Sermon preached on the Feast of Christ the King (24 November 2013) by the Reverend Canon Chris Chivers,

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Sermon preached on the Feast of Christ the King (24 November 2013) by the Reverend Canon Chris Chivers,

Samuel 8: 4-20  John 18: 33-37

'You say that I am a king.' Words from the thirty-seventh verse of the eighteenth chapter of St John's Gospel.

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This feast of Christ the King is a somewhat strange affair. It comes from an encyclical of Pope Pius XI, written in 1925, entitled Quas Primas. As the Latin suggests the focus is on what ought to come first in this world, hence it's attempt to summarise biblical teaching on the lordship of Christ. Behind this lies the rise of fascism and communism in Europe and a context where emerging secularism is eroding Christian belief.

The answer that Pius advances to all this is the institution of a feast-day to direct world leaders to the authority of Christ as king on earth, to emphasise the church's right to freedom, and as a reminder to all that Christ is to reign over heart, mind, will and body.

A new church feast to stem the tide of rampant secularism seems - with the benefit of hindsight - literally somewhat of a 'pius' hope.

But whatever it's questionable impact, the laudable aim of recognising Christ as king of this world was within a generation refocused by a later pope, Paul VI, on the Christ who is king of the next, the Christ of Advent who will come on the last day as judge.

Now is not the place for a discourse on the end time. Tea beckons and thoughts of eschatology happily recede. But as the Lord's Prayer has twice reminded us: 'thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven' is that for which we pray, and with good reason. Christians believe in life before death, life in all its fullness now, not 'pie in the sky when you die'.

Pope Pius XI's instincts here were more sure than Pope Paul VI's. Yet in this rather muddled state the Church of England has recently embraced the feast of Christ the King. What are we to make of it?

The danger with such a feast is that we buy into one of the church's besetting sins which is a tendency to lapse too easily into proclamatory, triumphalist mode. Transmit rather than receive.

Of course the church does 'transmit' and triumphalism with some style. But the risk of style over substance neither proves terribly useful to most people nor is it terribly faithful to the spirit of the Gospel. We must certainly proclaim. But this only gets us so far. We put it out there as it were but this ought not to prove, as it often does, mere shouting in the wind. The church needs to remember that the response - which is the point of the proclamation of course - is largely dependent on its mode of speaking.

We see this in that taut little dialogue between Pilate and Jesus we heard as our second lesson, where we may certainly discern the tone beneath the words. 'So you're a King, are you?' Pilate asks. 'You claim so,' Jesus replies teasingly. 'But do you understand that I've come into the world to witness to the truth with my life, and that everyone who becomes part of this life, part of my living body, not only hears my voice but discovers the truth by doing it?'

This elaborates the meaning of the words of course but it doesn't stretch them further than they'll go. Since the Fourth Gospel consistently invites us to 'do the truth' by sharing with Christ in his kingship through the task of discipleship.

Kingship in fact is most profoundly discovered to be a reality claimed of Christ by his followers not claimed by Christ for himself.

The distinction is absolutely critical and of late it's one that we've got terribly badly wrong in the Church of England, not least with our obsessive, almost demonic talk of leadership over against followership - which is after all what the Gospel is actually about.

At this point in the life of the Western church, as the Archbishop of York recently reminded us, we frankly need a few more followers than self-styled specialist leaders. We're top-heavy enough with those already.

As our first lesson reminds us, whatever the clamour for so-called leadership there's a proper biblical, even divine scepticism about the all too human belief that leadership is somehow a panacea for everything.

A proper sense of the task at hand is what the Bible consistently affirms, rather than a belief that the right - frankly most often illusory - leadership qualities are the answer. Such a mistaken focus really is moving the deck chairs around the Titanic. Yet in this sort of institutional naval gazing the Church of England abounds. Indeed it's been preoccupied with it in one form or another pretty much since 1945 whether with its worship, it's canon law or it's structures. People simply don't need it. They have enough of it in their secular workplace these days. It's one of the many reasons they're turned off by us.

One of the others is our current and literal naval gazing at the issue of human sexuality. Get over it is what my children would say. And that's what so many people are saying to us. But we aren't listening to them.

Not least we're hampered in doing so by the truth that for all the institutional naval gazing we have some of the most confused leadership structures in the entire world. Partly led by bishops, partly by the General Synod, partly by the Archbishops' Council - and no one can tell you what real function and authority that body has - such unclarity doesn't exactly enable us to listen or speak let alone to minister coherently.

In all this, we simply aren't allowing the space for people to recognise themselves, their struggles and hopes reflected in the body of believers. And if this isn't unChristlike frankly little else is.

In our insecurity - because we know something's wrong but don't take the trouble quite to find out what - we go far too easily into compensatory triumphalist mode. Argument weak, shout louder. Most debilitating of all, we neglect the truth behind the text from the Acts of the Apostles that bears witness to the emerging character of the Christian church itself, Acts chapter 11 verse 26, a sentence that after almost two thousand years is still critical for an understanding of our task.

There we're informed that 'the first disciples were called 'Christians' at Antioch.' That line doesn't at first seem very significant but look more closely and we realise that it is. First century Antioch was the centre of the known world. Cultures jostled, faiths flourished and were accepted one by another. But precisely because of this, an emerging group - and the disciples of Jesus were one such - didn't define itself as it chose. It was defined by others. So the title 'Christian' wasn't what the followers of Jesus called themselves it was what others said of them.

It's this sort of relationship with society, indeed with the wider world, that the Church of England has traditionally sought. Not making claims for itself but being claimed by others. If we're not being claimed as we once were - and let's face it we aren't - then we must stop the grandstanding and ask why? We mustn't endlessly ask this only of ourselves, as if were kept in some loop perpetually talking simply to the choir. We must ask the people who aren't coming but who continue to care that we exist. We must ask them now before that feeling recedes altogether. And, please God, we must actually listen to the answers we get not the ones we'd like to hear. Doing so is liberating. It's redemptive. It's actually how we discover what kingship, what real discipleship is all about. Thanks be to God.