Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sermon for Christ the King, 2005

St Alban's, Oxford

In 1980, Russell Hoban published a novel entitled Riddley Walker which is set in Southern England at an unspecified future date. Something resembling a nuclear catastrophe has devastated the landscape. It is symbolic of the corrupting and destructive effects of power and the quest for power, power of all kinds: political, personal, cultural, linguistic, and religious. It is much too complex a story to relate here, but at a key moment of insight, Riddley cries out, "The only power is no power." (167.5)

This may seem like a strange quotation with which to begin a sermon on the Feast of Christ the King, but our everyday notion of kingship is not really what this feast is all about. The problem is that we humans don't have the language to describe the nature of Christ's power. Yet we use the term "king" because even though it is only a feeble analogy, it is a term of exaltation, gesturing towards an unimaginable state far beyond the humdrum of our ordinary lives.

Christianity has tried to express this exaltation in other ways, in architecture and art. Its buildings and the elaborate liturgies performed within them are designed to dazzle us, to so overload our senses that we can no longer think but only wonder. They take us completely out of our ordinary ways of acting and thinking. They give us a foretaste, however oblique, of another sort of kingdom, the one Jesus tells us is already within us.

But there is great danger here. If its paradoxical nature is not understood, the notion of Christ the King can focus our attention towards outer trappings instead of inward vision. It can turn our perception inside out so that Christ's kingship no longer refers to the grandeur of the outpouring love of God who humbles himself to transfigure our life and our death, but refers instead to the grandiosity of the grasping human ego, which is addicted to tyranny, triumphalism and the exploitation of guilt. When humans project this earthly idea of power onto God they foster attitudes of hierarchy and domination that exalt the few by devaluing the many.
The political exploitation of religious guilt is not a problem of the past. It is woven into the history of every modern Western person and every modern Western nation. In our own time, unscrupulous secular leaders continue to hijack religion for political ends. In today's epistle, however, Paul prays that the "eyes of [our] hearts may be enlightened, [that] we may know the hope to which he has called [us]...and the immeasurable greatness of his power....[which he has put] to work in Christ." (Eph.1:18...22)

In another reading that is used for this feast, Paul amplifies what he means: "For [Christ] is destined to reign until God has put all enemies under his feet, and the last enemy to be abolished is death." (I Cor 15:24-26) It is the last six words of this quotation that point us towards a deeper meaning of today's readings and today's feast.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that these words refer not to death itself but to the fear of death. The purpose of Christ's coming, it says, is "to break the power of him who had death at his command, that is the devil; [to] liberate those who, through fear of death, had all their lifetime been in servitude."

The fear of death that enslaves us can take many forms, most of which have little to do with what might happen after our bodies die. Rather, fear of death is a matter of the mind. It has everything to do with how we perceive and interpret our experience through our self-consciousness. In our anxious search for security we make ourselves hostage to other people's opinions. We feel uncertain; we feel guilty; we grasp for power; we betray our hearts. We become vulnerable to manipulation and coercion in every sphere of our lives from the most trivial preoccupation with fashion to the fate of our planet.

It is these anxieties that are the enemies of God mentioned in the epistle for today, for they form a barrier between us and our beholding, our gaze on God. It is these anxieties that enable political leaders to exploit religion. It is these anxieties that push us to seek refuge in numb complacency and thus render us complicit when these leaders unleash forces of political and military domination, with all the catastrophic consequences we have just recalled during the past week of Remembrance, and which we see around us every day.

But authentic Christian faith challenges this complacency. Faith is not about suspending critique but about exercising it. This critique issues from faith's silent space of love, a reality yet unseen. (Heb. 11:1) Faith is about finding security in insecurity, the restless heart that rests only in this love. Faith teaches us that we must work hard to be open and receptive to the Spirit of wisdom, revelation and hope by which our hearts are enlightened and the closed universe of anxiety is breached. If we do not make this effort, the fate of everything in our lives and in our created world will be determined by the nightmare human fantasies that comprise what we call the "fear of death."

It is the kingship of Christ that reveals to us this wisdom, hope and revelation which we need for authentic faith. Jesus takes on the burden of our self-consciousness but is never trapped by its anxieties. His only security is the clarity of his gaze on the Father, the secret exchange of love in faith. Christ's dominion over the powers of death is won precisely through this life-long struggle to stand naked before the Father, refusing enslavement to the fear of death. In Jesus this struggle comes to a breaking point in the Garden of Gethsemane and finds its triumph on the cross. The only power is no power.

In the bible, this abandoning of all the means by which we seek immediate and tangible reassurance is often symbolically cast in the language of "the poor" as in today's gospel. But material charity is only part of this story.

When we respond to the needs of people around us or victims of natural disasters such as the earthquake in Pakistan, we are, first of all, facing our own fear and being compassionate with our selves. People who are less fortunate than we are personify our fear of death in all its forms; for each of us in our own way is needy, homeless, and hungry.

But there is more: by giving to others at personal cost we are symbolically divesting our selves of defensive walls. This stripping exposes us to the loving gaze of God and makes us less vulnerable to political manipulation.

Thirdly, by turning our attention to others a space is opened up—the space formerly occupied by our anxieties—in which Christ may find a home. The first Beatitude in the New English Bible translation sums up this truth well: 'How blessed are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of heaven is theirs.' (Mt. 5:3)

Jesus is the Poor Man not only because he has no where to lay his head but because he has not sought security in human ideas of power. He will locate his identity only in the outpouring love of the Father, whose life pours out through him. Jesus is exalted to be Christ and King precisely because he refuses to claim the power of this world or to use the means of this world, and he is able to do so because even in the midst of his anxieties he never allows his gaze to be distracted from hidden face of God. The only power is no power.

It is this reversal of ordinary power and our notions of kingship that we celebrate today. Christ's kingdom comes not in some future apocalypse, but now in every human heart that knows its need of God and steadfastly seeks to behold the divine face.

Therefore amid the darkness of this world and the tangle of our anxieties, let us seek into this beholding, the hope to which we have been called, which is the richness of our glorious inheritance with Christ the King and with his saints.


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