This Sunday's readings: Christ the King, Sunday next before Advent
Posted: 19 Nov 2009 @ 00:00
Daniel 7.9,10,13,14; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37
PERHAPS it is odd that we use so much language about kingship. Odd because, in spite of our track record, worldly power is what our foundational documents in the New Testament seem so obviously to subvert.
Christian history bristles with examples of church and state collusion, in traditions both Catholic and Reformed. How many monarchs, including our own, have received coronation at the hands of the Church? And they have all too often demonstrated a thirst for power that has resulted in bloodshed and injustice, for the sake of their own aggrandisement.
These are sweeping, generalised statements, but they are not without substance. The outstanding work of the Christian historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has ably demonstrated the grounds for such statements, as his current BBC4 series reveals. This might well lead us to a certain reticence about celebrating today’s feast of Christ the King and using the language of worldly power too blatantly.
There are, however, hints in today’s readings that give us grounds for confidence in believing that our liturgical language about Christ the King does not compromise the profoundly subversive nature of the gospel he taught and bequeathed us. Both Daniel and John’s Revelation contain the clues to what distinguishes the Kingdom of Jesus Christ from that of the world, and John’s account of the trial of Jesus gives us a brilliant illustration of what this looks and sounds like.
The first clue Daniel and Revelation give us to the difference between the Kingdom of Jesus Christ and the kingdoms of this world is hidden in the use of language. The clue is in the list of “peoples, nations, and languages” (Daniel 7.14: compare Revelation 5.9), which is a fairly standard Bible-speak for our term “global”. The point being made by this list is that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is not one empire among many: it is everybody’s space for flourishing in all the glory of God’s diverse creating.
We ought not to underestimate the significance of this. We tend to think of a kingdom as one structure of power and identity among others, and therefore existing among potentially competitive and destructive neighbours. Recent exhibitions in the British Museum have amply demonstrated just how futile the aspirations of the greatest human kingdoms have been, when seen in the grand sweep of human history.
The forgotten Persian empire of Cyrus, the astonishing Qin dynasty in China, and, closer to home, the Roman empire of Hadrian all demonstrate both the best in human achievement and the worst of which we are capable. But what marks them out as fundamentally different from the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is the extent to which they were conditional: none was truly universal; none was permanent.
When we reflect on the radical nature of the Kingdom, the aspect of gospel globalism must find expression. Nor is this a triumphalistic claim. On the contrary, the question is what service can we be to each other, so that all are welcome and valued with equal dignity. Inclusion in this Kingdom is not by force, but by desire. Citizens have to want to share its life. The gift of free will is one that God does not take from us when we are invited to accept the sovereignty of divine love.
In this Kingdom, we are challenged to safeguard space for others, all of whom are no less loved by God than we are. Perhaps the greater challenge lies in finding the means by which we foster a universal human desire to be citizens of this Kingdom. What would make hoodies, blacks, Pakis, gays, druggies, scroungers, cripples, criminals, pigs, Nazi scum, and all the others who bear such hideous terms of abuse desire to be in this Kingdom? You and I are called to be the people who set about indiscriminately fostering that desire in them, transformative as it must be — transformative as the love of God always is.
This is what characterises the nature of the King, Jesus Christ, and it is the second clue that we find in today’s reading. Daniel speaks of the coming on the clouds of the one like a human being (Daniel 7.13), a phrase echoed in Revelation (Revelation 1.7), and picked up by Jesus, who refers to himself as the Son of Man.
The figure of one enthroned on clouds has a long history in pre-Christian Jewish writing. That tradition, particularly venerated in the Ethiopian Church, describes the one like a human being as existing “before the sun and the signs of heaven were created”, and who declares: “I will transform the heavens. . . I will transform the earth and make it a blessing.” It is a tradition acknowledged in the letter of Jude (Jude 14), and echoed in Revelation 13.8.
All of this is not about a mythical figure: it is about Jesus Christ, in whom the reality of salvation is found. We evoke the character and quality of kingdom life through inherited patterns of worship and celebration — singing, light, incense, and beauty. We seek therein no escape from the world, but the inspiration to pray, with understanding and conviction: Thy Kingdom come.
9As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
10A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousand served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgement,
and the books were opened.
13As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
4Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
7Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
8‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
33Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘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 to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a 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.’