Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King 2011
S Mary the Virgin Primrose Hill
He has put all things under His feet. Ephesians 1:23
If you go onto You Tube and search for extreme sheep herding you will find a wonderful video. The shepherds use the flock to create animations on the hillsides. Making the whole flock look like one big sheep and by putting lights on their backs and herding them in the dark, they make patterns like fire works. It is amazing. It is also a terrifying vision of the power of the shepherd, ordering the flock to what he wants.
The lesson we have heard from the epistle to the Ephesians teaches us that God has this power and more. He orders all things and has power far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. But while the Scripture is clear about the immeasurable power of the shepherd, the word of God is clear also that this power is exercised in love and gentleness. The Shepherd King feeds and guides his seep beside still waters and into green pastures. Ezekiel, whose prophesy above all books of the Old Testament describes the majesty and awesome presence of the Lord, enthroned on the Cherubim, never the less, as we have just heard, emphasises the love of the shepherd who will make them lie down, and bring back the strays and bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, and whose power is to destroy evil and uphold good.
This then is the model for the action of the church in the world. And in Christian history the great leaders have not been those who have imposed their authority with power, but those who have exercised pastoral care over the flock. Not many archdeacons are saints.
You may know the story of S Peter Claver. He arrived in Cartagena in the Spanish possessions in South America in 1610. He took over an existing mission to the slaves who were brought there in appalling conditions and vast numbers. He would go to the docks as soon as the ships docked with medicines and food and all other sorts of physical aid. He would do his best to care for the slaves and he would bring them the good news of Jesus Christ. He campaigned for better conditions and tirelessly served their needs both spiritual and physical. At the end of his life he was crippled by what was probably Parkinson’s disease. He was abused by the man set to nurse him, a former slave who loathed him as one of the oppressors. He suffered, neglected and left alone almost until the end by the community he had lived among. It is an extraordinary story. His witness and suffering changed attitudes and brought help to thousands. But it did not end the horrible evil of the slave trade. Many are frustrated by this and other similar stories. Fr Basil Jellioce who did so much to change the plight of the urban poor in London by working to clear the slums of Somers Town and invent the housing association. But he refused political power and died young, burnt out by apostolic labours, insisting that ‘it’s not just houses,’ but that souls are more important. There are many who are swift to say that we deal with symptoms and not causes, and that we would do well to get real and do a bit less pasturing and a bit more extreme herding.
Your shower is more of the same. Your night shelter is one of hundreds of such projects. We have been trying to count and there are about 800 community ministry projects in our 400 parishes. There are thousands of other actions of help: filling in forms, offering advice, brining support in every one of the neighbourhoods of London. So we try to follow the Lord’s command to bring food to the hungry and care to the sick and to clothe the naked and visit the prisoners.
And still there are those who say that we are wrong. They deprecate the fact that the works of mercy commanded by Jesus are so focussed on individuals that we waste energy that should be used to change society. They put tents up and demand more activism, more power from our seemingly shy, complacent and moribund organization of Christ’s church. They tell is our quiet work is too much behind the scenes, and pasturing is all well and good but there ought to be a whole lot more protest, a whole lot more politics.
There was once a crowd who acclaimed a King; and not just a King, but the King, the One who would make all things right at last, and sort out oppression and evil, who would open the eyes of the blind and bind up broken hearts and set the captives free. Hosanna, they cried, hosanna to the heir of David. But when it came to it He was bitterly disappointing to the agenda of the world. His Kingdom, He said, was not of this world: so they dressed Him in purple and put a crown of thorns on His had and a broken reed in His hand and on the notice above His suffering they called Him a King, but in mocking spite.
But that notice was more right than they knew. He was a King; the omnipotent One, who emptied Himself and was humbled to death, even death on a cross; but who now is highly exalted so that at the Name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father.
So Why: why didn’t Jesus summon those legions of angels He said He had ready to do His will. Why the cross and not the glory? Simples, as the Meerkat says. You cannot force people into righteousness. You cannot make people love. Force can produce outward conformity, up to a point, but not the agreement of hearts and souls. The Kingdom of Heaven is an absolute monarchy, but more than any democracy it seeks the free agreement of the people. The power of our King is so great that it cares for individuals, not for majorities. Not for the church the corporate solution of the politician, but the far greater task of pasturing nurturing and transforming every individual soul. Not a single hair on your head is not known, not a sparrow falls without the knowledge of the King.
Ours is a Kingdom, yes. It is not of this world. But because of that it makes more difference to this world than any of the dominions of men.