Christ the (Servant) King
Readings; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Ps 95 1-7a, Eph. 1 15-23 Matthew 25, 31-46
Hymns: The King of love my shepherd is; Teach me my God and King; Let all mortal flesh keep silence; Crown him with many crowns.
As Christians, we are bidden to imitate Christ, and therein lies the problem with this rather new feast-day of Christ the King, instituted in 1926 by Pope Pius XI to turn the laity from nationalism and secularism towards submission and obedience towards God and the church. The day was subsequently picked up by Lutherans, Anglicans and others, along with Pius’s unexamined assumption that, as Newman put it, we are to hold the church, prince-bishops, papal tiaras and all, ‘…in veneration,… Holy church as His creation and her teachings as His own.’ Whether church is seen as all the people of God or the organisations linking people and God, clearly each person should do their best to imitate Christ, yet veneration runs the risk of turning ‘the church’ into an idol.
Yet veneration of an organisation apart, if we see Kings as all-powerful dictators, rolling in riches or chopping off heads at will, then there is a real problem with a powerful ’Christ the King.’ Our understanding of Kings in general, whether propped up by religion or not, and images of Christ the nationalist, King of the artist and patron’s country, makes ‘Christ as King’ fraught with danger. In a beautiful Serbian Orthodox museum outside Budapest, there’s a shocking painting of Christ the King sitting on his throne replete with Serbian regalia. Less blatant and therefore more dangerous is the 15th century triptych in the Scottish National Gallery showing Christ in the centre panel, with James and his wife Margaret to one side and the vicar on the other. True, they are worshipping Christ: but did the worshipper in the pew cut them from their mind’s eye, focussing only on Christ? As with subliminal advertising, that regal pair gained massively by association.
So the problem is one of power and words. Power is commonly seen as the capacity to force another person to act as you wish whether or not the other so wishes, irrespective of whether such demands are legitimate. Yet truly effective power needs no crude orders to force compliance: the slap, the gun, are almost marks of failure. For power is most efficient when the subordinate totally accepts, indeed does not reflect on, the rights of the dominant, but accepts their enforced subordination, as might ordinary worshippers at that Triptych, should they have reflected on the social order. The danger comes when such skilled manipulation causes the abused wife, the trafficked girl, the violated child, to continue obeying their abusers, for all have been disempowered, disembodied, by their immediate King, for yes, it is in such terms that abusers describe themselves: I’m your King, boss, owner, leader, paterfamilias, even saviour.
You see the problem? A King as the top of the heap, ‘kicking the dirty rascals down’ –as the child’s rhyme goes, which I well remember from that rather violent game? Biblical Kings in Israel? None worthy of imitation, although Judea did throw up a few good enough ones– Joash, Hezekiah, Jehosaphat – from the heap of horrors, as well as David. Yet God’s urging of his people in Deuteronomy 17 not to copy their neighbours and have kings seems sound, and is thus an inappropriate descriptor for his Son. Biblical Kings do not exemplify Jesus’ life, and thus that ‘King of the Jews’ placard at the crucifixion is even more cynical than we might think at first sight.
Do our readings, and hymns, help us discern and acclaim the revolutionary servant Kingship of Christ as an immensely challenging image? I’ll start with that wonderful Psalm of praise to God, ‘the rock of our salvation, the King above all gods… for we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. ’ That first image of security and power contrasts sharply with the last, that of God our shepherd. Shepherds at the manger, paintings of Jesus the shepherd cuddling a lamb, arguably Bishop’s with their crooks, tend to elevate that job. But as commonly in many regions, the Biblical shepherd was no hero but rather a marginal being, a half-nomad, wandering in search of grass for the sheep whom he protected from wolves. As a loner, virtually a migrant worker, such a man was commonly not trusted by the rich, the settled farmer or the artisan, but rather feared as being beyond daily control. So imaging God as shepherd had a counter-cultural element even though the wealth of a community’s leaders was counted in sheep and therefore depended on a good shepherd, one who, as Ezekiel so graphically makes clear, gathers the gentler sheep, the followers of God, after they had been head-butted and dispersed by the strong and ruthless. Once gathered, and in that wonderful phrase ‘fed with justice,’ the needier will thrive under the care of the shepherd, but the ruthless (as those ruthless Kings of Judah) who ruled their subordinates with violence and injustice will die.
As I said last week, all who are enfolded in the protecting garment of God the shepherd, the true ‘cloth of gold,’ need fear neither wolf nor drought but live in justice and mercy. And that is what Paul in Ephesians, as in Thessalonians and Corinthians again stresses: present and future security is based on faith in Jesus, in love practised to all believers, for the hope of being with Christ, a Christ ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.’ The role of the church as the people of God, is, as St Teresa put it, to be the hands and feet of his body on earth.
After the wise and foolish virgins, the wedding feast, and the talents, Matthew once again gives a parable of judgement, sorting the sheep and goats based on their feeding of others with justice and mercy, love and hope. Is this an activist agenda, demanding we scurry around like scalded cats making merit? Or is it a description of being there, to listen, to receive, to share, to wait, to care? We are accepted by God in grace through our faith, not our manic busyness, our doing good. As James says, faith without action is dead, yet acts of justice and mercy make neither faith nor merit but rather come from and are fruits of faith. We should simply feel happy to pass on what we receive from God: taking and hoarding the bread and wine, the body and blood, would not only demonstrate a lamentable grasp of living faith, but would sit like a stone within. Matthew put it graphically to needle the scribes and inactive Pharisees, but in so doing, may feed complacent merit-makers. Silent prayer, a silent touch, can also feed justice and serve God.
So let us imitate Christ the shepherd King of love whose goodness faith never: let us imitate Christ the teacher for whom no work is demeaning, no person despised; let us know daily that Christ the Son is son of Mary, an ordinary woman, and imitate his ordinariness. Only then shall we dare to sing with honesty and confidence: crown this king not with crowns of gold but of love, peace, wisdom, and thorns. Only then can we straightforwardly celebrate today of that of Christ the servant King.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
November 24th, 2014