Sermon for CHRIST THE KING, Sunday next before Advent – Procession & High Mass Sunday 22 November 2015
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
CHRIST THE KING, 2015 HIGH MASS
I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. Rev. 1.8
On Friday, two groups of Friends of the Royal Academy came to see the church. Just before their arrival the electricians and lighting engineers who had been putting some final touches to our new lighting system had left. So, I was able to tell our visitors that they were among the first to see the church as you see it this morning and as its architect and founders never saw it. You see the Christ in Majesty, the Pantocrator –the Almighty – the ruler of the world, – of whom Revelation speaks, at the apex of the scheme which had the nativity and the crucifixion.
The design and iconography of this church, the cross with the Alpha and the Omega above the chancel arch. is profoundly influenced by the Book of Revelation. So too, is the Church’s worship and its hymnody – including Charles Wesley’s great Advent hymn, based on today’s passage – which is why we have anticipated Advent and sung it today.
Revelation is itself a deeply liturgical book, not just in its visions of the worship of heaven, but also because it is clearly meant to be read liturgically. The whole of our passage today breathes the language and spirit of the liturgy.
It introduces the letters to the seven churches. Like any ancient letter, it begins with a greeting. Like Paul, John makes of this a theological statement. So too, the liturgy of the church begins, not with “good morning” or “hi,” but with “Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you,” or “The Lord be with you.” The priest greets God’s people in God’s name and God’s people respond in like manner.
This God is the one whose being and acts embrace all time: from him who is, and who was and who is to come.” God is the ultimate One, who is defined by his revelation in Jesus Christ, so the Christ is described with traditional and new titles:
- the faithful witness
- the first-born of the dead
- the ruler of kings on earth.
These titles are not abstract theological speculation. The three new titles are carefully chosen to address the situation of John’s churches.
The faithful witness points to Jesus, not only as the revealer from heaven but as the one who, like the Christians in John’s churches, stood before the power of Rome. As we heard in the Gospel passage from St. John’s Passion, (which we hear sung in church every Good Friday) he had borne his witness, even at the cost of his life. The word witness here, martus in Greek, is already on the way to becoming the technical term martyr.
Jesus as the first-born of the dead is likewise directed to the situation of John’s readers, who were being asked to witness to the lordship of Christ by giving their own lives (2.10; 12.11). What future did such people have? Christ, as the first-born of the dead is revealed as the one who gives the Christian martyr a future beyond death. The resurrection of Jesus was more than an isolated event in the past, it was the beginning of the ultimate event of the general resurrection.
Ruler of kings on earth attributes to Jesus the title claimed by the Roman Caesars, whose claim to sovereignty John wants his rulers to see as a false caricature of the real lordship of Christ.
However exalted the terms he uses, John’s thinking about Christ is from first to last rooted in earthly fact. Christ’s heavenly authority is grounded in his earthly existence and so is the subsequent earthly existence of his church.
In ancient Greek letters, the greeting was often followed by a “thanksgiving.” The gods were invoked for the good health and prosperity of those being addressed. This could be mere formality, but Paul had also adapted this formula to his own purposes: filling it with theological content or making it a doxology of praise to God. John does the latter here. This is no mere formality but a significant theological statement. In Revelation, theology is done in the mode of worship rather than as analytical speculative discourse. Anglicanism has followed a similar pattern in seeing locating its doctrine not so much in confessions of faith as in its liturgy.
This doxology, in which we hear the worshipping community’s voice for the first time, is directed to Christ, rather than to God which was more usual. He is praised as the one, who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be the glory and dominion forever.
John writes from exile to churches facing persecution. But he resists the temptation of the oppressed to believe that they are innocent and only their oppressors are guilty. He knows that Christian existence, human existence is not innocent but forgiven. He knows that forgiveness came, as in the Old Testament sacrificial understanding, only at the cost of life (Hebs. 8-10, esp 9.2). Like the Old Testament scriptures, John did not think that “blood” has any saving power as a substance but in what it represents: “life.” Jesus is praised because he set us free from sin by giving himself, his life, for us.
He has made us a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father. The Church is also part of the work of salvation, not just an accidental gathering of the like-minded. Like Israel in the scriptures, the Church is the beloved community freed from its sin by the shedding of sacrificial blood (Lev. 17.11).
So those statements about Christ are also applied to his church:
- The same phrase used Jesus, the faithful witness, will be used of a Christian who has died for the faith.
- Christ as the first-born of the dead has already experienced the resurrection that faithful Christians will share.
- Christ as the ruler of kings has a kingship, but so do Christians, as we hear in the doxology that follows immediately.
The people’s “Amen” is their solemn “Yes” to what has just been proclaimed. They are not passive spectators of Christ’s love for them; the churches do not have the luxury of being mere observers. Their response to God’s action is an essential part in the outworking of the revelation in time and history.
Jesus’ friends are called to bear the costly witness of martyrdom, trusting that in his death, he has been the faithful witness to God’s way of overcoming evil; to look into the open jaws of death, remembering that he had risen as the firstborn of many, to defy the authority of Imperial Rome in the name of a ruler to whom Caesars and their empire, which had just begun to describe itself as eternal, must bow.
Christian existence for John is shaped by sharing the ministry of Christ. Christ is the Greek for “anointed” – “Messiah” in Hebrew. It refers primarily to the anointed king, but also to the office of prophet and priest. For John it denotes the office of God’s anointed Messiah as prophet, priest and king. Christians share in this ministry:
- As a prophetic community, the Church mediates the word of God made known in Jesus to the world.
- As a priestly community the Church mediates to the world God’s reconciliation of the world in Jesus, the sacrificed priest. Instead of sacrificing to the emperor on the Roman altar, the church sacrifices itself on the true altar of God.
- As a royal community, the Church represents and signifies the rule of God as already present in the world.
The fragmentary but real existence of Christ’s messianic ministry is already present in the Church, John knows, as Paul did, the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of Christian existence. This corresponds to the “already” and “not yet” of the coming of Christ. The Christ is the one to come, and Revelation looks forward to this coming to establish the just reign of God on earth. But Revelation and Christian faith also look backward to the “already” of the coming of Christ. Christ has already come and the meaning of “Christ” must be redefined in terms of who Jesus actually was – the one who gave his life for others.. The meaning of the messianic community, the Church, that represents the reign of God in the world, must also be redefined as love for the world that suffers even to death. Our understanding of the Church and of discipleship must correspond to our understanding of Jesus.
Taking the “not yet” in isolation, looking only to the future, could lead to a neglect of the principal conviction of Christian faith, that the Christ has already come and that the meaning of the term “Christ” for Christians must be redefined in terms of who Jesus of Nazareth actually was. This protects us from the danger of one-sided affirmation of the “not yet” which can lead people to think of the Christ to come as the warrior king who will establish God’s kingdom with violence, rather than the suffering “Man for Others,” Jesus of Nazareth, or a provider of material comforts rather than the one born in a borrowed stable. John guards against this by repeatedly using the name “Jesus” for the Christ, and by portraying him throughout as the “Lamb who was slain.”
The glorified one who will come on the clouds still bears the marks the cross.
John knew another misunderstanding: that the “already” of Christian existence could lead to complacency; as if nothing more was to be done; nothing more demanded of them. So Revelation corrects this by an emphasis on the future.
But the Christian life is not only a time of waiting; the songs and praises of Revelation show that the celebration has already begun. Worship now anticipates the future. Worship on earth participates in the worship of heaven.
Doxology moves into prophecy: of the future coming of Christ and its results. As in Paul’s letters, where the initial thanksgiving signals the key elements to follow, so here this prophetic pronouncement helps the hearers or readers to know in advance the principal themes which follow.
Behold, he is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
This fusion of words from Daniel (7.13) and Zechariah (12.10,) must already have been traditional in the Church.
- So in Matthew (24.30) we read: And then shall appear a sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds with power and great glory.
- And in The Passion according to John, when the soldier has pierced the side of the dead Jesus and blood and water flowed out: They shall look on him whom they pierced.
John’s quotes scripture here, not as a past authority, but to express a present message of the risen Lord. His prophecy is not a matter of merely reporting words heard in a dream but of reflecting on his prophetic experience and communicating it in words of scripture and tradition.
In contrast to the first coming of Christ, this appearance will not be in obscurity but with the clouds which represent divinity. All, including his enemies who pierced him, shall see him and recognize his lordship. The Zechariah text had been addressed only to the people of Jerusalem, but John widens it to include all the tribes of the earth. It is not clear whether their mourning, wailing, is the lamentation of repentance as in Zechariah, or the wailing of those for whom Christ’s appearance means only judgement and calamity, John’s general theology of universal reconciliation and the specific case in the final chapter where instead of the leaves of the tree of life are not just for “healing” as in Ezekiel, but for the “healing of the nations,” suggests the former.
So, John prophesies that even Christ’s enemies, those who “pierced” him on the cross, will meet the returning Christ with lamentation and repentance. In Zechariah the mourning is penitential grief, which is followed by divine pardon, cleansing and restoration, it is often assumed that John’s intention is different – to describe the futile remorse with which the world will grieve over its own prospective doom. What in fact he says is that they will see the pierced yet triumphant Christ and will lament, not for themselves, but for him. This can only mean that they will have compunction for the wounds they have caused him. Whether this grief will amount to true repentance, John does not yet discuss, bit see 3.8-9 and 11.13. Here is concerned not with the ultimate fate of humans but with the ultimate vindication of Christian faith.
This is a powerful affirmation that the victory of Christ will win over all people, including his enemies – a victory won through the love manifest in the cross. But perhaps John leaves the matter deliberately ambiguous, so that these words can be taken as either promise or threat. Human beings will still be free to accept or reject.
The climax of the sequence comes when, for the first time, we hear the voice of God, speaking through the mouth of the prophet: I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. The threefold formula already used to describe the God who is and who was and who is to come, is combined with two others. The Alpha and the Omega conveys God’s role as the one from whom creation emerges and the goal to which it is moving.
For John, the Christ who will come one day in the sight of all comes constantly to those who have the faith to perceive him. His coming is the coming the God who is and was and is coming. So John can speak of his final coming in the present tense. The one who is Alpha and Omega is also the great “I am,” in whose presence Christians are perpetually confronted with the Beginning and the End. The Almighty translates the Lord of hosts, but as always with Old Testament terms John uses is with a difference. He has learned from Christ that omnipotence of God is not the power of unlimited coercion but the power of invincible love.