Christ the King: John 18: 33-37

IF I were to ask you the question, what does a king look like, you may well reply that he wears a crown of gold, and a cloak of red or purple velvet. He looks impressive and dignified; everything about him makes you go ‘Wow!’ It’s quite understandable – it’s how we expect a king to look, it’s what we’ve grown up to expect: whenever we see pictures of kings they look like this.
In this morning’s gospel we are given an entirely different picture of kingship. Our Lord will soon receive the outward trappings and will be hailed as a King. And in the mockery people will not realise that the joke is really on them. Christ is truly a King, but not in a way that the world can easily understand. His kingdom is not of this world; the way of God is not to use threats, mockery, or violence. Instead, Christ becomes incarnate, becomes a human being, to bear witness to the truth. He who is the way, the truth, and the life, comes that we might know the truth and that the truth might set us free. As those who follow him, we as Christians are to be free, to stand against this world and its power, to show it another way: where weakness can triumph in the face of anger, where love can overcome bitterness. The world around us cannot understand this, it could not at the time of our Lord’s passion, and it cannot even today. It needs to experience it before it can begin to understand it. Christ shows the world his reign of glory by being nailed to a cross and now exalted in glory and coming to be our judge he bears in his body the wounds of nail and spear, the wounds of love, wounds which heal and reconcile humanity.
In his dealings with Pilate, Christ foreshadows the church and its dealings with secular power. Just as Pilate could not wait for an answer, so the world around us can only treat the church with impatience and contempt: neither then nor now can we hope to be understood, we are instead to be threatened to capitulate to a secular power – for the Romans and their power, read the whim of politicians and the tyranny of so-called ‘equality legislation’. As the body of Christ, we exist to love and to serve God and one another, and call the world to repent and to believe and to be healed by God. We have bishops to be our Chief shepherds, as successors of the apostles, those called and set apart by Christ to be shepherds and not hirelings, laying down their lives like Christ and for Christ, and not solely to sit in the High Court of Parliament. We then may advise the state, for its own good, but primarily so that the church may continue to preach the gospel and make disciples of this nation and every nation. The world may not understand us, it may not listen to us, or like whom we are and what we do or do not do on, but we cannot allow ourselves to be conformed to the world and its ways. In loving and serving God we call the world to conform itself to his will.
Only then can we bring about that radical transformation envisaged in the Gospels: living as a community of love and not fear. It is through living it out in our lives and as the church that we can show the world a better way of being, a way which acknowledges Jesus Christ as King of all the universe, where his way of love washes away our sins with his blood, reconciles us to God and each other, and forgiving others as we ourselves are forgiven. Where the world wants blame we have to live out the love and forgiveness, which we ourselves have received from God in Christ Jesus. This then can truly be a kingdom and not of this world.
          So as we prepare to enter the season of Advent, where we will prepare ourselves to greet the King of the Universe born in a stable in Bethlehem, let us acknowledge Christ as our King, whose Sacred Heart burns with love for us, whose wounds still pour out that love upon the world, and let us live as people loved, healed, restored and forgiven, that the world may believe and all creation acknowledge God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

A thought for the day

from Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude p. 13-14

No amount of technological progress will cure the hatred that eats away the vitals of materialistic society like a spiritual cancer. The only cure is, and must always be, spiritual. There is not much use talking to men about God and love if they are not able to listen. The ears with which we hear the message of the Gospel are hidden in our hearts, and these ears do not hear anything unless they are favoured with a certain interior solitude and silence.

In other words, since faith is a matter of freedom and self-determination – the free receiving of a freely given gift of grace -we cannot assent to a spiritual message as long as our minds and hearts are enslaved by automatism We will always remain so enslaved as long as we we are submerged in a mass of other automatons, without individuality and without our rightful integrity as persons.

What is said here about solitude is not just a recipe for hermits. It has a bearing on the whole future of us and our world: and especially, of course, on the future of our religion.

More Thomas Merton

There is no true spiritual life outside the love of Christ. We have a spiritual life only because we are loved by him. The spiritual life consists in receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit and his charity, because the Sacred Heart of Jesus has willed in his love that we should live by his Spirit – the same spirit who proceeds from the Word and from the Father, and who is Jesus’ love for the Father.
If we know how great is the love of Jesus for us we will never be afraid to go to him in all our poverty, all our weakness, all are spiritual wretchedness and infirmity. Indeed, when we understand the true nature of his love for us, we will prefer to come to him poor and helpless. We will never be ashamed of our distress. Distress is to our advantage when we have nothing to seek but mercy. We can be glad of our helplessness when we really believe that his power is made perfect in our infirmity.
The surest sign that we have received a spiritual understanding of God’s love for us is the appreciation of our poverty in the light of his infinite mercy.
We must love our own poverty is Jesus loves it. It is so valuable to him that he died on the cross to present our poverty to his Father, and endow us with the riches of his own infinite mercy. We must love the poverty of others as Jesus loves it. We must see them with the eyes of his own compassion. We, it cannot have true compassion on others unless we are willing to accept a pity and receive forgiveness for our own sins. We do not really know how to forgive until we know what it is to be forgiven. Therefore we should be glad that we can be forgiven by our brothers. It is after forgivingness of one another that makes the love of Jesus for us manifest in our lives, for in forgiving one another we act towards one another as he has acted towards us.
from Thoughts in Solitude pp. 37–8

A thought for the day, and the coming week

“The desert is the home of despair. And despair, now, is everywhere. Let us not think that our interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated. Despair is an abyss without bottom. Do not think to close it by consenting to it and trying to forget you have consented.
This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross. To wage war against despair unceasingly. That war is our wilderness. If we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side. If we cannot face it, we will never find Him.”
from Thomas Merton Thoughts in Solitude, Burns & Oates, Tunbridge Wells, 3rd ed. (1997) 22-23

Sermon for Trinity XXII: Mt 18:21–35

St Isaac the Syrian, the 7th century Bishop of Nineveh and monk wrote: ‘as a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God’ and ‘just as a strongly-flowing fountain is not blocked up by a handful of earth, so the compassion of the Creator is not overcome by the wickedness of his creatures.’ Now, it is salutary to be reminded on a regular basis of the infinite nature of God’s love and mercy. I suspect that if the truth be told, many of us, and I count myself among this number, struggle with this fact. We do so because we struggle to believe that we can be forgiven: our awareness of our frail and sinful nature means that we cannot see how God can love such a thing. Yet, God’s love and forgiveness is not something which we can earn. Herein lies the fault of Pelagius (among others): that humanity can somehow earn its way into heaven. It doesn’t work like that; what God offers us in Christ is something far more radical, far stranger: love and forgiveness to heal our wounds, to restore us, to do that which we cannot.
          In answer to Simon Peter’s question at the start of this morning’s Gospel, Jesus offers a vision of a community of love and forgiveness. The number 77 echoes the establishment of the Jubilee in Leviticus: what is promised in the law becomes real in the person and teaching of Jesus, the Messiah, who gives true liberty to the people of God, the new Israel. It anticipates and gives a concrete example of Our Lord’s summary of the Law: cf. Mt 22:40 ‘on these two hang all the law & the prophets’. In finding the lost sheep and bringing them back, the community is restored.
          So we have a vision of God’s love and forgiveness and how this can heal the wounds of our human nature. In the parable which Jesus tells in the Gospel this morning we both how God forgives and loves us and how we as Christians, people loved and forgiven by God are to act towards each other: by showing to others what God shows us. It is why, when Jesus teaches us how to pray, we are told to ask ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. We are, as Christians, to be a community which displays, and which embodies what God is and does for us.
          We are not to hold a grudge; we are instead to live out in our lives what God in Christ does for us. The Cross thus becomes a demonstration of God’s love and healing for the world. We meet today to be fed by word and sacrament; to feed on God’s love, to allow God’s love to transform and transfigure our human nature, and by living it out in our lives, to offer the world something radically different: a vision of humanity both loved and loving, forgiven and forgiving.
          It is both difficult and challenging, and it makes great demands on us. We can only live as God intends us to by embarking upon this costly and counter-cultural way of life, in a relationship with God and each other. It is truly difficult and yet deceptively easy, we have to do it, and we have to do it together, to become a community of love, to offer the world an alternative to the ways of selfishness and anger.
          We are called to do nothing less than to change the world, by whom and what we are, by loving and forgiving, as we are loved and forgiven. So let us live out this love and forgiveness in our lives, continuing the transformation of ourselves and of the world, through love lived out in our lives, so that we and all creation may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.