There could not be a more appropriate place to think of kingship, of reigning as king, than at Westminster Abbey where I minister in London. William the Conqueror was crowned there in 1066 as has every British monarch, bar two or three, ever since, and in April this year we celebrated magnificently there the marriage of a future king and queen. Kings and Queens quite literally litter that building. Its central feature is the shrine of its holy founder, Edward the Confessor, King of England (1042-1066). So my credentials in regard to kingship, or sovereignty, are impeccable!
On this Feast of Christ the King we might then ask, ‘What reigns in me? What rules me at this very moment?’ Jesus the Saviour reigns, the God of truth and love (as Charles Wesley wrote in one of his most memorable hymns) or does he?—not only in our personal lives but in society, in national life, and in our responsibilities, not least towards the poor and hungry.
This evening’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46) is a picture rather than a parable. It associates Jesus as king with judgement, personal and corporate. Christians are sometimes accused of perpetrating gloom and doom and this could be an example of it. Is there hope for any of us if there is a cantankerous God waiting at every turn to judge and condemn? That is the image many people outside our Faith seem to have. It is in response to it that atheists in London, egged on Richard Dawkins, the militantly atheist biologist, are preparing to adorn our bendy buses with what they consider a cheering and liberating slogan just before Christmas. ‘God probably doesn’t exist, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ As one of my colleagues at the Abbey dryly commented, ‘It sounds as if there are no miserable atheists and no cheerful believers!’
So what sort of judgment are we to expect, how will things work out in the end, how will justice be done, how will love prevail? Thomas Merton the American Cistercian reckons Julian of Norwich to be one of the greatest of theologians. Despite all evidence to the contrary Julian is confident that there is an eschatological secret that is the End Time. We don’t know how, but it will be revealed that all will be well. She also says she looked into hell, but found no one in it. Jesus the Saviour reigns, the God of truth and love. After all, we carry around heaven and hell within us all the time, and judgment takes place every day.
To return to the Gospel: one thing Jesus is making clear—he/God is present incognito all around us, beside us, in front of us, in the needs we see and meet, and in those we fail to see. The Kalahari have a touching belief that God becomes everything in turn for his people. This may seem a return to primitive animism but it has a point. God, they say, becomes even the tears of the suffering and as far as we reach out to them, we touch God and God touches us.
St. John of the Cross, a Spanish saint of great asceticism, holiness and orthodoxy, wrote some words which for me sum up the whole tenor of this story: ‘At eventide we shall be judged in love.’ What will judge us will be our level and practice of love and compassion, not right doctrine or innumerable other things we get het up about in the church.
‘At eventide we shall be judged in love.’ We all fall short. But Jesus the Saviour reigns, even in our faults and failures, even in all the hurts and sins of our lives.
‘Jesus, be love in me’, we can say over and over again. ‘Jesus, be hope in me.’
‘Jesus, be forgiveness in me.’ ‘Jesus, be peace in me.’
And despite the message of the bendy buses in London this Christmas that Christianity is a miserable religion, Jesus the Saviour reigns, the God of truth and love, the one who called himself the Good Shepherd, alluded to in this evening’s first reading (Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24). The Greek word for ‘good’ (kalos) connotes not simply moral uprightness, but attractiveness and beauty. I am the Shepherd, the beautiful one, says Jesus.
One of the criticisms levelled against Christianity is its supposed absorption in individual piety and salvation. Certainly that needs to be watched, but it all has to begin somewhere. One grain of sand can’t change things, but many together can tip the balance. The Pharisees (Luke 17:20) asked Jesus when the reign of God would come. Jesus answered, ‘The Kingdom, the reign of God, does not come in such a way as to be seen, because the reign of God is within you.’
Jesus the Saviour reigns, the God of truth and love. That is as much a fact in this National Cathedral as is the presence of all the Kings and Queens in Westminster Abbey. So bring on the bendy buses and their slogans in London this Christmas! God probably does exist and Jesus the Saviour reigns. So let’s stop worrying and enjoy our lives!