A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 24 November 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year, a day for taking stock. In the old Prayer Book the Gospel of the Day is the feeding of the five thousand, with its gathering of the fragments. We heard that reading as our second lesson tonight [John 6. 5-14]. In the new Prayer Book, it is the Feast of Christ the King, with its confident assertion that ‘Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven that he might rule over all things as Lord and King’. Somehow we have to square that daring declaration with the collected fragments of this year’s brokenness and pain, of which there has been much – in this parish, this nation, and in the world.
We are not helped in that by discovering that the Feast of Christ the King was inaugurated in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in an attempt to stress the rights of the Church over a society which appeared to want to live without the Church. It was a piece of ecclesiastical triumphalism which the Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx describes as ‘political theology in the old style, with a barely-concealed nostalgia for the old ideology.’ It emerged, he argues, from ‘a reactionary church movement’ making ‘an obvious but suspicious transition from confessing ‘Christ the King’ to the old idea of the authority of the church over the world.’
But there is better theology to be found in the Vatican, not least in Michelangelo’s famous ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. I must admit that whenever I see it I find the sum less than the parts, and the part I am thinking of at the moment is Michelangelo’s depiction of the flood, and that is vivid indeed: men and women with bleeding hands, scrabbling at the shut doors of the Ark; distraught folk in despair as the flood reaches the tree tops; an old man carrying his son; a mother with her babies; a youth with his girlfriend and a house-proud housewife clinging to her goods and chattels. It is terrifying. It is also very real: we have seen similar scenes not only in today’s war-torn world, but also in the Indian Ocean tsunami and recent earthquakes round the world.
I believe we have to face the terrifying reality of life with all its fragments of brokenness and pain if the Church is not to be a procession of the bland leading the bland. For in the face of all the violence and conflict in the world, ours is not a message of despair, but of hope. As Moses put it to the Israelites, Today I offer you the choice of life and good, or death and evil: therefore choose life. [Deut 30:11-20]. Or as St Peter goes on in his second letter, Since the whole universe is to break up in this way, think what sort of people you ought to be, what devout and educated lives you should lead … [for] we have his promise, and look forward to new heavens and new earth, the home of his justice. [3:11-13]. The Lord is King … be the earth never so unquiet. [Ps. 99:1].
If you go to the Holy Land, you can visit a parable of all this. You can ascend Mount Sion, which the psalmist describes as the joy of the whole earth, the place in which the Lord has specially delighted. And there you can visit the tomb of King David, ancient, never forgotten, never lost. And there in the candlelight you can read names, thousands and thousands of names, under the words Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz. There is also a poignant little museum, a bar of soap made from human bones, a baby’s waistcoat made from a page of the Talmud taken from the Warsaw ghetto. And here on Mount Sion, the joy of the whole earth, you can stand at the heart of our age of violence, and contemplate the tragic irony that the oppressed of sixty years ago have themselves become oppressors today, for truly, in the end, war begets only war.
It would be crushing but for another vision, given to another Jew. In another concentration camp, the island of Patmos, John the Divine looked up at Mount Sion and saw upon it ‘a lamb’. Of all the emblems of our Lord, and indeed of our faith, surely this is a symbol most to be remembered, most needed, in our time. The Lamb – the innocent one – the only human being who never added to the toll of malice and cruelty. The Lamb, the gentle one. I used to make fun of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, but I think I know better now. It was the gentle Christ who, when he was threatened, threatened not again. “He was pierced for our transgressions, tortured for our iniquities; the chastisement he bore is health for us and by his scourging we are healed.” The Lamb has identified himself with all humankind in its solidarity of guilt and suffering, and in the blood of the cross opened out a new and better way. Seen this way, today’s Feast becomes, in the words of Edward Schillebeeckx again, ‘the symbol of justice and peace for those who experience injustice and have no peace, with the prospect that “he will wipe away all tears from their eyes, for the former things are past.”. It is not the church but “Jesus the King” who is the Lord of History.’
So we are bidden today to look at the pain and the evil, the violence and cruelty and conflicts in our world. But we discover that these are not the only realities. Christ our Lord is the supreme realist, and we may believe him when he says:
How blest are those of a gentle spirit;
They shall have the earth for their possession.
How blest are the peacemakers,
They shall be called the children of God.
So we look eagerly and expectantly at the things which are unseen and eternal, for we believe that our light affliction, which is but for the moment, works for us an eternal weight of glory.