A Sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at Holy Ascension Hyde on the Feast fo Christ the King, November 25th, 2018.
Rev 1:4b-8, Jn 18:33-37
How are your Christmas puddings coming along? I only ask as today is often called ‘Stir-up Sunday’, from the words of the Prayer Book Collect for today, which is also today’s Post Communion Prayer: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’ That’s a call to prayer and a call to action.
So, if we’ve not yet stirred up our Christmas puddings, then we need to get on with it! If we’ve not stirred up our wills to bring ‘forth the fruit of good works’, then we need to get on with that, too.
More importantly, in terms of our Lectionary and our worship this morning, it is the Feast of Christ the King, one of the more recent Festivals of the Church’s year.
The Feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, in a Papal Encyclical, and was kept on the last Sunday of October – the Sunday before All Saints’ Day. In 1970, Pope Paul VI moved it to the last Sunday of the Church’s year, today, immediately before the Sundays of Advent. From there it became a part of the Common Lectionary, used by most of the Churches of the West, including Roman Catholics, Methodists, and, since the late 90s, the Church of England and other Anglican Churches. When we hear our readings on a Sunday morning, we are listening to the same readings as are being used in most of the Churches of Western Christendom – that’s a lot of people all focusing on the same passages of Scripture!
As we’re on the last session of the Bible Course after the Service today, let’s focus on the broad sweep of the Biblical narrative of Jesus’ life, and how that was interpreted by the Early Church.
Just about 2,000 years ago a baby was born in very ordinary circumstances in Bethlehem. His parents were there for the Census. There was no room in any of the hotels, so the baby was born in a cave, or a cattle stall, outside the inn. We don’t know much about this child’s upbringing – his father was a carpenter, and we assume that he was brought up as a carpenter also. The only story we know of his childhood was when he was twelve, and his parents had taken him to Jerusalem. They lost him in the crowds there, and when they found him, he was teaching the doctors of the Law in the Temple, and they were amazed at his wisdom.
When he was around 30, he was baptised by the prophet John, in the wilderness, near the Jordan. This began a very different phase of his life – the start of his public ministry. For around three years, he travelled round Galilee and the area around Jerusalem. He gathered disciples around him, taught them, taught the crowds, told parables, stirred up a good deal of hostility in some places, performed miracles, cured people, went off on his own to pray, walked on water, and did much else. He was called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘teacher’ by those around him.
One day, on the road to Caesarea Philippi, he asked the disciples who people thought he was, and after some groping around, Simon Peter said, ‘You are the Messiah,’ the one anointed by God, what we would call ‘The Christ’. An amazing statement. He then predicted his suffering and death in Jerusalem.
A lot of hopes built up around this man, so much so, that when he went into Jerusalem at Passover time, great crowds built up around him, people shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. They expected a King who would free them from Roman oppression.
A few days later, after a lot of political wrangling, Jesus was arrested and tried by the leaders of Israel. The crowd turned against him, and he was crucified. So much for the King of the Jews.
A couple of days later though, on the Sunday, rumours began to circulate that he was alive – he had risen from the dead. Various people saw him, including, a week later, St Thomas the Apostle, Doubting Thomas, as we know him. He saw Jesus and said, ‘My Lord and my God’. What extraordinary words from a Jew to use about someone with whom he had spent the previous three years.
After Pentecost, the Church began to grow – the word about Christ, the risen Saviour, the one who had come to his people, began to spread. The stories about Jesus, the things he said and did, were told all over the Mediterranean area – many people became ‘Followers of the Way’, later known as Christians.
Paul became a Christian after his conversion on the Road to Damascus, where he was going to persecute the Christians. Soon after, round about 50AD, about 15-20 years after Jesus had died and risen, Paul began to write letters to the Churches he had founded. Think back to where you were 15 years ago to see how short a time that is, how quickly the Church had spread. In one of those Letters, Paul describes Jesus as ‘The image of the invisible God, all things are held together in him, in him God chose to dwell in all his fullness’. Just pause for a moment to think about the magnitude of those claims being made about Jesus so soon after his death and resurrection.
Not many years later, people felt the need to write down all the stories about Jesus which were circulating in the Church – partly to remember them, and partly to sort out the helpful from the dross. Round about 100AD, perhaps earlier or later, the fourth of the Gospels was written, opening with the words, ‘In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God’.
During these years of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the early years of the Church, through its worship and its experience, the Church had come to realise that the man Jesus was God Incarnate, God, the creator of the universe, in human flesh. They also realised that God had also revealed himself as Holy Spirit – the presence of God with them in their worship and in their lives. And the Church began a period of reflection about who Jesus Christ was and is, which was intense for the first few hundred years of the life of the Church, but which has continued until today.
Around 312AD the Emperor, Constantine, became a Christian, and shortly after so did the whole Roman Empire. The Christian Faith was no longer a matter of concern just for the Church – it became a matter of concern for the whole of the known society. And there were disagreements – how was Christ God? How could he be fully human and fully God? Did he have a human mind or a divine mind? Was he born from God before time, or did he simply exist from the beginning? Was the human nature of Christ swallowed up by the divine? These were important questions, and the Church wrestled with them for many years.
In 325 the Emperor summoned a Council to meet at Nicaea, across the water from Constantinople, to talk about these questions. The burning issue at this Council was the origin of Christ – I won’t bore you with the details, but some people were arguing that Christ was not ‘True God’ – he was a sort of ‘demi-god’, a second order God, subordinate to the one true Father. Now, since the very earliest days of the Church, statements of faith had been produced, summarising what Christians believe – we find some of these in the New Testament. The Council of Nicaea produced a Creed, and this Creed said that Christ was ‘True God of True God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father’. This Creed was developed at further Councils of the Church during the next 150 years, until it reached the form in which we know it by 481 – we call it the Nicene Creed, the one we say here on Sundays in some parts of the church’s year, more properly known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed – you can see why we just call it the Nicene Creed.
It was written in Greek, translated into Latin, and, at the time of the first Prayer Book in 1549, made its way into English – the version which we used was ‘tidied up’ in 2000 when Common Worship was introduced.
During all these hundreds of years of debate, the Church had a very simple line – if Jesus wasn’t fully human and fully divine, then he couldn’t be our Saviour. To bridge the unfathomable gap between God and us, he had to share fully in God – only God can save us – but he had also to be fully human – he had to be one of us to save us. ‘What has not been assumed has not been healed’. ‘God became a human, so that humans could become godlike’. Christ is both God and man ‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’ as the Council of Chalcedon in 481 put it.
Each week when we say one of the Creeds or Affirmations of Faith, we are repeating the result of hundreds of years of reflection by the Church on the meaning of the life of the little baby who was born at Bethlehem 2000 years ago. We are repeating what the Church has affirmed, and has affirmed because it leads to our salvation – the life, death and resurrection of Christ has changed for ever our relationship with God. It has opened ‘the gate of heaven to all believers’.
Christ is the King – so the Church has always believed, and so we proclaim today. That is what, as Christians, we try to show in our worship and, equally as important, in our lives.
Let’s proclaim that faith as we say the Creed, as Christians have done, Sunday by Sunday, using the words of the Apostles Creed, for over 1600 years. AMEN.