What sort of ‘king’ is Christ?

Sermon Sunday 24 November, 2019
Christ the King

Lessons Colossians 1: 11 – 20 St Luke 23: 33 – 43

Prayer of Illumination

Let us pray.

Holy God, whose Light shines upon us, shine into our hearts, that our lips may praise You, our lives may bless You and our meditations may glorify You; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian calendar: the Feast of Christ the King. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we read that Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born over all creation. St Paul said, ‘For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible…He is before all things and in Him all things consist.’ In the Bible, God is the Pantocrator: from Greek it mean the One who is almighty, all-powerful. By the fourth century, through iconography, Christ is the Pantocrator. The earliest icon of Jesus is entitled ‘Pantocrator’: Christ All Powerful.

At the crucifixion of Jesus, we gaze upon the King of the Jews, hanging on the cross. Early Christians knew, in a way we do not, what it means to be crucified. ‘They had seen for themselves the shocking indignity of it, the naked exposure, the agonising death to the sound of hostile jeers.’ In the Gospel of St Luke, we hear one of those who is crucified alongside Jesus ask, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ What sort of king is this that He hangs from a cross? Where is the Pantocrator now? From two thousand years of Christian history, we have more than one image of Christ as king. Perhaps there is no greater claim for Jesus than that of St Paul: ‘Christ is the image of the invisible God.’ What sort of king do we worship? All images of God are metaphors: how do we marry Christ the Pantocrator, the all-powerful, with the tortured, torn man nailed to a cross?

In 1988, the founder and leader of the L’Arche community, the late Jean Vanier delivered two lectures to the Harvard Divinity School. L’Arche supports people in community who have intellectual disabilities. Vanier began his lecture by saying that it felt very strange for him to be speaking to Harvard students about his work. He told the students that most of those with whom he lives in community ‘can neither read nor write; they move slowly or clumsily. Some cannot even speak or walk or eat on their own.’ Vanier told these elite students:

I come here to tell you how much life these people have given me, that they have an incredible gift to bring to our
world, that they are a source of hope, peace and perhaps
salvation for our wounded world, and that if we are open
to them, if we welcome them, they give us life and lead us
to Jesus and the good news.

In his second lecture, Vanier told the students of Armando, an amazing eight year old boy. The L’Arche community in Rome had invited all the Roman Catholic bishops to attend a gathering of the community and Vanier was there. Only a few bishops came. Vanier said, ‘Armando cannot walk or talk and is very small for his age. He came to us from an orphanage where he had been abandoned. He no longer wanted to eat because he no longer wanted to live cast off from his mother. He was desperately thin and was dying from lack of food. After a while in our community where he found people who held him, loved him, and wanted him to live, he gradually began to eat again….He still cannot walk or talk or eat by himself, his body is twisted and broken, and he has a severe mental disability, but when you pick him up, his eyes and his whole body quiver with joy and excitement and say: ‘I love you.’ He has a deep therapeutic influence on people.’ Then, said Vanier:

I asked one of the bishops if he wanted to hold Armando in his arms. He did. I watched the two of them together
as Armando settled into his arms and started to quiver and
smile, his little eyes shining. A half hour later I came to
see if the bishop wanted me to take back Armando. ‘No,’
he replied. I could see that Armando in all his littleness,
but with all the power of love in his heart, was touching
and changing the heart of that bishop.

Vanier went on:
Armando can awaken us to love and call forth the well of living waters and of tenderness hidden inside of us. Armando is not threatening…. He just says, ‘I love you; I love being with you.’

In a society which values intellect, independence, money, beauty and power, Armando is at the bottom; he is the least in society yet he has the ability to lead us to Jesus.

Earlier this month, we were privileged at St Columba to have a guest speaker from the NHS who sensitively and movingly spoke on living with dementia. One in six people over the age of 80 has dementia. Around 60% of sufferers have Alzheimer’s disease, though as each type of dementia progresses the symptoms become similar. There are about 850,000 people out of a UK population of 66 million who have dementia.

Some years ago, I attended a similar course on dementia. On that occasion, we turned to the work of Jean Vanier. Vanier reflects on the teaching of St Paul in First Corinthians, where the apostle compares the Body of Christ to the human body. Vanier says:

Jesus came to change a world in which those at the top
have privilege, power, prestige and money while those
at the bottom are seen as useless. Jesus came to create
a body. Paul….. compares the human body to the Body
of Christ, and he says that those parts of the body that are
the weakest and least presentable are indispensible to the
body. In other words, people who are the weakest and
least presentable are indispensible to the church….Who
really believes it? But this is the heart of faith, of what it
means to be the church. Do we really believe that the
weakest, the least presentable, those we hide away –
that they are indispensible? If that was our vision of the
church, it would change many things.

Perhaps the most important lesson on our course was to learn the value of relationship. With dementia sufferers, time is the most important thing. A dementia sufferer may take up to five times longer to answer a question than a non-sufferer and, so far as we can, it is important to enter the world of the sufferer. Sometimes it is worth compiling photo albums of events from years ago and images of friends and family. It is about time and relationship. Vanier asks, ‘Do we really believe that the weakest, the least presentable, those we hide away – that they are indispensible?’ We want our loved one’s suffering to end; we want the disease never to have happened. Nevertheless, our loved ones are indispensible to the Body of Christ: we are all broken and in our brokenness we are – all of us – indispensable to the Body of Christ. That is the claim that is made in this church.

Listen to this poem written by a person with dementia:

Why am I so confused?
I can’t seem to remember the things I should so
It seems like just yesterday everything was OK,
approaching the day in the usual way.
Today I forgot to eat my lunch
Then I sat in the hallway
and thought I was on the bus.
Where am I going and where have I been?
Why am I in the constant state that I’m in?
What will the future bring in my case?
What will my mind tomorrow erase?
I mustn’t think about it now,
it wouldn’t do any good anyhow
I’ll just pretend that everything is OK
and maybe tomorrow it will go away.

It can be distressing to be with loved ones suffering from dementia. What sort of king do we worship that the least are of equal value?

Vanier says that people with disabilities ‘are not obsessed with being well-situated in a group that offers acclaim and promotion. They are crying out for what matters most: love.’ This morning Armando has taught us about the God we worship, the King whose Feast we celebrate today. Our King is very odd. Amen.