The Feast of Christ the King
Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
Today is the Feast of Christ the King. This is the Sunday that closes the Church’s year, and it seeks to do so on a high note. Over the Church’s year, we have thought about the major events in the life of our Lord and what they mean for us. We have looked at his teaching and how he wants us to live as his followers. Now we end the year by thinking of him as the Lord and Ruler of all. As our reading this morning puts it, Christ is seated at the right hand of God:
‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’ (Ephesians 1:21)
You may remember that St Paul writes in similar terms in his letter to the Church at Philippi. The writers of the New Testament all share a common belief that God is in control and that Christ is ruling over all things.
This shared belief, however, causes problems for believers today. We are, after all, living at the moment through a pandemic that has brought normal life to a halt and killed thousands of people. It is wrecking economies and destroying people’s livelihoods. This may be a once in a lifetime experience, a headline event which grabs our attention, but it brings into focus the suffering that routinely characterizes day to day life in this world. The pandemic may be unusual, but there is nothing unusual about evil in our world. Since Christ’s death and resurrection, people have been dying in wars and disasters, suffering from pain and sickness, and watching wrongdoing and wickedness go unchecked.
It is not even as though we believers can claim that Christ is the King who rules over us his people, even if he doesn’t rule over those outside the Church. It is true that the Church has had some great moments in its history, and there have indeed been some outstanding saints whose lives have borne witness to their faith. But there have also been some dreadful moments too, and there have been some really awful people at the highest levels of the Church.
The Church has argued, divided, conspired, and committed terrible acts all of which are only too well-known. We have not demonstrated the love of Christ in our lives and in the world, but have instead sided with the powerful against the weak and with the rich against the poor. This year, the issue of racial equality has come to the fore not least with the black lives matter movement. The movement has had no difficulty in demonstrating that the Church in the past has supported slavery, injustice, and oppression. We, in the Church, may, for our part, highlight the work of those believers who fought for freedom, justice, and equality, but often they were the minority, and they were frequently resisted forcefully by many in the Church.
Only recently, on November 10, a report was published by the Roman Catholic Church into the McCarrick scandal in which a prominent Archbishop and Cardinal was guilty of abuse on a frightening scale. Worse still, although people in the Church’s hierarchy knew about what was going on, they did nothing. Indeed, McCarrick continued to be promoted in the Church. And McCarrick, as we know, was by no means alone in being an abuser.
And, in case we in the Anglican Church get complacent and think such abuse is confined to Roman Catholics, another recent report found that the same sort of abuse has been going on in the Anglican Church. A further report published last month (on October 22) found that ‘appalling’ acts of sexual abuse against vulnerable children and young people were committed by one Bishop over a period of more than 15 years.
These are just recent, albeit terrible, examples of how we in the Church have failed to live as followers of Christ. They are though by no means isolated incidents.
Now we may seek to explain all this by appealing to the reality and power of sin. The Church itself, after all, is made up of weak, fallible, sinful people. We are all all too human. Our humanity does not excuse us but, we argue, it explains how such evil can happen, even in the Church. And what is true of the Church, in particular, is true of the world, in general: wars, violence, exploitation, and injustice are wrought, not by God but by man - and often, it mostly is by man.
All this is true - to an extent. But where, then, does it leave us this morning? If evil continues seemingly unhindered, even in the Church, because of our sin, what does it mean for us to say that Christ is King and that God is in control? If this is God being in control, it doesn’t much feel like it. How, when the world is the way it is, can we say and sing that the Lord is King and that he rules over all? Some King; some rule!
The question, then, is this: did the New Testament writers allow their rhetoric to run away with them? And have we allowed ourselves to be taken in by it? Isn’t the reality so different to the rhetoric that the rhetoric is ultimately meaningless? We simply can’t dodge the question by singing hymns and repeating slogans about God being in charge.
Well, first of all, we need to remember that the New Testament writers were not isolated from reality. They knew only too well what evil was like. Many had lost friends and relatives because of their faith in Christ. St Paul himself is in prison for his faith as he writes the letter our reading is from this morning. He writes in his letters of the suffering he personally has had to endure for his faith in Christ. He describes himself as having had to fight with ‘wild animals in Ephesus’ (1 Corinthians 15:32) and of being ‘utterly, unbearably crushed’ while there (2 Corinthians 1:8). In the letter to the Church at Philippi, he also writes as a prisoner facing the possibility of his death. He was eventually to be executed in Rome when Nero was the emperor. And St Paul was by no means the only believer Nero had killed. Many others were tortured and murdered in the most barbaric of ways.
Some of the greatest passages in the New Testament celebrating the power and rule of Christ are in the book of Revelation. And yet the book itself was written to Churches in the same region that St Paul writes to in the letter our reading is from this week. These believers were themselves experiencing violent opposition and death for their faith. St John, who wrote the book of Revelation, is himself a prisoner on the island of Patmos for his faith in Christ when he writes and, in the book, he warns of the terrible suffering and pain that is still to come.
And yet, despite all this, St Paul, St John, and the other New Testament writers still absolutely insist that God is in control and that all power and authority belongs to Christ. Are they mad?
Make no mistake, the vast majority of people in Ephesus and the surrounding region that both St Paul and St John wrote to certainly thought that they were. They didn’t believe the apostles’ preaching because they thought it just foolishness. How could anyone believe that someone who had himself been crucified and crushed by the power of Rome was now the ruler of all? It was just madness even to think it.
So, are we also mad to believe in Christ? Are we deluded fools? Have we believed a lie?
In the letter to the Church in Ephesus, after his customary style of greeting, St Paul blesses God for all he has done for those who are believers. This prayer is grammatically a single sentence 202 words long. It’s a long sentence, but in this one sentence St Paul manages to sum up the whole of our faith.
You know how often, if someone sends you a file attachment, it will come in a compressed format and then needs to be extracted when it is downloaded. This sentence is St Paul compressing all that God has done for us into a short file. The trouble is to extract it, that is, to unpack it, would certainly take up more space than we have available this morning!
The important thing to note is that St Paul tells us that God has a plan, and, while it might not seem like it, the plan is on track. God is the one, St Paul writes, ‘who works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11). The plan quite simply is to ‘unite all things’ in heaven and on earth in Christ. Christ is at the very heart of God’s plan for all creation, seen and unseen.
So where do we believers fit in? Here St Paul writes something that really is hard to get our minds around. He tells us that God ‘chose us in him before the foundation of the world’ (Ephesians 1:4). You and I being here this morning is no accident. Some of you may have watched the video talk I posted this week by Dr Mary Healy. She talks about how God is ‘orchestrating’ everything. This is what St Paul means when he writes about God ‘working all things ‘according to the counsel of his will’.
A conductor of an orchestra brings all the different instruments together to perform the music in front of him. He makes sure they all play their part - strings, woodwind, brass, percussion - the conductor brings them all in at exactly the right moment.
This is exactly what God is doing: in the protests in Hong Kong, with Trump and Biden in America, with the pandemic throughout the world, and in our own individual lives and stories. All these are playing a part in bringing about God’s plan for his creation.
We can’t always see the performance and often we fail to understand what is going on and this is for two reasons. First of all, because we are looking in the wrong place. We fail to see that the presidents, prime ministers, and chief executives of this world aren’t the stars of the show, they are just part of the cast of extras. They have a role to play, but the story is not about them - much as they would like it to be and often think that it is.
The Ephesian believers must have thought the story was all about Rome and Caesar. There were statues to the emperor everywhere in Ephesus and throughout Asia to remind them of his power. There were even temples for them to go to so they could worship his power. But, in the plan and purposes of God, the Ephesian believers weren’t there to serve the emperor, the emperor was there to serve them and the Gospel. And because God is in control, even when the emperors did their worse, it only served to further the plan and purposes of God.
It doesn’t look like God is in control when we look at the world around us. It doesn’t look like God is in control when we look at our own lives. This is because we have a problem with our sight and it is why St Paul prays in our reading that the eyes of our hearts may be ‘enlightened’ (Ephesians 1:18).
One of my favourite Old Testament stories is when the prophet Elisha and his servant Gehazi find themselves surrounded by the army of the King of Aram who is seeking to capture Elisha. Not unreasonably Gehazi panics, ‘What shall we do?’, he asks. Elisha’s reply is:
‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ (2 Kings 6:16)
Elisha then prays that God will open his servant’s eyes. God does so and Gehazi sees the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire surrounding Elisha.
When we look around us it can be discouraging and depressing. It can even be frightening. It can feel as if we are very small and insignificant. When I have recorded the services over the past few months when we weren’t allowed to have public gatherings, at first it looked like the Church was empty, but in fact it was full; every seat was occupied; for we worship, not just with each other, but with ‘angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’. We are never alone; we are never outnumbered: ‘there are more with us than there are with them’.
And when we gather in the name of Christ, the place on earth to be is here for Christ is here with us, and, more than that, he offers himself to us to give us the strength we need to serve him and to keep going when we feel weak and like giving up.
But secondly, another reason we can’t see that God is in control is that we are not looking at things from the right place. St Paul writes of God’s great power:
‘God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places …’ (Ephesians 1:20)
Viewed from the ‘heavenly places’, where Christ is sitting, things look very different to how they look from where we are sitting. But, we reply, that’s all very well, but we can’t see things from where Christ is sitting. And that’s our problem.
In chapter 2 of the letter, St Paul writes that God has ‘raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 2:6).
If you are sitting behind a pillar in Christ Church, no matter how good your sight is you won’t see me, you need to move seats. We need to sit where we can see. The writer to the Hebrews tells us:
‘At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus.’ (Hebrews 2:8-9)
When we look at things from where Christ is sitting, while we will not yet see everything subject to him, we will see how God is working his purpose out and how God is bringing his symphony of creation to a dramatic conclusion.
But how can we be sure?
St Paul tells us that we have been ‘sealed’ with the ‘promised Holy Spirit’. It is the Holy Spirit, whom we experience in the present, who is the guarantee of what will be ours in the future. As St Julian of Norwich put it, that despite all appearances to the contrary, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’
Our Lord, before his arrest, promised his disciples that he would not leave them comfortless. He warned them that they would hear of ‘wars and rumours of wars’ and that in the world they would have trouble, but they were to be of good cheer for he had overcome the world.
It is the Spirit who enables us to see what God is doing and who gives us the strength we need in the face of all the problems and difficulties we experience in this world as we await the ‘inheritance’ that is our hope.
So no, we are not mad. We are not deluded. We have not believed a lie.
We don’t yet see all things subject to him, but we do see Jesus, and one day we will see Jesus bring God’s plan for his creation to completion. We look forward with hope to this day, and we pray that God may find us faithful and ready for it when it comes.