John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme. In this sermon he reflects on the countercultural nature of the Christian image of Christ as King.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?
I’ve been up to London to look at the Queen.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, why are you pale?
I’ve been arrested and thrown into jail.
Have you ever been arrested? I haven’t, though I did once spend a night in a police cell; but that’s another story.
And yes, those last two lines are my invention. They’re certainly not in my Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. And I’ve added them, not so much because royal power can so easily be abused, and for the wrong word, the imagined slight, you could in many ages (and even today if you cross those who exercise absolute power or something approaching it) be thrown into prison, or lose your head – as the Queen of Hearts would have it...
No, not for that, but because for the early Christians, the power of the idea of Christ as King lay simply – and frighteningly – in this, that owning Christ as Lord, as King, could lead to arrest, imprisonment, and grisly death. We Christians can never say ‘we have no King but Caesar’. That’s one of the prices of being a Christian. And many have paid it. For their courage let us be thankful; for their courage, let us pray.
One of the mysteries of the Gospel is that mocking, insults, flogging and death are inevitable concomitants to God’s engagement with us and the world, an engagement in which Jesus overthrows the powers of darkness and leads through the cross to the resurrection. And we, who are but pale reflections of Jesus our King, may not, must not, shirk this path.
There is something wonderful about the power of Christian imagery to subvert. There is also something terrible about the power of institutions to invert the subversive, to take an idea such as Christ the King and apply it to its own ends. Both Israel of old and the church over the millennia have taken the idea of Kingship – whether Yahweh’s of Christ’s – and made it serve the pretentions of earthly power, whether that of some royal person, or, more perversely, of the church itself.
But if Christ is king, his throne is a manger
if Christ is king, his throne is a cross
if Christ is king, his throne is an empty tomb
if Christ is king, his throne is invisible, not something our pussy cat can chase a mouse under
if Christ is king, his throne is our heart.
Is that not utterly subversive? But it doesn’t just subvert the pomp and circumstance of worldly power and authority. It challenges us, every day:
to live with the simplicity of the manger
to live under the power of the cross – with its visual message, if we ever make the sign of the cross as part of our devotional practice, of ‘I crossed out’
to walk out of the tombs we have constructed around ourselves and live lives which, though carrying scars like Christ’s, are remade in his image through prayer, immersion in scripture, and the nourishment of the sacraments.
Christ is a king who does not listen to the voices shouting ‘Save yourself, show us your power’. Rather he is a King who, by putting himself in the hands of others, by being apparently powerless, saves, frees, liberates, those others – us.
And his throne isn’t actually invisible: we are his throne – our hearts, our lives, transformed by our King.
But there is another voice that cuts quietly through the strife and stridency surrounding the cross of Calvary. A voice which simply says: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’. And what an interesting response this voice gets! A response that almost sidesteps the issue. Almost, but not quite. ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’. That too is part of the kingdom. But it is not all. Our King and his Kingdom have two aspects, two dimensions, interlocking but separable: the present and the future.
Get the present one right and the future one will come of its own accord. And it’s never too late – as the penitent thief discovered. Of course, we’ll never get the present wholly right. But we can try.
And here’s the key. The kingdom depends on, is characterised by, reconciliation: ‘through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven’.
The mark of whether we live in the kingdom, live kingdom lives, have allowed Jesus to enthrone himself in our hearts, is the extent to which we live lives that are:
reconciled to God
reconciled to those we have injured
reconciled to those who have injured us.
I will own that I’m not there yet – far from it – but I ask daily for God’s grace to get there, as, ‘straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal’, attempting ‘to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God’.
Reconciliation, of course, goes hand in hand with forgiveness. If Jesus, as the nails are fixing him inexorably onto the cross, can pray ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’, how can we not forgive, how can we not seek reconciliation?
Ultimately, though, it’s a very odd fact that God’s kingdom is actually in our power. As Dag Hammarskjold noted: ‘Man’s freedom is a freedom to betray God. God may love us – yes – but our response is voluntary.’ Much is made these days – and rightly so – of us living by the kingdom values of peace, justice and the integrity of creation. But underlying our commitment to all of these is our voluntary response to God – to love God as much as God loves us, and to live out the cost of love in seeking and acting reconciliation.
This will involve being peacemakers, starting with bringing peace to our own hearts. So if I, who long for peace, get angry and aggressive when I lose my temper...
This will involve seeking justice – not the retributive justice that lies behind some many of the cries we hear that ‘I just want justice’, but the restorative justice that is one of the keys to living reconciled lives.
This will involve living under the yoke of the integrity of creation – not indulging in spectacular consumption, not colluding in the devastation of forests and resources and the exploitation of over half the world’s population for our present comfort.
God may love us – and the sight of the King of Kings looking at us, appealing to us, from his throne to which he is attached by nail-pierced hands and outstretched arms, assures us that God does. But our response is voluntary. It is incumbent on us, who claim Christ as King, to live openly with Christ as King. We may not be arrested, but we will, at the very least, be voluntarily open to the mockery of those who do not or will not respond to the Love-King.
And we will be living royal lives indeed, we will be like spreading olive trees in the house of our God. The present kingdom will begin to flower and flourish and transform the kingdoms of this earth. And the future kingdom will come to us because we have tried our utmost in the grace and power of God to live as citizens of the kingdom of reconciliation now.