This, the final Sunday of the Church’s year, seems somewhat schizophrenic being known by at least three names. You can choose the purely descriptive but rather boring ‘Sunday next before Advent’ or perhaps you prefer the more interesting sounding ‘Stir-up Sunday’. This name is derived from the Collect for the day in the Book of Common Prayer which begins: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee O Lord’. We shall use this today as a Post-Communion Prayer after which I’m sure you will all rush home to take part in the traditional activity for Stir up Sunday – stirring up and steaming your Christmas Puddings!
Ever since the Church of England adopted the Revised Common Lectionary in the 1990s we have left these two names aside and celebrated this Sunday as the Festival of Christ the King. The Book of Common Worship introduces the Festival saying: “The annual cycle of the Church’s year now ends with the Feast of Christ the King. The year that begins with the hope of the coming Messiah ends with the proclamation of his universal sovereignty. The ascension of Christ has revealed him to be Lord of earth and heaven.”
This Festival has a relatively short history in the Church having been introduced into the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius the 11th in 1925, three years after Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy and his fascist government came to power. In introducing the new Festival Pope Pius reflected: “As long as individuals and states refuse to submit to the rule of our Saviour, there will be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations. Men must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.” As we consider the problems the world faces today it is clear that that statement is as valid today as it was in 1925.
And so, our Church year now ends with the proclamation of Jesus Christ as King. The image is clear enough, but how comfortable are you with it? When you think of Jesus, what image do you conjure up for him? Do you picture him as a King, or do you perhaps prefer some other image that is more to your liking?
Those of you who are familiar with Holy Trinity Church in Blatherwycke may be able to recall a very fine stained glass window picturing Christ as a Shepherd holding a lamb in his arms. That’s a comforting image isn’t it, the image that is portrayed in the 23rd Psalm of which we are all so fond.
Or perhaps you are one of the many who like to picture Jesus surrounded by children as described in Mark 10:13-16
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth; anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Or maybe you like to think of Jesus as a brother or as a friend; someone who walks the journey of life with you; someone you can talk to and share your problems with. Would you do these things with a King? Probably not, so it is an image we tend to shy away from.
So does this mean that there is something wrong with our preferred images of Jesus? Have we allowed ourselves to get too familiar with the one to whom we should show respect?
Not at all: Jesus can most certainly be our friend or our brother and there is no doubt that he cares for us as a Shepherd cares for his sheep. The mistake we do make, though, is to forget what it really means to be a true friend or brother. Yes, of course, it means always being there and always being prepared to listen and Jesus gives us these things in abundance. But it also means telling us when we get things wrong. Listen again to the answer Jesus gave to Pilate in today’s gospel:
You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
When we come close to Jesus, when we share our problems with him as a friend or brother, he listens to us, supports us and comforts us, but he also ‘testifies to the truth’. When we have gone wrong, he tells us that we have gone wrong and what we need to do to put things right. The problem is, all too often we choose not to hear. We are happy to accept his support and protection but reluctant to accept his correction and guidance.
If we find the concept of Christ as our King rather difficult, how do we fare with the concept of helping to build his kingdom? We recite the familiar words ‘thy kingdom come’ week by week but do we fully take on board what we mean by that, or understand what we need to do to help bring it about? The kingdom which Jesus described is one in which the meek come before the mighty, the hungry are fed, the sick are made well, the oppressed are set free and in which all people live together in harmony and share the love and peace of God. All this he showed us, not through decree, nor by imposition nor by the use of power, but by example, both in the way in which he lived his life and in the way he died.
When Jesus spoke of the kingdom it is likely that he used the Aramaic word malkutha which refers to the activity of a king; the way he behaves, rather than the territory he rules over. Jesus was concerned about the quality of human life and the relationship of men and women with God and with each other. In Luke 17: 20-21 he told the Pharisees: “The kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen … because the kingdom of God is among you.”
So there we have it, in the words of Jesus himself. “The kingdom of God is among you”. It is not a territory, nor is it a thing of the past which has since been lost, nor is it a thing of the future that has not yet arrived. It is present here on earth today in the lives of those who have committed themselves to God’s direction or, to put that another way, to be subject to his kingship.
So that’s all right then isn’t it? We’re back to something nice and cosy again that’s not too demanding. If the kingdom of God is here already we can just keep calm and carry on and enjoy it can’t we? Not a bit of it. The kingdom of God is not like the family silver that is kept locked in a cabinet in the front room only to be seen briefly on Sundays. It is much too important to keep to ourselves. Our knowledge of the love of God compels us to continually build the kingdom so that all may enjoy the richness of the life he longs for us to lead. In the words of the hymn with which we began our service:
One day ev’ry tongue will confess You are God
One day ev’ry knee will bow
Together we will learn to build your kingdom
Here on earth we vow.
By all means keep calm and carry on – but keep on building!