Sermon preached on the Feast of Christ the King (25 November 2012) by The Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on the Feast of Christ the King (25 November 2012) by The Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean

The Very Reverend Dr David Ison looks at the history and meaning of The Feast of Christ the King.

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I was at a meeting of clergy this week. One man said what a disaster it had been, with General Synod not voting through the ordination of women as bishops. Another man said that the only problem was that the margin of defeat hadn't been bigger and in all three houses. And I was saying that I had to preach on Sunday morning and what should I say?

Thankfully, it's the Feast of Christ the King today, and that makes it rather easier to know where to begin and where to end, even if the bit in the middle is a bit of a muddle.

Let's begin with the origin of the feast of Christ the King: like all things, it has a context. It was started very deliberately by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to recall Christians to the truth that their allegiance was to their spiritual ruler in heaven as opposed to earthly supremacy, which was claimed by the new Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who by 1925 was calling himself Il Duce, the Leader.

The Feast of Christ the King is therefore a symbolic and subversive celebration, not only anti-fascist, but calling all earthly rulers into question. It proclaims that the rule of God is about truth, justice, and peace; that all earthly rulers are subject to God's rules; that God cares little for our status or importance, our wealth or privilege, and much more about justice and service to the poor, and love shown to the weak and needy.

Which political party will promise to care for the poor of the world, and carry out its promise? Which government will actually confront its people's prejudice and have compassion on destitute asylum seekers, or have the courage to close down the life-destroying arms trade, or confront us with the need to care for our environment?

The Guardian newspaper is generally reckoned to be concerned with issues of justice. But in the financial section on 16th November was an article telling you how people earning over £50k a year – approximately the top 10% of earners in this country – could rearrange their finances to avoid losing child benefit. Bear in mind that this is a measure being taken by the government to get the better-off to pay more of the tax burden, which one would have thought was a justice issue: but the writer of the Guardian article – who unsurprisingly preferred to remain anonymous – wrote, 'I don't feel guilty about holding on to my child benefit when HMRC seems so happy to let multinationals off the tax hook.' That's the 'other people do it too, so that's all right then' justification: which in moral terms is utterly bankrupt.

Today the Church bears witness to Christ the King: that Jesus Christ is the one to whom we are all accountable. Avoiding tax or refusing to help the poor are wrong, when set against God's values of truth and compassion.

But there's more in the feast of Christ the king than a challenge to earthly standards right now.

In our reading from the book of Revelation chapter 1 it says that Christ who has died for our forgiveness has made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and Father. That doesn’t mean that we all suddenly get ordained! What it does mean is that the church as a whole is called to act as priests for the world before God, enabling the world to become the place where God’s kingdom, God’s rule in Jesus, is acknowledged by everyone.

And this is a dynamic process. The reading speaks of God as the one who is and who was and who – will be? No – God isn't eternally static. God it tells us is the one who is and was and who is to come. God is coming to meet us, the future breaking into the present. The kingdom of God is coming, and every time someone accepts God's love and forgiveness, every time a wrong is put right, every sacrifice of love, extends the boundaries of the kingdom of God.

We in the Church are called to confront /all/ things contrary to the rule of Christ – whether in international affairs or in our own domestic lives, in our relations with others or in sickness and death.

Our temptation is to have an easy life, to say or do nothing: but that’s not what we pray for each day, when in the Lord's Prayer we say, 'Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.'

Instead we’re called to bring everything in the world and in our own and others’ lives under the loving care of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. We exercise our role as God's kingdom of priests by making sense of it all, by working and praying for God to redeem and transform the bad and hard things of life; and we never give up hope.

Which brings us back to where I started. The agenda of General Synod, bless it, is hardly the stuff of the kingdom. It's been trying in its own muddled way to find a way forward for the Church of England which does justice to all – and it can't find it, because not enough people agree despite years of debate, discussion and struggle.

My own personal view is that we need to see it differently, and begin with the end – with the kingdom of God. As St Paul reminds us, in Christ there is neither male nor female. That's not a human rights statement, but an expression of the freedom which Christ gives us to receive and share the love of God as a kingdom of priests in the world, whatever our gender.

How do we bring God's kingdom into our life as a church? I believe that the ordination of women as bishops isn't a justice issue, but a kingdom issue; and that the challenge for all of us is not simply to cobble together a compromise which can satisfy enough people, but to enable men and women to be set free from the prejudices and limitations of the past to rejoice in the freedom of the children of God – some of whom will be bishops and some of those will be women.

How do we get from where we are to where we should be? I don't know, apart from doing the hard work of dialogue and encounter and building real trust, which the Church of England has not been very good at doing up till now.

But what I do know is that wherever we are now, however difficult it seems, when we go to God and say, how do I get to your kingdom, he never says that we can’t start from where we are now. There is always a way for God to come to us, whether we're stuck on women bishops or concerned with the vital issues of justice, the environment, war, life and death – all of which God calls us to bring into Christ's kingdom.

And so we pray, we will pray, we must pray that the God who is and was and is to come will come to us and help us, that God's kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.