Note: Images of individuals were used in the church service but they have not been reproduced here for reasons of privacy and copyright. A description of the missing slides has been give. Please use your personal memories or imagination to fill in the gaps.
Some months before we were married, my husband to be met my father for the first time. My father, no doubt, asked him many questions. One question, however, became enormously significant in my husband’s search for God. My father asked simply, ‘What is your picture of Christ?’
‘What is your picture of Christ?’ My husband realised that although he hardly ever thought about Christ, he did in fact own a picture of Jesus – a small reproduction of a Greek icon he’d picked up -- for reasons he didn’t entirely understand -- on holiday in Greece. He still has it. This was his starting point as he began to answer a question which has stuck with him over many years.
Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, and the whole point of this festival, and of the readings this morning which accompany it, is to ask ‘What is our picture of Christ?’ (which is why it will be a sermon featuring images all entitled ‘Christ the King’ from the Google images website). ‘I pray’, writes Paul to the Ephesians in this morning’s reading, ‘that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…’.
Today’s passage from Ephesians, as well as the Old Testament reading in Ezekiel which you can also find on your pew sheet, and the gospel reading all present Christ as King. The Ezekiel passage predicts a great Shepherd King, who in the style of the first shepherd King David, will separate the sheep from the goats. Jesus’ words in Matthew pick up this imagery –‘When the Son of Man comes in Glory, all the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.’
Interestingly, some of the very earliest depictions of Jesus in art portray him as a shepherd. Once Christianity was adopted as the State Religion by the Emperor Constantine the imagery turned much more regal.
Here, from the ‘Christ the King’ collection on google images is a typical portrayal of Christ, dressed exactly like a Byzantine Emperor. A modern version of this image updates the crown a bit.
The link between secular and religious power loosens a bit in an image like this
in which the gold of the crown becomes spiritualised into a kind of halo. But the jewels and rich fabric of the robes continue to negate any sense of Christ as shepherd.
Modern kitsch art continues to explore the tension between the humility and humanity of Christ on one hand, and the power and sovereignty of Christ on the other. Here is an updated version of the Byzantine ruler Christ
but now his heart, burning with love, is made central – the thorns wrapped it around suggest a different sort of crown, though the much larger crown on Christ’s head and the sceptre in his hand let us know which sort of Kingship is being emphasised.
The feast of Christ the King is actually rather recent – instituted by Pope Pious XI in 1925 in the face of increasing secularisation all over the world, and the rise of Mussolini in Italy. Mussolini was declaring himself Emperor, and the feast of Christ the King was an attempt to remind people of their ultimate allegiance to a much greater ruler. It’s a politically subversive festival therefore, in its origins, and we see in the following images, modern catholic desire to locate an alternative sort of power and kingship in Christ.
This one could easily be titled ‘the power of love’:
Here the marriage of Christ as good shepherd and superhero master of the universe is attempted:
In this even more kitsch and not terribly well reproduced image Christ appears on a white stallion, wearing a crown, coming to save the day:
And finally this image:
finds Christ some new territory, declaring him ‘King of Cyberspace’.
This trawl through the Christ the King section of Google reveals more than just the fact that bad art often reflects bad theology. In fact theologians, indeed all of us, struggle to picture both the majesty of Christ the judge and the tender humanity of Christ the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Our attempts to comprehend this mystery can be as clunky as painting an oversized crown and an oversized heart onto the same body:
Jesus’ attempt to picture this for us, as recorded in Matthew’s gospel, is clearer. Jesus tells us that, at the end of the day, we are going to be judged on how we treated the judge. ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger’ etc… ‘But Lord’ we will say to him, whether we are sheep or whether we are goats, ‘when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the King will answer us, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
I wonder how you feel when you hear this passage. Personally, I feel quite panicked. I go through a mental checklist: have I fed enough hungry people and ameliorated enough thirst? Does offering a friend a cup of tea when they’re really upset count? Can I tick the box for clothing the naked if I simply fill up and leave on my doorstep a charity clothes collection bag? Will I get credit for all those hours of feeding, clothing, tending my own child when they’re ill – I sure hope so, that sure takes a lot of time and expense. Does visiting the prison have to be literal, or can visiting someone imprisoned by, let’s say, grief or remorse count?
My knee jerk reaction to this gospel reading is to turn the focus on myself – am I naughty or nice? a sheep or a goat? Yet, perhaps particularly because this story falls on Christ the King this year, I hear a voice saying to me, ‘What is your picture of Christ?’ Because the astonishing revelation of this parable of the sheep and the goats is not actually which camp I’m in, but the news that Christ the King camps out with the ‘least of these’: he indwells them. In fact the greek verb used in that famous verse from John’s gospel: ‘the word became flesh and dwelt amongst them’ is the word ‘tabernacled’ – camped out. Christ pitches his tent in the least of these.
Unwittingly the google image website for Christ the King makes this very point. As you scroll down the page, the obvious images of Christ give way gradually to a very different kind of picture.
Image of boy playing basket-ball
Image of teenage boy
Image of teenage boy
Image of Junior girl
Image of Junior Girl
These photos of children, who presumably all attend schools called ‘Christ the King’ in various parts of the world, ask us, ‘do you see Christ the King in me?’.
Image of teenage boy proudly holding a rather messy looking cake.
Indeed every face we encounter presents the same challenge, ‘Are you still seeing a picture of Christ the King?’
Jesus essentially says in the 25th chapter of Matthew: these are your judges.
Image of infant girl
I put down my power, embed it in them.
Image of football players
Listen to Paul at the end of Ephesians Chapter One: ‘God has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Image of girl playing basket-ball
This is anatomically impossible, to be under Christ’s feet, yet to be his body, to be the fullness of Christ. But this is indeed the implication of Christ’s taking on flesh, and identifying so completely with humankind.
As I considered these passages over the past few weeks, I’ve had the unusual privilege of holding no fewer than 4 newborn babies when visiting their parents. Babies less than a month old, who still have really no muscles at all. They are the tiniest, most helpless scraps of humanity, totally utterly dependent on the human community to keep them alive. They flap and flail and make strange other- worldly faces. Newborn babies always draw out from me an initial response of adoration and wonder. But I know that as soon as they start to need something, as soon as they start to mew and then cry with all the rage and grief of unmet hunger, I will become scared, annoyed, maybe angry that I cannot feed or sooth them. And I will want to hand them back.
Next week, the first Sunday of Advent, we will begin to prepare ourselves to meet Almighty God in the very least of the least, the newborn King. And we will begin again the process by which God enlightens the eyes of our hearts so that we can enlarge our picture of Christ as we encounter Jesus first in the manger, then with his friends, with the lepers, on the boat, at the last supper. We will lift our eyes to see Jesus on the cross, risen from the tomb, and ascended into heaven, the great judge, ruler and sustenance of the world. Finally we will look out to see Christ in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the prisoners of this world… The question ‘What is your picture of Christ?’ is never ending. And never safe. It draws men and women to leave their comfortable lives, their homelands sometimes, to part with time and possessions and to search out Christ in ever more strange and unlikely places. And sometimes the most strange and unlikely places to notice Christ will be amongst your own family members, and the people next to you in the pews.
Image of football supporters
May Christ bless you in this journey. Amen.