Sermon for Christ the King High Mass Sunday 25 November 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Christ the King
Pilate asked Jesus, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
When he woke up it was dawn. He woke with a huge feeling of hope which suddenly and completely left him at the first sight of the prison yard. It was the morning of his death. He crouched on the floor with the empty brandy-flask in his hand trying to remember an Act of Contrition. ‘O God, I am sorry and beg pardon for all my sins…crucified…worthy of thy dreadful punishments.’ He was confused, his mind was on other things: it was not the good death for which one always prayed. He caught sight of his own shadow on the cell wall; it had a look of surprise and grotesque unimportance. What a fool he had been to think that he was strong enough to stay when others had fled. What an impossible fellow I am, he thought, and how useless. I have done nothing for anybody. I might just as well have never lived. His parents were dead – soon he wouldn’t even be a memory – perhaps after all he wasn’t really Hell-worthy. Tears poured down his face; he was not at the moment afraid of damnation – even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint.
[Graham Greene, The Power & the Glory]
That passage, from The Power and the Glory, reveals Greene’s distinctive understanding of the Christian faith. It is reductive to talk about the ‘point’ of a novel, but the ‘point’ of this moment in this one is that the priest – who never has a name in the book – is as certainly a saint in all his weakness and sense of failure as he is certain that he has weakly failed.
The priest, who sometimes calls himself a ‘whisky priest’, for drink is among his weaknesses (which also include the fathering of an illegitimate child) opens a window on our Feast of Christ the King (to which the novel elsewhere refers). The nameless priest has not managed to keep what Greene himself always insisted on calling ‘the rules’: for Greene, sin was not these sorts of things. Sin was failure in love, compassion and generosity. And there he understood, and communicated, something which is the heart of the Christian faith, of Christ’s self-offering as ‘the King of the Jews’, of this supremely ironically-titled Feast of Christ the King.
When we talk about kingdoms, nations, states and empires we might imagine the state opening of parliament, the pomp and the pageantry. But the ‘power and the glory’ is somewhere else and it’s the genius of today’s celebration to remind us of that.
So what is all this talk of kingship about? The Roman Emperor Domitian, in power at the time John was writing and no friend to Christians (or Jews) was addressed as ‘dominus ac deus’, ‘Lord and God’, in the developing cult of emperor worship. The image of kingship as a sign of Jesus’ divinity is taken not only from his own preaching about the kingdom, nor even just from the (long) biblical narrative about God as Israel’s true king. This is also contemporary polemic against the usurpation, by the head of state, of God’s role in the lives of his people.
And our feast has a similar modern pedigree, having been first promoted by the church in Italy in the face of the claims of Mussolini’s Fascism, his attempts to cash in on Rome’s imperial past. Some devotions become passé, but this one, Christ the King, has grown and spread from that local beginning, so that it finds a place in most church calendars now. That is because it expresses the core of the Gospel, or, perhaps better, the ‘truth’ of the Gospel: for it is truth which we are invited to contemplate today.
Jesus has earlier said ‘I am the truth’ (and the way and the life). Now he says, you say I am a king: I say I have come to bear witness to the truth; and
‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ John 18.37b
If we ‘belong’ to the truth, we are its subjects; in ancient terms subjects ‘listen’ to their monarch; here they are identified as ‘belonging’ by their ‘listening’.
Jesus has, not subjects over whom he rules, but followers who accept his witness and who hear his voice as truth. It’s about invitation, not compulsion; generosity, not rules. That is why Greene is right to distinguish between the breaking of rules and sin. Earthly kingdoms are bound by the rule of laws, which are consensual arrangements, but the consensus is enforced by judicial interpretation and sanctions, punishments of various kinds. The kingdom which we proclaim is, by contrast, defined by a greater and more generous principal, the law of sacrificial love, obedience to which is paradoxical: an easy yoke,a burden that is light.
The nameless priest in Greene’s novel has broken some of the rules, but the ‘power and the glory’ of the title (which is as pointedly ironic as the sign placed on the cross, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews), this ‘power and the glory’ is signalled by that crucified figure: the crucifix is the primary sign of this kingdom; offering such a sign is surely ‘the point’ of having and keeping and maintaining a church building at all (whereas a Church which conceives its primary task as the enforcement of rules and the affirmation of success is in danger of falling out of the kingdom).
We see Christ in majesty there on the east wall but we also see a crucifix, as we do here behind the preacher; on the altar itself there is always a crucifix and it is the crucifix we should be looking at today. The power and the glory, the kingship of Christ, to be a saint, a follower in that kingdom of love, is to seek not the enforcement of rules, or the certainties of institutional infallibility in any form, but the truth itself, which we glimpse here.
This kingdom is also egalitarian. It is not what we call democratic, because it is not about the distribution of power. But membership of this kingdom is available to every single person, young, old, clever, foolish, able or variously disabled. It does not depend upon heroic performances or even heroically moral lives. It depends on truth – being true, authentic, faithful.
And indeed that
…at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint.
Christ the King calls you to follow him in the truth.