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A Sermon from Sherborne
The Kingship of Christ
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 25 November 2018 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson
A great number of stories have adhered to the great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Perhaps the most well-known concerns him meeting a grand lady whom he only half recognised. Desperately searching for information with which to identify her, he asked if her husband was still in the same line of business; to which she replied: “Yes, he is still the king.”!
Our notions of kingship have changed down the years. Monarchs had great powers at one time, owned huge estates, had responsibility for the law, for raising money from the wealthy, compelling the able bodied to form an army and having the power of life and death. But times changed and the last king to lead his troops into battle was George II. Today we have a constitutional monarchy and although, no doubt, our queen has advice to give to her ministers in government, at the end of the day she is a mouthpiece for their words and decisions.
Our celebration today of Christ the King, a slightly curious festival, means that we have to make various adjustments to our understanding of kingship. And adjustments were also necessary in Christ’s own time. The very use of “Messiah”, anointed one, was linked with kingship because kings were anointed with oil pressed from olives as indeed were high priests. Probably in origin the fertility of the land was being prayed for and the hope expressed that wine and oil would be abundantly provided during the reign of each king. In much the same way in Egypt the flooding of the Nile at just the right level was seen as being the prime responsibility of the Pharaoh. However, since the flooding was the result of melting snow and heavy rain in the Ethiopian mountains the Pharaoh was unlikely to be able to influence such events. No one told him that!
But there was an ambiguity about kingship. In the Old Testament the first and second books of Kings, so appropriately named, chart the rise and fall of kings with judgement made by the prophets as to how true they were to the divine commandments. Eventually a succession of powerful empires to the north and Egypt to the south battered the little buffer states in between which included Israel and Judah. So, Messiahship was transmuted by exile and loss of sovereignty into a powerful hope for a leader of the lineage of David who would restore Israel’s fortunes in the future. Some saw this restoration in military terms and were ready to take part in rebellion to achieve their objective; others saw it in spiritual terms and looked for a leader who would cleanse the people and encourage a return to moral behaviour based on the law. Such was the likelihood of being misunderstood, that Jesus was reluctant to claim the title of Messiah openly or even allow others to apply the title to him. We find, especially in St. Mark’s Gospel, that even the disciples were warned to keep their insight to themselves. So strong was this theme in St. Mark that scholars call it the Messianic secret.
How ironic it was then, that the religious leaders should cook up an accusation to present to Pontius Pilate that Jesus’ offence was that he had made himself a king. Of course, they were concerned to come up with something that they thought Pilate would comprehend rather than confusing him with subtleties of blasphemy and religious offences. The matter of kingship they believed to be much more straight forward. Anyone wanted to be king was setting himself up in rivalry to Caesar and no Roman governor could tolerate that.
We know a little bit about Pontius Pilate and his character from sources other than the New Testament, principally Tacitus, Philo of Alexandria and Josephus. There is also a partial carved block discovered in 1961. The inscription informs us that Pontius Pilate was prefect of the Roman province of Judaea. From other sources we know that this was, in the equivalent of our chronology, from AD 26/27 to 36/37.
He seems to have been brutal but at the same time rather weak. The decisions he took and the judgements he made were poor and eventually he was summoned to Rome in disgrace because of his mismanagement. The final straw was his treatment of the Samaritans in 37 AD. They believed that Moses had buried the sacred temple vessels on Mt. Gerizim so the people responded eagerly when a would-be Messiah claimed that if the population assembled at the foot of the mountain, he would uncover the vessels. Pilate, however feared an uprising and sent in the Roman troops. A massacre followed and Pilate was relieved of office and sent back to Rome.
His task was nigh on impossible though, for he had to keep the lid on a highly volatile situation where insurrection was a constant threat amidst the potent brew of religious fervour and resentment against the oppressive Roman regime.
St. John’s rendition of the conversation between Jesus and Pilate as we heard in our gospel reading, reveals an uncomfortable time of it for Pilate who thinks he holds all the cards but then finds his understanding of kingship and truth inadequate for the occasion. Pilate cannot conceive of a kingship not of this world and such a shaky hold as he has on the idea makes him all the more sure that Jesus has been brought before him as a malefactor for quite other reasons. Indeed, it is his divine origin, regarded as blasphemy by the Sanhedrin, which condemns him at their hearing – one which, incidentally, was illegal in a number of ways: for instance, it was held at night and involved using the accused’s own words both of which were prohibited in such a trial.
Pilate, no doubt, perceived the weakness of the case and played with Jesus’ accusers for a while, offering to let Jesus go free. In the end, though, he gave in, but just to rub salt into the wound, ordered that the charge, the reason for the execution which was attached to the cross should, in Jesus’ case read “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” So it was that Pilate, who asked Jesus “what is truth?” inadvertently proclaimed the truth for all to see. No doubt he thought he was ordering the writing of the charge, the crime for which Jesus was being executed. No doubt also he thought that since the Jewish authorities had accused Jesus of making himself a king, that would be what was to be inscribed. He also knew that this would greatly annoy the chief priests. So it is in St. John’s gospel in the next chapter after the one read for our gospel, that the chief priests perceive the insult and say to Pilate that he should put that Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews. Pilate, with a flash of annoyance replies: “what I have written, I have written.” Even Pilate found the truth after all.
Holding onto the truth can be a slippery task. Today we have to deal with fake news or with the spread of uncorroborated opinion through social media. Some people today deliberately conceal the truth or put a spin on the news so that the truth is obscured. But even when we genuinely search for the truth it is not always easy to come by. We can be uncertain about the truth today as Pontius Pilate was 2 millennia ago. Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews, he wrote – a true statement even if Pilate did not realise it.
When we think of Christ the King though, our minds are drawn to other ideas which contain a different truth. Some representations of Christ on the cross picture him, not in humiliation and pain but in triumph. The crown of thorns is transposed into a kingly crown and his nakedness clothed in royal robes. His arms are outstretched, not racked in pain but in welcome and his gaze is calm and confident. Such ways of seeing a Christ in triumph are combining the cross with the resurrection for it is in that vindication of Christ by God that his kingship is truly revealed. God’s kingdom is proclaimed and its king is Christ to whom, Sunday by Sunday we give glory and praise, world without end. Amen.