Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. It’s not an ancient feast. It was only instituted in 1925 by the then pope, Pius XI. He wanted a feast that made people think about power, who had it and how it should be exercised. It was just a few years after the end of the First World War, when people had images of that industrial scale, nameless, faceless slaughter in their minds. But the war hadn’t brought peace. Instead communism, fascism and nationalism were on the rise. Pope Pius had been the previous Pope’s representative in Poland in 1920, when the Red Army of the new Soviet Union had advanced on it. He could see how destructive the new powers of this age could be. Towards the end of the 19th Century the Vatican had lost many of its old territories to the new united Italy, too, so the introduction of this feast certainly had an element of defensiveness about it, reasserting the power of the Catholic Church.
But however mixed the motivations for this feast might have been, I think it has a valid place in the Church’s year. The point that Pius was making was that above and beyond the empires of the world was the kingdom and kingship of God. The Red Army might be on the march, but Christ was on the throne of heaven. Fascism and nationalism might be gaining ground, but God still reigned. He was saying that the power of God is greater than the powers of the world. That included, of course, the power of the Church, though I don’t know if Pius would have seen it this way.
Christ is king, says this feast, not our human ideologies and economic structures, however powerful they seem.
But what does that mean?
Christ is king. It sounds great. But what does it mean?
What does it mean to say that Christ is king if you are suffering from Ebola, or have just lost your family to it?
What does it mean to say that Christ is king if you are homeless and living on the streets as winter sets in?
What does it mean to say that Christ is king if your life has gone haywire, if you are suffering from depression that nothing seems able to lift, if some terrible wrong has been done to you for which there is no redress?
If that’s your life, then simply declaring that Christ is king won’t do, however loudly and splendidly we proclaim it.
Most people throughout human history would have assumed that the first job of a king, or any other leader, was to keep their subjects safe, to provide for them. The word Lord comes from the Anglo-Saxon Hlaford, which means loaf giver. If you couldn’t come up with the bread to feed people, how could you expect them to follow you? Often people feel the same about God. “What does it mean to say that Christ is king when this bad thing has happened to me?” they ask, quite understandably.
There aren’t any easy answers to that question, and it’s not a new one. People throughout the ages have asked it. We live in a world in which bad things happen, often for no reason we can fathom. It’s no surprise that people sometimes lose their faith in these situations.
What truly ought to surprise us, though, is that is that so many others keep theirs, or indeed find faith for the first time. Yet, in my experience,this is what often happens. “I wouldn’t have been able to get through this” they say, “if I didn’t have my faith to support me.” The tough things might still be tough. They may be clinging to faith by their fingertips, but they know it matters to them that they hang onto it, because God is in their somewhere. They may have met him in the stillness of prayer or in worship or in the words of the Bible. They may have met him in the love of others – often we need others to hold onto faith for us for a while when we can’t hold onto it ourselves. However it has happened, though, they’ve discovered that they’re not alone, and that’s given them the strength they need to keep going.
It seems to me that the Anglo-Saxons may have been wrong to equate Lordship with loaf-giving. Of course people will follow someone who fills their bellies in the short-term. But what we really need in times of crisis isn’t just short-term sustenance, but long-term hope. We need a sense of confidence that we can get through this, that there is a future, even if it is different from the one we’d imagine, that something good can come out of the present mess, even if we don’t get to see it this side of death. A good leader has to believe that there is a future worth leading people towards, otherwise, why would they bother to lead at all? They have to be hopeful that the situation can change, and they have to be hopeful as well for the people they are leading, believing that they are worth encouraging, that they matter.
Paul felt that way about the Christians in Ephesus. My guess is that they weren’t too different from any of the rest of us, each one a mix of good, bad and ugly, each one with their faults, but Paul looks at them and gives thanks for their faith and love. These are people, he says, who are called by God to a “glorious inheritance”, people with a future, people whose lives are of such great value to God that he sent his son among them to go through the darkness of death with them. They may think they are just Joe Bloggs from some back street of Ephesus, but Paul tells them that God thinks they are worth everything he has. “I pray…that you may know the hope to which he has called you” he says. If each one of them knows this for themselves, then they will surely treat themselves and each other with the care and respect God wants them to.
To go back to those questions I asked earlier, what does it mean to say that Christ is king when you are in the midst of a catastrophe like Ebola? Well, perhaps Christ’s kingship – that hope for the future - is seen in the shape of people like Will Pooley, the nurse who went to Sierra Leone to help, contracted the disease and then, having survived, has gone back to help again. Scientific opinion, he says, suggests he is now immune – probably – but I’d want a bit more than “probably” if it were me. His actions show his sense of hope for the future of Sierra Leone and its people – they are worth the risk he is taking. I don’t know whether Will Pooley has any religious belief at all, but I am quite certain that God is present in the work he is doing, and that the Ebola hospitals where he and so many others are working , and often dying, are holy places.
And that brings us to the Gospel reading which is also about holy places, places where people have encountered God. What is the difference between the sheep and the goats in the parable Jesus tells? Both groups met the same people – people who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, in prison. The difference is that only one group saw them as people who had a future, people for whom they had hope.
There are a lot of things going on when we turn away from people in need. We might be afraid or exhausted, or have no idea how to help, but fundamentally, whether we like it or not, if we ignore the suffering of others we are saying something about whether we think there is any future in them and for them. If we knew that the person we were allowing to die of starvation in some famine struck land was the one person in the world who had the secret that would cure cancer, would we want to keep them alive? I bet we would. Yet who knows how many gifts are wasted because the people who bear them never get the chance to thrive, or even to live? It’s not just about economic or scientific usefulness either. Love is worth nothing in economic terms, yet we know that if it was a loved one of ours who was in need, we’d go to the end of the earth to help them if we could. Their love makes all the difference to our lives. The person we write off as hopeless might be or become the irreplaceable person in someone else’s life, the person who unlocks their potential and their power to love others. Who are we to know? Doesn’t that make them of infinite worth too?
A medieval theologian called Meister Eckhart wrote that “Every creature is a word of God.” Which of God’s words isn’t worth hearing? What might we miss if we aren’t listening to some of what he says?
After all, in Jesus’ parable, it isn’t the helpers who are the king in disguise, it is those who need the help. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” he says. Christ the king is found not just in those who give, but in those who receive too, in the whole, holy encounter. If we believe in God, we have to believe in people and hold onto hope for them, because God is present in them.
Christ is king, but, as Pope Pius wanted to remind people, his kingship doesn’t look like the kingship that most of the world, through most of history, has experienced. It is discovered when we find ourselves hoping, believing, trusting, that God is at work around us, even when everything seems to say he is absent.
I am reminded of the extraordinarily brave words of the parents of Abdul-RahmanKassig, the US hostage recently murdered by ISIS. “Our hearts are battered,” said his mother, “but they will mend. The world is broken, but it will be healed in the end. And good will prevail as the One God of many names will prevail.” “Rather than letting the darkness overwhelm him,” his father went on “he has chosen to believe in the good – in himself and in others…. his life is evidence that he’s been right all along; one person can make a difference.” Do we dare to believe this, for ourselves and for others too? Do we dare to live out that belief? The just and gentle rule of God takes hold in the world little by little whenever we do.