Claim of Thrones
Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, 22 November 2016
Today is the Feast of Christ the King. But there is competition. For example, after the death of the King of Thailand earlier this year, Queen Elizabeth became the world’s longest-reigning monarch. As we sang in God save the Queen last week at the War Memorial, “Long to reign over us” seemed to be a prayer which had clearly been answered. And interest in her continues unabated. The Crown, the new Netflix series with Claire Foy as Elizabeth, is the most expensive TV drama ever made. And in Teresa May, she has her 14th Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, Americans have voted, not for a monarch but their 45th President. And the world and many staff and students here watch warily as, by contrast with the Queen, this is a position of significant power. But there may be a hint of monarchy even in the land of the free: reports from Trump Tower suggest a royal court as much as a government in waiting, and the future rulers of the United States for the next 4 years may well include princes and princesses of the first family.
Meanwhile, in referendums over the past two years, people in Scotland and the rest of the UK have been deciding between the claims of different thrones – in Edinburgh, Westminster and Brussels. Who should reign over us? Christ’s claim seems to be one amongst many.
So is it irrelevant to celebrate the reign of Christ the King? And given what is happening in Syria, especially Aleppo, is it not obscene to be celebrating it today? After all, the Roman Catholic Church only instituted the Feast in 1925 (a year before the Queen was born), and it was moved to the last Sunday before Advent in 1970 (when I was born). We seemed to manage pretty well without it. Yet the themes of Christ as King, the reign of God, and the relationship between divine and human rule are fascinating and important for Christian life and influence in society, and are worth a day’s reflection.
These are not new questions: Hugh Latimer was a significant cleric and preacher in Tudor times. In one sermon he delivered in the presence of King Henry VIII, he said this:
Latimer, Latimer, thou art going to speak before the high and mighty King, Henry VIII, who is able, if he think fit, to take thy life away. Be careful what thou sayest. But Latimer, Latimer, remember thou art also about to speak before the King of kings and Lord of lords. Take heed thou dost not displease Him.
Here in a nutshell are the claims of thrones.
Scripture offers multiple perspectives on divine and human rule – and it seems that God cares how all rule is exercised. In the passage from Jeremiah we heard earlier, the prophet speaks against “the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.” The shepherds here are the rulers of Judah and Israel, who are responsible for the welfare of God’s people, the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jeremiah speaks then of God’s deep disappointment at the way this human rule has been exercised. The rulers have been divisive, neglectful, destructive. Another prophet Ezekiel also uses the same image of shepherds to critique the exercise of authority.
Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured. [Ezekiel 34:2-4]
God is not content, it seems, with such self-centred leadership, and in Jeremiah resolves to bring a better rule into being, righteous, wise, offering justice and safety. There is a clear hint that this ruler will be God himself: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands…”
These and other scriptures led to a hope and expectation in the people of Israel that God himself would reign in the presence of his anointed one, called Messiah. By the time of the New Testament, the Jews longed for the Messiah to come. The shepherds over them were now the Romans, deeply unloved, and their puppet-kings in Judaea from the family of Herod. Various teachers and prophets would be interrogated: Are you the Messiah? John the Baptist told people he wasn’t. But he then asked Jesus if he was, and received the answer: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” [Luke 7:22] It’s not a straight yes or no, but it shows what kind of Messiah Jesus could be, what a divine reign might look like.
Which leads us to the New Testament passage we heard earlier, the account of the crucifixion of Jesus according to Luke. Pilate had asked him the night before, “Are you the king of the Jews?” The question hangs heavy over the events which follow. Over the cross was the inscription, This is the King of the Jews. This is often depicted as the four letters INRI, initials of the Latin Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. The soldiers jeered at Jesus on the cross: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” The other gospels all describe Jesus as wearing a crown of thorns, as the image on the cover of the order of service shows. I could have called this sermon Game of Thorns as easily as Claim of Thrones.
There are ironies everywhere. A king with inscription, acclamation and crown, yet without any belief, respect and honour. It’s a scene that calls to mind deposed and executed rulers in living memory – Ceauşescu of Romania, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya. And yet, the crucifixion is not the killing of a corrupt despot for Jesus was never that kind of ruler. What does his kingdom look like? Healing, raising, good news for the poor, he said. And the gospels reveal the integrity of that answer: the kingdom which came in Jesus is marked by restoration, honesty, community, forgiveness, openness and love. It is not about power, but passion. Not authority but invitation. Not glory but goodness. When one of the criminals put to death beside Jesus recognised who Jesus was, he said to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Against all the irony of the scene, here at last is a true vision of the reign of Christ the King – forgiving, loving, accepting.
Whatever else it is, this reign of Christ is not one with the usual trappings of power. Human rulers emerge in the freedom God has imbued creation with, leading to the British constitutional monarchy, the European Union, the American Presidency, the election of sabbatical officers to the Students Association. I believe that God cares who rules and how they rule, but the New Testament gives no indication that God wishes to rule himself through viceroys, or that we should choose theocracy as our political system, in which God’s reign overlaps completely with apparent human power. The account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection shows an expression of love which does not work through domineering power.
So what claim does God’s reign make? What is the claim of his throne? Albert Schweitzer, early 20th Century scientist, missionary, scholar of the Bible and Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote this: There can be no kingdom of God in the world without the kingdom of God in our hearts. That is fundamental. Each individual person is invited by Jesus to follow him, to allow him to reign in our heart, for forgiveness, love, reconciliation, openness and honesty to be the marks of our life. It is part of the privilege of being Chaplain here that I see such marks in the lives of many students, caring for friends in need.
But Christ’s throne claims more. And the more is prayer, influence and action for the coming of God’s kingdom around us, and not merely within. In the light of referendums, elections, armed conflicts and wars, of royal courts in Trump Tower to the hell of Aleppo, we are surely called to the patient life and work of love, of fostering justice, of working always for peace. This is a claim utterly different from all that earthly power would be, all that rule desires. It has never been put better than in the closing verses of a poem by WH Vanstone, found at Hymn 390 – you are welcome to look it up if you wish, and I’d like to finish with these words:
Therefore he who shows us God
helpless hangs upon the tree;
and the nails and crown of thorns
tell of what God’s love must be.
Here is God: no monarch he,
throned in easy state to reign;
here is God, whose arms of love,
aching, spent, the world sustain.