Sermon for Christ the King 2007

Nov 25th, 2007 | By | Category: Sermons

Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 25th November 2007

“There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS ” Luke 23:38

I was talking to a lady last week who told me that she had attended a funeral where music by Frank Sinatra and Charles Aznavour had been played. I confessed that they wouldn’t really have been my choice for inclusion in a funeral service, and admitted to be fairly traditional about the way in which I did funerals – in fact, I was so traditional that I was becoming the person I dreaded.

One of the old customs I like is at the funeral of a priest of the Church of Ireland. The coffin is placed at the head of the nave of the church as it would be with anyone else, but the other way around. Whereas for most people the feet face towards the east window, the symbolism being that on the last day they will stand to face the Lord who comes as judge of the living and the dead, with a cleric the feet face down the church. On the day of judgement the priest then stands to face the people and is judged by the faith of the people. It is a custom that is thought provoking, but for those who take their ordination promises seriously, it can be a frightening prospect.

The service of ordination to the priesthood from the Book of Common Prayer used in the Church of Ireland until the 1990s, the service with which I and my contemporaries were ordained, contained these stern words of warning:

“Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his Spouse, and his Body. And if it shall happen that the same Church, or any Member thereof, do take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue”

Our Bible readings for Christ the King each year, make me think about those words from the ordination service. What is it that we are really about? What does it mean to be ordained? What does it mean to be a Rector of a parish church? Why do we have a church at all if we don’t take Jesus seriously? The Prayer Book warns of the ‘horrible punishment’ that will ensue for the priest who fails to spell out to people the full implications of the Gospel story. On the day of judgement will Christ be welcomed as king or met with terror?

“THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” writes Pilate. What a strange sort of king Jesus is. Jesus has stood before Pilate. He has stood before the man who represents the Roman Empire; he has stood before the man who can call on the power of the greatest empire in history; and he has been acknowledged as a king. Pilate has no worldly reason to fear this man, but Pilate is terrified. Pilate wants nothing to do with this case. There is a sense of rising fear and panic in Pilate’s voice in Luke’s account of the trial of Jesus, “I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod”. Jesus stands before the man who has the power of life, but there is no doubt about who is the greater.

Do we believe in this Jesus?

Pilate tries to bargain with the crowd, he is desperate. It is Pilate who becomes powerless. He has not the courage to stand for what is right and true against what is wrong and lies. “”Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. ”  Pilate knows what a monstrous deed this is.

Jesus is brought to Golgotha, the place of the skull, the legendary burial place of Adam. The people understood the meaning of the place, they understood how humanity had fallen from God’s purposes into death and destruction. Adam the first, Jesus the last, the Omega, the one who comes at the end of time as judge of the heavens and the earth?

Do we believe in this Jesus?

Jesus is brought to the place of the skull and here he is crucified. “There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS “. In John’s account of the Passion we are told that the sign was in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. This is a king for all the people. Aramaic was a popular form of Hebrew, it was the language of God’s own people. Latin was the language of the Empire, the language of the rulers and those in high office. Greek was the language of everyday life and trade around the Mediterranean. Jesus is a king for all the people; for the Jews and the foreigners; for the great and the good; for the common and the ordinary.

Do we believe in this Jesus?

Luke tells us that “divided up his clothes by casting lots”. A common enough thing to do, a scant reward for a gruesome task. But John adds a detail: the linen tunic is woven in one piece and they don’t want to tear it. Such a garment was worn by the Jewish high priest. The high priest went into the Temple on the most solemn day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people. Jesus offers himself on the Cross as an offering for the sins of the people, once and for all time.

Do we believe in this Jesus?

To the end Jesus is the master of the situation. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” he says of the soldiers. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise,” he says to the dying thief. Then Luke includes details that don’t sit easily in our modern rational minds. “Darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two”. Jesus concludes, still master of the situation, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The readings for today are a test of faith. Do we believe in this new man, this Jesus, who comes to succeed where the old man, Adam, failed? Do we believe in this high priest who offers a final and complete sacrifice, offering us a place in heaven through what he has done? Do we believe in this king, this king for every sort and condition of person?

The old Prayer Book ordination service gives this instruction,

“see that ye never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until ye have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ”

It is the task of the Rector, who will be judged by his people on the Last Day to ask the simple question, “Do we believe in this Jesus?”

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