul, taken by those nominated for awards.  The films that we saw were heartrending and horrific in equal measure.  And one of the most shocking sequences of film, showed a captured civilian man being tortured by Iraqi soldiers.  It was very hard to watch something so graphic.

Now it so happened that the same week that I went to that awards ceremony, I also caught on iPlayer the BBC production of Gunpowder - the story of Guy Fawkes.  It, too, contained graphic scenes of violence and torture, which were so upsetting that I certainly found them difficult to watch at times.   It is hard not to recoil from scenes of such barbarism.

And yet, Sunday by Sunday, I stand here before the graphic image of a man who has just been tortured to death, without responding in that way at all.  We are all very accustomed to images of the crucifixion - despite the fact that it is one of the more barbaric forms of execution that human ingenuity has devised.  I wear round my neck a silver cross.  We buy such items of jewellery for our children.  Now, if I were to wear round my neck a silver model of an electric chair, I imagine people would look at me with grave suspicion, and rightly so.

So why is it that the image behind me has so lost its power to shock and appal us?  Is it due to its sheer familiarity?  Is it because we know that that wasn't the end of the story, so we don't feel the need to engage with its full horror quite so seriously?  Is it because we have come to regard it purely as a symbol and nothing more?  I wonder?

The Christian faith is very shocking, very radical, and very subversive.  It overturns conventional human assumptions about everything.  It requires that we look at the world in a completely different way, and in the process it challenges our values and our conduct.  And far from representing some kind of escape from reality, it takes us far, far, deeper into the truth about human existence, and it has a profound logic to it that is borne out by lived experience.  Above all, Christian tradition is courageous enough to look unblinkingly at the worst excesses of human cruelty and innocent suffering - hence the image behind me.

And today, the feast of Christ the King, is one of the occasions in the Christian year that plunges us into the very heart of that radical subversive truth.  Because the one we proclaim today as Lord and King is that guy there.  Yes, the dead one.

We live in a profoundly broken and troubled world; we are broken and troubled people.  And as any number of examples from human history and human life will illustrate, although the exercise of power ('strong leadership') can sometimes appear to fix the external problems of life for a time (Mussolini got the trains running on time), nevertheless, that kind of control invariably leaves the internal disorder and distress of human life completely untouched: the cracks and the fault lines will still remain, and eventually it is those very fault lines that can bring down even the most robust and apparently impregnable of edifices - or people.  Robert Mugabe being a case in point.

No, the bizarre and glorious paradox is that really radical change - the healing of the human heart - is brought about not through strength, but through weakness, as we learn to recognise our own need.  Abbot Christopher Jamison, at the start of his book Finding Sanctuary, describes how the reason why he originally entered the monastic life was not the reason why he ended up staying in it.  He writes this:

I joined thinking I could save the world by being a monk.  I stayed because the monastery became the place where I discovered my own need to be saved.  Before I could offer sanctuary I had to find it.

Cycles of violence and counter-violence will always persist until the day finally comes when someone says, 'Enough of this.  I shall absorb whatever aggression you choose to throw at me, and I will respond not with more aggression, but with love.'  Martin Luther King famously wrote this:

To our most bitter opponents we say: 'we shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We shall meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.  We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-co-operation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is co-operation with good.  Throw us into jail and we shall still love you.  Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead and we shall still love you.  But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.  One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

I can think of few more cogent summaries of the Christian gospel than that one.  And for me it is all the more cogent because Martin Luther King was himself no plaster saint, but a flawed human being just like the rest of us.

Today we proclaim Christ as King, not in spite of the Crucifixion, but because of it.  For although Christ passed through the gate of suffering and death (as we must) - death could not hold him.  In the end, love was far stronger than death.

And the Christ we proclaim as King, is a Christ who also brings judgment, but again, not quite in the way that one might expect.  The logic of judgment in the Christian life is an obvious and inescapable one - simply because it reminds us that the decisions and the choices we make while the precious gift of life is ours, matter.  They have consequences.  They reveal the kinds of people we truly are.  And we reveal who we are by how we act.  And as today's gospel reading reminds us, most revealing of all is the way in which we act towards the weak and the vulnerable.

In her 1985 book Face to Face, Frances Young, writing about her son Arthur, who had severe learning difficulties, expresses the view that society actively needs people like Arthur: because a society can be judged by the way in which it responds to the vulnerable.  In her words, 'It shows up people, and their relationships, and their values, for what they are.' 

You see the voice of power and control may well say of the vulnerable, 'get rid of them' - as was the grim reality of the Nazi era.  Whereas the response of the follower of Christ is encapsulated in today's gospel reading and the parable of the sheep and the goats.  What are the grounds upon which the king passes judgement between the two groups?  It is how they have responded to the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner.  The righteous answer him:

 Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink.  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?  and the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

In the Church's calendar of Sundays, today is the rough equivalent of New Year's Eve, because next Sunday, Advent Sunday, is the first day of the new Christian year.  It is the day on which we begin the amazing cycle of the Christian story once again.  And for me the significance of the Feast of Christ the King is that it leaves us on a high point, with a vision of the Kingdom of God, and the kind of King we proclaim.  And what kind of king is that?  I shall leave you with the final words of W.H. Vanstone's hymn, Morning glory, starlit sky.'

Here is God: no monarch he,

throned in easy state to reign.

Here is God, whose arms of love,

aching, spent, the world sustain.

Thank you for travelling this past year with me - you have been wonderful companions!

 

Amen.

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