Sunday, 24 November 2013

Why Tom Wright is Wrong (about one thing in particular, but there may be more...): A Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King

I can still remember when I first heard the most wonderful, the most beautiful, intricate and impressive musical Amen of my life. I was in the Sheldonian Theatre and had sitting on endured the nastily uncomfortable wooden bench for the last few hours so that I could hear Handel’s Messiah performed.

If you’re a fan of Handel, you’ll know that The Messiah goes out with a musical bang, a grand choral ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ followed by the boldest and longest Amen, which crashes and soars over the audience like a blessing (you can listen here)

You might also know that Handel structured the Messiah to reflect the church’s liturgical year, starting with the call to ‘comfort ye my people’ with the Advent promise of the coming King, and telling the story of Jesus from the manger to the cross to the empty tomb and return to the havens from which he came.

And then, at the end, the great Amen, the bold assertion that the same Jesus who lived and died and was raised from death is worthy of all the glory of heaven, worthy of the very best praise that humans can offer. It is a stirring piece of music, and maybe if you are observing Stir Up Sunday in your household, you might like to listen to a bit of this great Amen as you make your Christmas pud.

So we come today to celebrate the feast of Christ the King, the great Amen at the end of the church year. The feast of Christ the King wasn’t around while Handel was writing The Messiah –it wasn’t instituted until much later, in fact until 184 years later, in 1925.
But just like grand oratorios should end on a note of joyful triumph, so it is right that church years should go out on a high.  As we affirm in our worship this morning, Jesus is King – the full wording of the name of this festival is ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe.’ We hear something of the universal kingship of Jesus in our reading from the letter to the Colossians.

Jesus, we hear in this reading which is most likely to be a hymn sung in the early church, is the firstborn of all creation, the one to whom all kings and rulers owe their existence and in whom the very universe itself is held together.  It’s a big, bold vision of Christ we get in this reading from Colossians, as big as the universe itself and bigger still.

However grand we think the universe is – however vast the span of the infinity of space is – Jesus is grander, because Jesus is the creator and sustainer of this complex and vast and wonderful cosmos.  Jesus is not just King of the Jews, or King of Israel, or King of the church – he is king of the entire cosmos. I can’t think of any greater liturgical bang to go out with at the end of our church year.       
It’d be so tempting to stop there, to revel in the wonder and awe of that vision of Christ as the universal king.

And yet, there is another side to the story of Christ the king which Colossians also tells, a story which we know well because we tell it every Good Friday and every Sunday as we share bread and wine together, and that is the story which our Gospel reading for today focuses on, the story of the blood of his cross. Tom Wright, the former bishop of Durham who is now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, isn’t a big fan of ending the church year with the Feast of Christ the King.

He believes that the true place for the Feast of Christ the King in the church’s year is on Ascension Day when Jesus goes to be with the Father in heaven to take up his heavenly reign. I see the good bishop’s point. But, the problem is that this isn’t how the Bible tells it. In the New Testament narratives it is not at the point that Jesus ascends into heaven that he is revealed as the king of all – it is on the cross. The criminal hanging next to Jesus gets it – Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom, in other words when you are anointed King. And Jesus’ answer: I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise. Today. One small point, but an interesting one: the word paradise is hardly used in the Bible. It’s only used twice in the whole New Testament, here in Luke and in Revelation when it talks about the paradise of God. The word paradise comes from a Persian word, pardes, meaning ‘royal park’.  

Jesus says to the criminal, today you and I will walk in the grounds of my royal palace. Today I am made king, today I am crowned, today I am anointed. My disciples can’t see this yet. They see me having a ring of thorns thrust on my head and being given vinegar to drink. They are bowed down with sorrow and confusion and loss. They will see it soon, in just such a little time when life bursts forth and conquers death. But it’s no less true because it’s not yet seen. Today I am made king, just as the sign above my head says.

So with all due respect to Tom Wright, I’d like to suggest that the true feast of Christ the King is Good Friday, and is every time we gather together to remember that gruesomest of all coronations, the blood of his cross. And celebrating Jesus as our King is, I think, the best way of bringing together the mystery at the heart of our faith and ending our year on the highest note possible. Because the mystery  at the very heart of our faith is that Jesus is most glorious just at the very point that he is humblest, at the most painful, tortured, God-forsaken moment of Jesus’ life. That is when he is made king; the long-awaited king promised by the prophet as we heard this morning.
And in some universe-altering way, by the laying down of his life for the redemption of all out of love for all, the glory and the pain cohere as one as Jesus breathes out his final words ‘It is finished.’  

The justice and righteousness which Jeremiah foresaw in the great coming king were not made known in a grand ceremony but on a criminal’s cross.

Now I have given you a little picture to look at in your service sheets – this is picture of a wood carving by the controversial early twentieth century sculptor Eric Gill (here) and it’s called ‘Christ Crowned.’ It’s from a series of illustrations of the Gospels, one of which has a much more realistic, pained and dehydrated Christ on a cross. But the reason I like this picture of Christ crowned is because it gives a different view of what was happening on the cross, a view steeped in biblical imagery and theology. In this picture, the cross is not bare wood but is springing with life and growth – the cross becomes the tree of life – and Jesus looks at it, a smile playing on his lips. There are no anguished women at the feet of this cross but rather, the people gathered around wearing pre-Raphaelite robes are as relaxed and congenial as if they were at a party. Over the archway at the side of the cross is the word ‘pax’: peace. This Jesus on the cross is a Jesus at peace, in a place of peace. This is the king at home in his kingdom.

So on this Feast of Christ the King, I’d like to say to you that Christ the King sets a pattern for our lives as people of the King. It’s easy to think of glorious things and terrible things as opposites; it’s understandable that we feel that the most wonderful times in our lives are the easiest, and the most meaningless times are the most difficult.
But that’s not what the blood of his cross teaches us. Jesus’ death, his coronation as king of the universe, whispers to us that it is just at the very hardest times and the most painful times – the times when we feel that God has utterly forsaken us – that are the times when the most glorious work of God is being done in our lives. We may not see it yet, just like Jesus’ disciples didn't see it while Jesus was hanging on the cross – but it is no less true.  On this Feast of Christ the King, may the crosses we bear be ones that, like Eric Gill’s image of Christ Crowned, burst with life and become for us true places of peace, peace that the world cannot give, peace beyond all understanding. Amen.        


Friday, 15 November 2013

Prayer promises nothing...

...but the remaining with God.

Someone shared this quotation with me a while ago. Quotations are all around us, more now than ever, it seems. On mugs, teatowels, printed and arranged on artistic faux-wooden plaques to hang on the wall, and, of course, on the walls of Facebook. Even today I have probably scrolled past half a dozen or so quotations. Quotations are everywhere; some witty, some profound, some thought-provoking, many, well, let's be honest, instantly forgettable.

So why has this one stayed with me?

Well, firstly, because it intrigued me. So often prayer is talked about in terms of what it promises; we might believe that prayer promises peace, joy, healing, and meaning. Some people, although I am not among them, believe that prayer promises more material rewards too. As someone who is privileged to live with the luxuries of a full fridge, a heated home and good, free schooling for my children, it seems obscene to me to see prayer primarily as a means of acquisition of yet more stuff when millions around the world live in squalour and poverty with no realistic way out.

I know this, and yet it is so easy to slip into the shopping list mentality when we pray. Maybe this is partly because as well as being surrounded by quotations, we are also surrounded by advertising which shows us, over and over again, what we haven't got. I bought a well-known women's fashion magazine this week (there was a free lip gloss on the cover) and, having not seen one of these magazines for a while, I had forgotten that the are, essentially, a brochure of consumer adverts with the occasional editorial (which was mostly about more stuff that you can buy). We live in a shopping list world. I was reading a friend's blog about Christmas and consumerism last night, and as I was reading, my daughter, who was sitting across the living room from me, texted me her new updated Christmas list; talk about timing! No wonder the temptation to approach prayer in terms in terms of what it can get us is so strong; it's how we live today.

Yet the heart of Christianity is relationship, a profound relationship between God and humans, made possible only by the God-human, Jesus. And I think I'd go so far as to say that the heart of life itself is relationship, relationships with ourselves, others, and ultimately, God. I was listening to the wonderful, much-covered Nat King Cole song Nature Boy the other day which puts it better than I could:

'This he said to me:
"The greatest thing
you'll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
In return."'

You can't go into Sainsbury's and buy that; how pitifully empty the lives of those who substitute stuff for love can be.

So, back to prayer, which, as the quotation has it, promises nothing but the remaining with God. What does that even mean? Well, I take it to mean that prayer is all about entering into the mystery of relationship with the unseen but ever-present God who is himself love. Whatever else it might be, prayer is, at heart, relationship. It is the deepest expression of who we are, crying out to the Spirit who indwells us to fill us more, draw us deeper, show us more of this incredible reality that is the love for which we exist, asking for this love to overspill into our wounded, fractured world and to pour into that world the only thing that could ever bring true peace and healing; the presence of the Spirit of God himself. Or, to put it more concisely, an ancient prayer of the church: 'Come, Holy Spirit.'

What the coming of the Holy Spirit may mean is not ours to preempt. If we pray this truly, what we are doing is, effectively, ripping up the shopping list and standing with open hands to beckon God himself to come and fill our emptiness. It means knowing that stuff, even what we perceive to be spiritual stuff, is a poor substitute for the presence of God himself. It means recognising that the only ultimate answer to our deepest prayer is a richer, deeper revelation of the remaining with God. Which is exactly what prayer promises.

I'll probably blog more about Christmas as it draws near. But for now, suffice it to say Christmas can either be approached as a consumer-fest, a wishlist blowout, or as an invitation to enter more deeply into the incredible, unpriceable gift of God with us. Prayer is much the same.