Feast of Christ the King 2018. Gospel reading from John 18:33-37.
‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Pilate asked. Jesus replied, ‘Do you ask this of your own accord, or have others spoken to you about me?’ Pilate answered, ‘Am I a Jew? It is your own people and the chief priests who have handed you over to me: what have you done?’ Jesus replied, ‘Mine is not a kingdom of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to prevent my being surrendered to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this kind.’ ‘So you are a king then?’ said Pilate. ‘It is you who say it’ answered Jesus. ‘Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.’
Today on the final Sunday of the Church’s year, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. It is interesting to note that “Christ the King” appears in different ways throughout the gospels.
At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the wise men appear at the Court of Herod and ask “where is the infant king of the Jews?” And when they arrive at Bethlehem, they find the child with his mother Mary. The gospel says that “falling to their knees, they did him homage”. Traditionally we think of them as three kings, buttheymake their homage to the King of kings.
It is in John’s gospel in particular that we find many references to kingship – sometimes casual, at times almost in jest, but they are there.
In the first chapter, John describes the Lord calling Peter and Andrew, the first apostles. We then read how Nathanael responded to his own calling: –– “Rabbi, you are the Son of God – you are the Kingof Israel”. An exaggerated response, perhaps almost in jest, but nevertheless it is there.
Then after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, the gospel says – “they wanted to come and take him by force and make him king,but he escaped back to the hills by himself”.
On Palm Sunday the crowds acclaim the Lord as he enters the city of Jerusalem – “Blessings on the Kingof Israel, who comes in the name of the Lord”.
No more than passing moments, but now the intense reality in the gospel today as the Lord appears before Pilate. We read the full account during the Solemn Liturgy on Good Friday. The Lord has been arrested during the night and there has been the mock trial before the court of the High Priest – “What need have we of witnesses? – He deserves to die”. During the night he has been scourged, and given a crown of thorns, mocking a true king’s crown. And now in the early dawn he is brought to the house of the Roman Governor, Pilate, with the crowd outside, incited by the High Priest, calling for his death. And so today we have part of the dialogue between the Lord and Pilate. One wonders how it came to be recorded – the palace of Pilate, the Praetorium, was a public building – and one can only imagine that the evangelist, hiding between the pillars, was watching and listening with a fascinated horror as the events unfolded. To begin Pilate treats the prisoner with disdain – it is something that has happened many times before and the Roman governor does not want to become involved in petty local disputes. But somehow this is different, and Pilate finds that he is fascinated by this prisoner and starts to question him. “So you are a king then?” And the Lord responds with a direct answer – something that rarely happens in the gospels – “Yes, I am a king. I was born for this. I came into the world for this.” John’s gospel says that Pilate was anxious to set the Lord free, but that in the end, be gives way to the demand of the crowd. They knew how to taunt Pilate – “if you set him free, you are no friend of Caesar”. In the end we hear one of the most terrible phrases in the gospel “Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified”.
These are some of the thoughts that we can gather from the gospels – the memories of all that happened to our Lord and King. Today we celebrate the kingship of Christ. Although he may be dressed in a soldier’s clock with a crown of thorns, we recognise him as our eternal king. We offer him the loyalty of our hearts and confirm our wish to be subjects of his eternal kingdom – a kingdom which is described in the preface of the Mass today as “a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace”. By accepting these as the values, the guiding principles in our lives, we can begin to make the kingdom of Christ a reality in our world of today, person by person, and place by place. The alternative is too hard to imagine – to join the crowd in taking charge of the Lord as he left Pilate’s presence, forcing him to carry his own cross, escorting him out of the city to the place which in Hebrew is called Golgotha – and crucifying him.
In referencing the feast of Christ the King, it is perhaps of interest to note that the Bible reflects its own time, and our Lord uses references and parables based on the well-known structures of life at that time. With the lens of history stretching back centuries, it is easy to see that kings had absolute power of life and death over their subjects, most of whom were illiterate, and poor in every sense – so the king held an enormously important role. We probably do not see kings (or queens) in this light today in the Western world. In our own time of democracies, European and other unions, presidents, leaders, comrades and dictators, and people’s greater anti-authoritarian sensitivities, if our Lord were to visit the UK tomorrow in person, would he describe himself as a King? Perhaps not. But Christ the King, our God, is omnipotent, omniscient – and all merciful – so infinitely better than any earthly king we can construe.