The Once, Now and Future Kingdom
‘Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely… and to afford the bearer such assistance as may be necessary.’ So it says, here in my passport. We love being here in Lakeport. You always make us welcome. What perhaps you might not have realized is that whenever you make me, a Brit, welcome, especially if you ‘afford me any assistance that may be necessary’ you fulfil a royal commandment of the Queen of England!
This Sunday stands at the climax of the Church Year. Next week, Advent Sunday, is the Church’s ‘New Year’s Day’, the day when the whole cycle of our celebration of the loving acts of God, especially in the life of Jesus Christ, begins again. So, this last Sunday, in recent years, has been celebrated as the completion of that great work of love. In the end, the whole creation finally recognizes Christ for who he really is, the ‘King of the Universe’. So, as we come to this celebration, two questions: ‘What kind of King?’ and ‘What kind of Kingdom?’
As I’ve suggested, it might be thought good that you’ve got a Brit preaching today. Although these days that passport calls me as citizen of the United Kingdom rather than, as in the past, a subject of the Queen, I’m still the citizen of a Kingdom. While America rejected both George III and George Washington as Kings, a Brit might be reckoned to know a thing or two about Kingdoms!
Now as I prepared to preach, I was also delighted to find that one of my favorite commentators, in discussing today’s readings, made a reference to a book about another king. It was one I loved as a child, TH White’s The Once and Future King, about the legendary King Arthur. My middle name is Arthur and I was fascinated by that mythical character, but it turns out that I shared that fascination with St Francis, even though he grew up in Italy, which is why I also mentioned it in a sermon for St Francis’ Day this year. The Once and Future King is the story of a King of who – like Christ – will one day return, in Arthur’s case ‘in the hour of Britain’s greatest danger’. The later three volumes of White’s book, following the traditional legend, include rather adult themes. But the first volume is a delightful, innocent account of the childhood of Arthur, or Wart as he is known as a nickname. He recounts how the infant Wart is snatched away from his home by the kindly magician Merlin, in a sort of benevolent kidnapping, in order to give the future King an extraordinary and wonderful education. The magical parts of that education would involve transforming him into a hawk or a fish to experience the natural world from the inside out, but the more important transformation was a more mundane one. The future King was to be brought up in an obscure corner of the Kingdom, living among ordinary folk, none of whom had the slightest idea who he really was until the incident of the Sword in the Stone when he had grown up. Wart, like Jesus, was raised with nobody calling him a King, or Your Highness, or any such thing. TH White made up those stories, they weren’t part of the traditional legends of King Arthur. There are some pretty extraordinary legends and stories of the childhood of Jesus too. But one thing we can be sure of. Jesus grew up among the ordinary folk, the villagers of Nazareth, experiencing the joys and sorrows, hopes, dreams and frustrations of ordinary human life, even though we also believe he was the Son of God among us. As a child, even the Christ, in his humanity, had to have an education, and just like Wart, the Once and Future King of everything gained that education experiencing the life of his subjects from the inside. That is part of the extraordinary and wonderful truth at the heart of the Christian Faith, the truth we’ll be celebrating especially over the next few weeks and months, the truth that Christianity calls the Incarnation. God came to pitch his tent among us, as John’s Gospel literally puts it, sharing intimately in the life of his creation. As Christians we recognize two truths at the heart of our life of worship, expressed in the two names or titles we so often run thoughtlessly together as if ‘Jesus Christ’ is just a modern forename and family name, like John Smith. Jesus, or Yeshua, the son of Mary, is the ordinary child of an ordinary village family. His name was quite common – as it actually still is in Spanish cultures, though not in the Anglo-Saxon world of many of us. And Jesus the preacher, healer and teacher has so much for us to reflect on right there in his humanity and in his teaching about human life, so much that we pass over in what Richard Rohr calls the ‘great comma’ in the Creed. We go straight from ‘Born of the Virgin Mary’ to ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate’ as if nothing that mattered happened in the 33 years in between! But when we look to him at the same time as the Christ, a title, not a surname, one that actually means ‘anointed one’, just like a King, we are contemplating something quite different. We are contemplating one who, as Paul points out to the Colossians, is ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, in whom all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… in him all things hold together.’ He is the one who was there from before the beginning of everything, the one who holds together the entire Cosmos.
Where do we look to see this human Jesus and this Cosmic Christ together in one snapshot? What image will sum that up? What does Jesus Christ the Universal King look like? The answer is extraordinary!
The choice of Gospel reading for today seems quite bizarre. I can quite imagine someone setting up the Gospel book and thinking that, surely, there has been some kind of mistake. The scene set before is one where Jesus the Christ and the legendary Arthur – along with any other celebrated king of myth or history – have absolutely parted company. Arthur would, one day, sit on a throne, wearing a gold crown, and lead his knights into glorious military victories. But prior to our gospel passage today it was the Roman Governor, Pilate, who was the one on a throne wearing purple. Jesus was dressed in a royal robe only in cruel mockery. He is now set up high above the crowd, on a kind of throne, but it is a throne quite unlike any that the powerful and the power-hungry of this world would seek. It is not the gold throne of a Babylonian King or the seat of a Roman Emperor. It is not the chair behind the desk in the Oval Office or the Speaker’s Chair in the House of Representatives. It is not even the cathedra of a bishop in the Church of Christ. This is a throne of rough wood, nails and mockery. It is the throne of the cross. And only a criminal, one of those condemned with Jesus, one presumably at the rock bottom of personal hopelessness and despair, one who has come to believe that he himself is getting only what he deserves, recognizes Jesus for who he actually is. ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.’
This is the moment when we see most clearly what the kingship of Christ looks like, this moment when
Jesus has been stripped naked, scourged with a whip, crowned with thorns and mocked, and nailed to a cross to die in the baking heat. Of course – spoiler alert – we know that he will conquer death and return to life on Easter Day. But that resurrection is not the undoing of a defeat suffered on the Friday. Rather, it is the fruit of a victory already there on the Cross, of God’s strength made perfect in weakness. This is where we see the love of the sovereign King of the Universe poured out to the absolute. This is the kind of Kingship we see in Jesus, a fulfilment of the same attitude that Jesus had shown throughout his ministry of self-giving service and healing. That sense that Christ on the cross is actually the victor, is beautifully portrayed in a lovely icon that I’ve seen for myself, and that hung for years in a ruined Church in the Italian countryside. It is an image so striking in its depiction of the serenity of Christ, reaching out in love to all even as he hung on the Cross, that according to legend the young Saint Francis heard Christ speak to him through that image, and from the Christ on that Cross he heard his own calling and mission. In the Cross, we see what God is like!
So, what of the Kingdom? The Kingdom is the reign of God here on earth, begun in the life of Christ, continuing through the ages, reaching its fullness in the completion of all things. It is the Once, Now and Future Kingdom. It is seen in, but not limited to, the transformed lives of ordinary men and women who have come to know God in Christ and who share as a result in his priesthood and royal dignity, in other words in the life of the ordinary people like us who make up the life of the Church! But it is wider than us. To quote another commentator, Gerald Darring:
‘The Kingdom of God is a space… It exists in every region and country that cares for its weak and vulnerable. It exists in every parish that reaches out to the needy.
‘The Kingdom of God is a time. It happens whenever someone feeds a hungry person, or shelters a homeless person, or shows care to a neglected person. It happens whenever we overturn an unjust law, or correct an injustice, or avert a war. It happens whenever people join in the struggle to overcome poverty, to erase ignorance, to pass on the faith.
‘The Kingdom of God is in the past (in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth); it is in the present (in the work of the Church and in the efforts of many others to create a world of goodness and justice); it is in the future (reaching its completion in the age to come).’
The Kingdom of God is in Lakeport. It is seen in those who work for the Thrift Store and the Food Pantry. It is seen in the outreach by members of this congregation through the Valley Fire Fund to assist more than a thousand people affected by the Valley, Jerusalem, and Rocky fires. It is seen in the offering of worship in this place week by week. It is seen in the life of the Church and it is seen beyond the life of the Church.
‘The Kingdom of God is a condition. Its symptoms are love, justice, and peace.’
May God’s Kingdom come, his will be done, on earth as in heaven. Amen.
St John's Lakeport, Feast of Christ the King, Sunday November 24, 2019