20 November 2016
Sunday Next Before Advent (Christ the King)
Rev’d Paul White
Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips reflect something of your written word and so lead us ever closer to your living word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today is the culmination of the church year and, as I mentioned last week in passing, in many ways the festival of Christ the King is one of my favourite, although I suspect it is often overlooked and overshadowed by the season which lies ahead.
Next week we start the Advent pilgrimage towards Christmas when we celebrate the birth of God into the world as Jesus the baby. And although I celebrate that with all the fullness you might expect I do sometimes wonder whether our focus on Jesus as a baby in a manger literally infantalises our faith. In this church we have a good many images of Jesus as a baby – from the statue of Mary and Jesus in the alcove, the icons in the Lady Chapel, the stained glass window on the left side of the east end and the other stained glass window of the holy family and the wise men as you go up the stairs to the upper room.
They are all beautiful and meaningful in their own right, and I am the last one to denigrate nativity imagery, so please don’t misunderstand or misquote me, but I do sometimes worry that by concentrating too much on cooing over a new-born baby that we lose sight of Jesus as the Risen King of Kings. We forget that Jesus was not just sent to be a baby, not even just sent to be a teacher but actually, ultimately, sent to re-establish God’s reign on earth.
We are not admirers of a baby but are citizens of the Kingdom of God and Christ is our King.
I have already mentioned some of the imagery we have here in church and, as it happens here at St Marys, we have no real excuse for ignoring the importance of Christ the King because our central window in the East End portrays exactly that – Jesus seated on a throne in heaven, surrounded by the seraphim, wearing a Kingly crown and even holding an orb. A very traditional, although perhaps very English, image of Kingship. I suspect that some of us, perhaps many of us, feel a lot more comfortable with Jesus as a babe in arms than with him seated on a throne. If you do then it may be worthwhile spending some time pondering that.
But today’s gospel reading actually gives us quite a different image of Christ’s kingship; one that does not involve him sitting on a throne in judgement but rather one that shows him on a cross, labelled as King of the Jews, issuing not judgement but forgiveness.
When I was training for ordination we once had a session on the theology of forgiveness. If I remember correctly, the session took place late on a Friday night and I think that I must have had a tough week at work because I was feeling very bolshy that night. I know that it is hard to imagine me ever being bolshy so you will need to use your imagination on this one.
The session leader was a really touchy feely type and her opening gambit on Christian forgiveness was a terrible but true story which involved a vicar and his family. The story was that a person broke into the vicar’s house one night, tied the vicar up and then sexually assaulted his teenage daughter in the next room. The point of the story was that the vicar forgave the attacker for his actions whilst the assault was still going on and this was held up as a paragon of forgiveness to which we should aspire as Christians and wannabe priests.
Remembering, if you will, that I have two young children and that I had had a long week at work I may have said something to the effect that in similar circumstances I would forgive the attacker sometime shortly after ripping his limbs off. And I may not just have said limbs either.
I may have shocked the session leader a bit so I then tried to justify my comments theologically by saying something like true forgiveness can only follow repentance and that to offer forgiveness to the impenitent smacks of lily-livered cheap grace.
The session leader, to give her credit, still did not agree that forgiveness should only follow repentance and she took us to several old testament passages to try and support this assertion. Unfortunately the passages she choose were not great and the bolshy lawyer in me spent the rest of the evening arguing that forgiveness without repentance was meaningless.
However, bless her, I wish that the teacher had taken us to today’s gospel because I think she may have been right after all.
In today’s gospel from Luke chapter 23 Jesus is being crucified. Jesus who was without sin, who had hurt no one, who had broken no law and who was wrongly convicted by a kangaroo court is being nailed up like a common criminal among common criminals. What does Jesus say in those circumstances?
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Who is he forgiving? The men nailing him to the cross? Pilate and the chief priests for putting him there? The mob who had bayed for his blood? The sinfulness of mankind whose reaction to a message of love and equality and grace was to kill? Yes, all of them and many more.
And yet, when Jesus sought God’s forgiveness on all of these not one of them had repented. No one had said “Sorry Jesus, we got it wrong, please forgive us.” But he forgave anyway. And the reason he forgave? Because they did not know what they were doing.
What does this mean? Of course they knew that they were executing someone, there was nothing accidental in what was happening, and in a sense they also knew they were executing the King of the Jews because they had nailed a sign above his said calling him exactly that. Of course they did not believe that that was who he was but still they were not entirely ignorant that they were executing someone very different from the criminals around him.
Those involved in killing Jesus did not know what they were doing as they were still captive to the powers of darkness, they were trapped in their own sinfulness and ignorance. They were almost like feral children who had been brought up without education or love and could therefore hardly be blamed for their acts of spiteful wickedness.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Christians are not a perfect people but we are a forgiven people and we should therefore be a forgiving people.
But this does not mean that repentance for sin is not necessary or is without meaning. At the end of today’s gospel one of the two thieves crucified next to Jesus recognises his own sinfulness – he accepts that he has done wrong and is being punished for his crimes:
“And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds”
and he then recognises that Jesus is much more than simply a wrongly condemned prophet when he says:
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Notice that the thief talks about the Kingdom of Jesus. Apart from the sign over his head there must have been nothing about that scene which marked Jesus out as someone about to come into his kingdom, but the repentant thief, in that moment, recognised Christ as King.
And Jesus responded:
“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The thief’s repentance and recognition of Jesus came after he saw how Jesus forgave others – his repentance flowed from forgiveness rather than being a necessary precursor of forgiveness. But his repentance made the forgiveness complete and transferred that thief from darkness to the kingdom of Christ.
So before we plunge into Advent and the Nativity let’s pause for a moment. Let’s recognise that we have reached the summit of the Christian story and perhaps enjoy the view for a moment.
Our citizenship of the Kingdom of Heaven does not start when we die but begins when we truly recognise Christ as our King in the here and now and so, soul by soul, the Kingdom of Heaven is grown here on Earth.
Jesus Christ is our Lord of Lords and King of Kings!