Today we mark the festival of Christ the King. It’s a very new Christian festival really – it was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI and adopted by most Protestant Churches, who follow the common lectionary, in 1970. It falls on the last Sunday of the Church’s year just before we start to think about Jesus’ original and second coming in Advent.
Pius XI was given the unenviable challenge of leading the Catholic Church between 1922 and 1939. He saw huge challenges in the world and tried his best to lead the Church through them. At the start of his reign he saw the old order in Europe fall part. Empires which had existed for hundreds of years ended after the First World War. The Russian Empire became the Soviet Union, The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empires broke up into their constituent parts. Germany struggled in the aftermath of the war and the policies of the victors in extracting payment for the war lead, we now know, to a new war. In Mexico the state persecuted the Church bitterly, in Spain the Republicans saw the Church as supporters of the monarchy and so persecuted it. In Russia all Christians, not just Catholics, were persecuted under the Communist regime.
Pius denounced totalitarianism, unrestrained capitalism as well as communism and so, of course, was ignored by almost everyone! He complained about a “conspiracy of silence” in the face of his critique of much of his contemporary society. He was the pope who made agreements with Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany believing that solemn international agreements would protect Catholics. With Germany, they weren’t worth the paper they were written on – and not long after he condemned much of the Nazi ideology in the only ever papal encyclical to be issued in German – Mit Brennender Sorge (With Deep Anxiety). The agreements with Italy, however, led to the Vatican becoming the smallest independent state in the world.
So this is the context of his reign as pope. Faced with such huge change in the world, Pius XI instituted this new feast of Christ the King. He wanted to refocus the Church on the eternal rule of Christ and to compare and contrast it with the failures of human government, the changes brought about by war and with human sinfulness. He wanted to remind people what true leadership, true governance is all about. This desire to compare and contrast the failed human attempts to exercise power with the true power of Christ’s kingship can also be seen in our first reading from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah.
In our first reading from Jeremiah we read of Jeremiah’s strong condemnation of the civic and religious leaders of Israel whom he calls shepherds. He condemns them and sees them as letting down both the people and God. The word “Shepherd” refers here to the kings who have led the people astray and their advisors – all the people we’d now label under the catch all term “leader”.
Whilst we do live in a Kingdom we don’t think of the Queen as being responsible for the state of the country – either good or bad. There are very few absolute monarchies left – most of them are, I think, probably in the Gulf. But at the time of Jeremiah the normal pattern of human government was what we’d now call an absolute monarchy – probably not too different to what we see in the Gulf.
There were some limits on a king’s power – notably the intervention of the prophets who reminded them of the dictates of their faith – but generally the king ruled. Now if we are dissatisfied with our political leaders we can comfort ourselves with voting, staying up on election night and, hopefully, getting the result we want. This, of course, wasn’t possible in Jeremiah’s time so leaders, shepherds, had more power and were, consequently, held to account only by God.
The shepherds – the kings and their advisors – were representatives of God to the people. They were to lead but they were also to serve. In adopting a monarchy, Israel held that the king was God’s anointed, God’s representative to them but, at the same time, they held that the king had to be faithful to God, in tune with God’s will and that he would face dire consequences if he wasn’t.
Jeremiah shows what is wrong with his society; the rulers have scattered the sheep. Maybe the sheep have had to go into exile – like so many people in our world. The rulers have not attended to the needs of the sheep – like so many rulers who think of themselves and their own needs and interests and not of those of the people they serve. The rulers have done evil – like so many leaders in our own age who are more interested in power than service, who line their own pockets, who amass wealth at the expense of the poor.
Jeremiah condemns the leaders of his own age and announces that God will act. God will intervene, will dwell in the midst of His people and be a truly righteous king.
It’s easy to read these words of Jeremiah and reflect on the leaders of the last Century and think that Jeremiah’s words would be appropriate for them. Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Mussolini all savaged the sheep that were in their care. Idi Amin, Ghaddaffi, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeni & Robert Mugabe, to be topical, all proved Lord Acton’s dictum correct: all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
True leadership doesn’t exhibit kingly behaviour through military might, arrogance or political repression but by being present with the people.
This is where the Jeremiah passage ends and St Matthew’s record of the Last Judgement becomes important. Over the last few weeks we have been working through Chapter 25 of St Matthew until we arrive, today, at this famous talk about judgement, sheep and goats. Jesus is a judge – something we forget. One day we will have to give an account of how we have lived – a task even more difficult for those who have been called to lead peoples. How will Mr Mugabe fare, I wonder, when he gives an account where there is no promised immunity as he has evidently been given from Zimbabwe’s new rulers. How will the Lord judge those who have killed, maimed and wounded his people?
Some people don’t like this festival of Christ the King. They object to the kingly metaphors, the triumphalism they see within it and the maleness of the title – some prefer to call today Reign of Christ Sunday. I, however, don’t object to the title because I think the festival points to a very different type of power, a radical type of kingship and a coming Kingdom which is different to everything we’ve known before.
The crucified King is coming back to reign. Those who have been downtrodden, oppressed, despised, tortured and rejected will find a king who understands and who has shared their pain; they will share his kingdom. Those who have sided with the crucifiers will find their experience of the coming Kingdom rather more difficult.
Our knowledge of this coming Kingdom impels us to live by its values now. We bear witness to the values of justice, love, inclusion and righteousness which are part and parcel of what is to come. We stand for justice now, we bear witness now to the God demands fairness of all his children. We live as citizens of two kingdoms – the earthly countries and realms where we hold our citizenship but also of the coming Kingdom which watch and wait for and which we help to bring about as we live by its precepts. In this way, we celebrate Christ the King every day of our lives as we seek to live as committed disciples of our crucified king. Amen.