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Readings: Christ the King

15 November 2013

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Christ the King

Sunday next before Advent

Jeremiah 23.1-6; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43

Eternal God, whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven that he might rule over all things as Lord and King: keep the whole Church in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace, and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet; who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.

Time magazine recently described charitable work as Prince Charles's passion in life. It reported that he wanted to do as much as possible before becoming King, when, an aide said, "the prison shades close." Soon after this, a dinner-party conversation turned to the "So what?" question in relation to academic research, and - with this column in mind - I asked myself: "So what that Christ is King?"

What do the readings say about kingship? Jeremiah records that kingship derives from God, who rescues his people from being scattered like lost sheep; kingship is about wisdom, bringing justice and righteousness to the land and people, creating the security that facilitates well-being.

This is, however, only part of the story. Borrowing an ancient hymn, which describes this King as the pre-existent Son of God - through whom and for whom all things in heaven and earth were created, and in whom all things hold together - Colossians' royal imagery draws us from human time and space to glimpse eternal things. So what?

Christ's kingship is the source of our redemption and forgiveness of sin; in making Christ King, God has rescued us not just from darkness, but from the power of darkness, transferring us into the Kingdom of his beloved Son, establishing new relationships and authority.

All that can be known of God is revealed in his Son. He who is before all things, the image of the invisible God, was born into human time and space as a human child, to a young mother in an occupied country, at a particular time in human history, and named Jesus. So what?

Our only appropriate response is wonder and surrender to the mystery of God's glory revealed in Jesus Christ, to whom every knee in heaven and earth and under the earth will bend (Philippians 2.10). A familiar hymn summarises this succinctly: "King of kings, yet born of Mary, as of old on earth he stood".

In the Gospel, however, kingship is more like "the prison shades". Few have expressed this more intensely than W. H. Vanstone, in his stunning hymn, "Morning glory, starlit sky":

Here is God: no monarch he,
Throned in easy state to reign;
Here is God, whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.

Human sinfulness, encountering divine kingship, tried to consign it to a cruel human death, with unspeakable physical pain and mocking humiliation. Yet, just a few weeks later, Peter, who knew Jesus as a man, announced: "God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus, whom you crucified" (Acts 2.36).

The soldiers mocking Jesus were wrong; he was far more than the King of the Jews, whom they could deride callously in his suffering. Something much vaster was at stake. Human vision is minuscule, and Jeremiah's insight that kingship in David's line brings justice, righteousness, and safety in the land was but part of the truth.

Through his Son's dying in agony, God reconciled to himself all things on earth or in heaven. This kingship is cosmic, and so we pray in the collect that God will bring the whole created order, not just humanity, to worship at his feet.

The Orthodox Church grasps these truths more readily than we do. For Vladimir Lossky, the source of Christian theology is the confession of the incarnation of the Son of God (see Orthodox Theology, SVS Press, 1978).

In Christ, transcendence became immanent. On the cross, Christ reunited the terrestrial cosmos to Paradise, and, after the resurrection, Christ's body mocks spatial limitations to unify earth and heaven.

By the ascension, Christ reunites the celestial and terrestrial worlds; sitting at the right hand of the Father, he takes his humanity into the Trinity itself. These are the first fruits of what the Orthodox Church calls cosmic deification.

So what that Christ is king? Worship, yes; but Colossians prefaces this exaltation of the cosmic consequences of divine kingship with a prayer for spiritual wisdom and insight, to enable Christians to lead lives worthy of the Lord.

If we are challenged by Jeremiah's vision that service and care of others are at the heart of ruling in righteousness - an outworking of God's kingship - then giving ourselves to charitable work may not be a bad place for both a future king and his subjects to begin.

 

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