Christ the King
In our gospel today, Jesus stands before Pilate – one of the greatest contrasts in world history. And in our hearts today we harbour another great contrast: that of ISIS against the civilized world.
In Titian’s great painting, ‘Ecce Homo’, ‘Christ before Pilate’, the two main characters stand at either side, Pilate in a suit of shining armour whilst Jesus is bowed, exhausted and almost naked. As we read St John’s Gospel, Jesus grows in gentle confidence as he moves towards this crisis moment. Pilate on the other hand, knows he has offended the Jews for he is a weak man, frightened and characteristically, a bully. It is Pilate who introduces the language of kingship, of political power, and Jesus responds by saying that his kingdom is not from this world. Pilate has the power but Jesus has the authority.
Kingship is a slippery term and easily misunderstood because it is all about power. Jesus plays it down. His authority comes from above – it is not his own – and he exercises it in the most humble of ways. Jesus declines the appeal to power or popularity or comfort during his temptations in the desert. He shrinks away when the crowd want to seize him to make him king; His triumphal entry into Jerusalem is on a donkey. It is Pilate who washes his hands of responsibility but it is Jesus who washes the feet of the poor. Pilate’s power rests on soldiers, weapons, force, and fear. Jesus’ authority is exercised through love and humility.
Titian’s painting of Christ before Pilate depicts a busy scene. There are people, soldiers, disciples and servants all over the square. The Praetorium is a public space and it is in this public space that the climax of faith is played out. For St. John, this is the moment when Jesus graciously accepts that his victory will be on the cross.
After the Paris shootings, our faith has to be played out in the public square. There is now an urgency in the matter. Our hearts go out to the politicians who have to make hard political and military decisions in order to protect innocent people. In the face of the ISIS threat our leaders put their lives on the line and please God, act out their faith in public for the good of all. But there are so many other innocent people who have been caught up in the violence of the Middle East too. We cannot forget them on this feast day when we acknowledge Christ to be King over all. They are our brothers and sisters under God and we have a responsibility towards them as well as to our neighbours here and in Paris. God in Christ has a care for all humanity. We cannot let that element of our faith be politically air-brushed out of the current crisis. People of faith must find their voices right across the religious spectrum in the face of such religious and ideological intolerance. The Cathedral flag flies at half-mast to honour the loss of so many innocent people on both sides of this conflict.
Our colleague Anjum Anwar has been publicly attacked as a result of the Paris violence. An egg was thrown at her. She and many other Muslims are feeling a little less secure today in the towns of Lancashire and we can do something about it if we are prepared to share our faith just a little with them.
You may remember a Police Inspector, Andy Pratt, occupying this pulpit several years ago, addressing us on social cohesion. His message was simple. He encouraged us to do three things towards Muslims: to recognize them in the street, to smile at them and to talk to them. That is a simple way to put our faith into action but it could make all the difference between a day of hope and a day of misery for our neighbour. And the more we do it, the easier it becomes. The Cathedral Wardens meet together for regular bible study and what they have found is quite startling: they now find it easier to talk about their faith – not just between themselves but with other people too.
Two young women wearing headscarves came into the cathedral late last bight asking if they could pray. Our gallant vergers – eager to get home – readily offered them the opportunity. It was inconvenient but the ripples from such acts of kindness and respect travel far.
Our politicians are facing a terrible set of decisions. In this imperfect world, some accelerated form of military activity may now be inevitable to stop ISIS but Christ the King holds another radical alternative which haunts us all. It is depicted in Titian’s painting: the violent facing the vulnerable. It is not a political solution; it is an ideal – an ideal we should never forget. An ideal which we can edge towards with our Muslim neighbours under one God. To Him be the glory. Amen.