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Christ the King

November 25, 2018

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Preached by The Very Reverend Stephen Waine, Dean of Chichester, using John 18:33 – 37 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 25th November 2018, Christ the King.

Jesus answered, ‘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.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

To which Pontius Pilate replied, perhaps wistfully: ‘What is truth?’

What is truth? This is a question which we have become accustomed to hearing, even if not in quite that form. ‘Fake news’ is the cry from those who do m=not like what the media correspondents are saying about them; and we know that those responsible for social media platforms are being challenged as never before about the quality and accuracy of what they put in the public domain, or enable to be placed there.

This is not a new problem, but the magnitude of it is. In days gone by it was possible to raise a smile by saying: ‘It’s true. I read it in the newspaper,’ even if we knew that it probably wasn’t.  But the global reach and lightening-quick speed of social media means that a fantasy dreamt up on a teenager’s laptop can be round the world in seconds.  Countries, governments and financial systems can be destabilised. Social media are used to groom those who are vulnerable: groom them for exploitation or groom them for political ends – radicalise them, with terrible consequences for thos who suffer at their hands.

And I’m not even going to mention Brxit ……..  ‘What is truth?’ mused Pontius Pilate.

I preached in Bamberg Cathedral in Germany last month, and next year I will go to preach in the Lutheran Church in Bayreuth, also in Germany. And next October Chichester Cathedral will host the Coburg Conference, a conference which takes place every two years between Chichester Diocese and Cathedral, the Evangelical and Lutheran Church in Bavaria, the Evangelical Church in Berlin and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Bamberg.  There are close relationships between us, and to be invited to preach in a Roman Catholic Cathedral in Germany was privilege enough, but to preach there just before the 100th anniversary of the First World War armistice aand to be received with such warmth by our German hosts was remarkable too. In living memory the Germans were our enemies, and in living memory we watched Irish Roman Catholics and Protestants kill each other just for being one or the other. But now, I, an Anglican cleric, am welcome to preach in a German Roman Catholic Cathedral.

One of the many challenges of Brexit, it seems to me, is how to maintain the close relationships which have grown up across the borders of the European nations since we last went to war against one another.  There are still those who will say (and I heard it again only last week), that ‘we defeated the Germans twice so why should we be told what to do by them?’

One of the things which makes me uneasy about this Festival of Christ the King is the danger of falling into the triumphalistic language of the past. It was rather sobering to discover that a common thread between Christians and the Islamic warriors of Isis is that both believe in the second coming of Christ on Judgement Day. I think there are probably enough religious supremacists in the world already without us wanting to join in. With childhood memories of singing Onward Christian Soldiers, and Stand up, stand up for Jesus ye soldiers of the cross both in church and in school, I want to distance myself from any hint of religious and political supremacy which talking about Christ the King might imply.

And what was wrong with this Sunday being stir-up Sunday anyway?  Taking its cue from the traditional collect for the Sunday next before Advent (which we will pray at the end of this service) we would pray for our wills to be stirred up, and then go home from church and give the Christmas pudding mixture a stir.  Stir-up Sunday seems a much safer option than Christ the King …….

But let’s persist, and see where it takes us.  In the east window of the church in which I was vicar, there was a not unusual arrangement of images.  At the top was an image of Christ the King, Christ reigning from heaven in fine robes, orb and sceptre in his hand.  It’s a picture which tells us of glory, triumph, of rule, of reign, of power.  But if you were to lower your eyes, you would see from where this power comes, for there is Jesus the King nailed to a cross, completely and utterly powerless.  Power from powerlessness.  Such was Jesus’ love for his Father and for the world that he surrendered himself completely to the will of his Father and to the will of human beings for whom and to whom he had come.

The gospel passage which we heard today describes a dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Jesus about his kingship.  This conversation took place just before Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified:  it’s very close to the end.  Jesus did not beg to be spared, but invited Pilate to engage with Truth.  He patiently described where his kingship was derived from.  Pilate inscribed the cross with the words ‘The King of the Jews.’

And we would want to say, not King of the Jews only, but King of earth and heaven, of time and eternity, and of all people.   His Kingdom is built not on fear, but on love, self-offering, self-sacrifice, for he is the one ‘who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.’ (Revelation 1.6)

In this imperfect world, we might wonder where love fits in, or why it has been abandoned. As we hear and read of youngsters for whom violence, armed violence at that, and the death of rivals, has become dreadfully familiar, we may come to the conclusion that we share this world with people who have abandoned love for their fellow human beings. And a world which had abandoned love for cynicism would not be much of a world at all.

This festival of Christ the King reminds us that there is an alternative, and the alternative is a kingdom built not by terrorists or knife-bearing teenagers, not by the armed forces of the nations of the world, but on an act of love in which Jesus gave himself once and for all to save the world which God in love had made.  Jesus said ‘My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over…..’  My followers would be fighting.

But of course, we’re not fighting. Hopefully we are listening.

This is a noisy world in which it is difficult to hear the still small voice. The clamour of information, news, fake news which comes to us is constant and insistent.

But listen we must, patiently and attentively, because to hear the still, small voice of calm we must filter out the clamour, because it is in the quiet that we will hear the voice of Jesus. For ‘everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ ‘What is truth?’ asked Pilate.

‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’ – there is the starting point in the quest to find the truth.

The truth is found in the voice of Jesus for which we listen attentively through the clamour and noise of other voices.

And then, if we listen carefully enough, we hear not fake news, but the truth of the Good News.