Christ the King Sunday • 26 Nov 2017

Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24
Ephesians 1:15-23
St Matthew 25:31-46

Rev. Dr David Gill

The Servant King

August 1939. Note the date -- August 1939. Not a good month for the world.

Fascism was on the march. Despots had ridden to power on promises to make their countries great. Voices of hate were screaming their ugly message. Jewish people were being vilified and persecuted. Would-be refugees, attempting to escape, were being turned away from countries that didn’t want them.

The threat of violence loomed everywhere. In this region, the Sino-Japanese War had been raging for years. In Europe, the lights were going out and war there would erupt within days. Most of Asia and the Pacific would be drawn in. Before the madness ended, 60 million people – mostly civilians – would die.

Ancient demons had been let loose. Fear was pervasive. And people felt helpless. They could see what was happening, yet nobody seemed able to stop it. Politicians, diplomats, even the League of Nations itself, proved powerless.

No, August 1939 was not a good month at all.

But that same month, something almost miraculous happened too. Something unprecedented, that was to have far-reaching consequences.

That something was the First World Conference of Christian Youth. One thousand five hundred young people gathered in Amsterdam. They came from many countries, many languages, many races, many Christian traditions, many … everything. But, with all their differences, what drew them together was their one Christian faith.

Until the last minute, conference organisers feared they might have to postpone because of world events. But things went ahead, thank God. And those young people received a blessing, a confidence, a vision, that inspired them and would sustain them through the tough years ahead.

Some would find themselves serving in the armed forces, on one side or the other. Some wound up in POW camps. Some became involved in resistance movements. And at least one – Madeleine Barot, from France – became what today we would call a people smuggler, leading Jewish asylum seekers across the border from occupied France to neutral Switzerland.

And what was the theme of that great youth gathering? What was the focus of bible study, thought and prayer during those days? What was the conviction those young Christians would take away with them into the testing times ahead?

It was expressed in a Latin phrase: Christus Victor. Christ the Victor. Christ the conqueror of sin and death. Christ the Sovereign Lord of All. Christ … the King.
Those young people found themselves focused on a reality beyond the world’s madness, a sovereignty beyond the world’s tyrannies. And they discovered that, notwithstanding all their differences, they belonged to one great family acknowledging Christ as King.

At the close of the conference, they sang an Easter hymn. You know it. We sang it a few weeks ago. It was Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son; endless is the victory, thou o’er death hast won. A hymn destined to become the great marching song of the ecumenical movement. A participant wrote later, “I have never heard Thine be the glory sung as it was sung that day. It was a cry Lord, have mercy. But it was also a clear commitment to the faith that had brought us together and would hold us together”.

Well, November 2017 is not August 1939. There are many differences. There are also, alas, some disconcerting similarities.

The world has changed. The threats and opportunities we face have changed. Yet two things have not changed. Still this is a chaotic, sometimes scary world. And still the church makes the astonishing claim that, in the words of our second reading, the risen Christ is seated at God’s right hand, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come”.

Today we’ve come to the last Sunday of the Christian year. Next Sunday the tree will be up and our Advent candles will start appearing. Christmas will be only four weeks ahead. So now we’re at the end of our year of faith.

Through these past 52 weeks, we’ve travelled a very long way. From the ancient yearnings of Advent to the joyful news of Christmas, the dramatic discoveries of Epiphany, the soul-searching of Lent, the grim realism of Holy Week, the explosive joy of Easter, the new life of Pentecost, and onwards. So many stories, so many teachings. So many questions, so much wondering!

Today, it all comes together. Today we affirm the significance, for us, of the man at the centre of that saga. Today, like those young people seventy-eight years ago, we celebrate him as sovereign Lord of all. As Christ the King.

As those kids knew in 1939, it is not an empty title, a relic of centuries past. This central claim of our faith had far-reaching implications for them, two generations ago. It has equally far-reaching implications for us, today.
The claim that Christ is King liberates us, as it did them, from captivity to an unbearable status quo. It tells us, as it told them, that no earthly tyrant has final authority. It opens our eyes, like theirs, to a reality the world cannot see. It opens our hearts, like theirs, to a hope the world cannot imagine. And it sets our feet, like theirs, marching to the beat of a drum the world cannot hear.

Christ is king. But wait. What kind of king?

This is where things get complicated. We’re talking about a man who was born in poverty, who was an asylum seeker in infancy, condemned as a subversive, ridiculed as a fool, executed as a criminal, accompanied in death by two thieves. A strange kind of king indeed. A different kind of king, for sure.

Jesus of Nazareth was not leading an armed insurrection. He did not compete directly with the power brokers of his time. Yet he was not crucified for uttering pious platitudes. Something about that man shook the existing order to its foundations.

The divine love he embodied challenged the status quo of his day. The cross on which he died, the cross at the centre of this church, still challenges the status quo of ours.

That cross speaks louder than all the voices of hate, all the cries of despair. For it speaks of something stronger than hate, stronger than death itself. It speaks of an all-inclusive compassion, a divine love which has no limits, no conditions, no exceptions.

Remember the story of the two criminals who were Jesus’ companions in death? Some years ago, at an Assembly of the Christian Conference of Asia, one of the young stewards from Sri Lanka was getting around wearing not one cross but two. Why, I asked him? Surely one cross is enough. Why the double crosses? “I wear these for the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus,” he told me. “I can really identify with those guys!”

As can we all.

Christ’s compassion reached out to the penitent thief. In the same way, it reaches out to you, to me, to all the people of this city, this world.

Still it breaks down the walls people build to insulate themselves from each other, to exercise power over each other, to excuse themselves from caring about each other. Still it stands in judgement over the identities – of race, gender, culture, even religion – to which we give our loyalty and which all too often we treat as gods.

Christ the compassionate king gives himself in love for others, all others, whether they know it or not, whether they care about it or not, whether they respond to it or not. We who acknowledge the reign of Christ are called to do the same – give ourselves in costly love for others. And sometimes it may be very costly.

I was working in Hong Kong during the SARS epidemic of 2003. Remember SARS? It was a scary time up there. Nobody knew what it was, where it had come from, how to treat it. People only knew it was spreading, and it was lethal.

We were all getting around in face masks; pressing lift buttons with elbows instead of fingers; making lots of room for each other on subway trains; passing the peace on Sunday morning with a bow instead of a handshake. Above all, dreading the daily reports of yet more cases in new infection hotspots around the city.

As the epidemic faded, Hong Kong television ran an interview with a young medical doctor who had worked in the SARS wards of one of our hospitals. What baffled the interviewer was, the doctor had actually asked to be sent to the SARS wards. Why, he wanted to know? You knew you were risking your life. Why did you ask for such a posting?

Her reply was riveting. “Because,” she said, “I think that’s where Jesus would be”.

Christ the king. Not a ruler remote from human suffering, but a man immersed in it. Not a dictator who treats us as doormats, but a companion who calls us his friends. Not a solo actor, but one who draws us into the action too. A servant leader, who has himself paid the price of self-giving love, and invites us all to sign up for God’s great revolution of inclusive compassion and amazing grace.

Christus Victor! Thanks be to God.