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The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Riverdale on Sunday, November 25th, 2012.

 

A Sermon for The Feast of Christ the King

Readings: 2 Sam 23:1-7; Psalm 132; Rev 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

 

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” (John 18:37).

 

 

In 1925 when Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe” Europe was being overcome by a growing nationalism and secularism. It is in light of these beginnings that today we celebrate not only Christ’s rule over and above all earthly rulers, but the all-embracing authority of Christ as King of the whole cosmos.

Of course, kings and queens do not seem particularly relevant to us nowadays. In the ancient world, however, the world Jesus inhabited, people knew what kings did. They ruled people according to their own wishes and whims, they were all-powerful and not to be questioned. In those days, folks also knew how people became kings. Often the crown would be passed from father to son or to some other close family member. For non-family the way to the crown was through violence so, from time to time, there would be a revolution. This was true of the Jews as much as pagans. Judas Maccabaeus established his dynasty two-hundred years before Jesus by overthrowing the Syrians, winning for the Jews their independence and for himself and his family, royal status. Thirty years before Jesus, Herod the Great defeated the Parthians and in gratitude for his service Rome allowed him to become “King of the Jews”. So, when Pilate faces Jesus in our gospel reading today and someone hints at the fact that he thinks himself a king, this must have been what Pilate assumes is going on. A little later when Pilate tries to release Jesus, because he can find no guilt in him, the Jews cry out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor,” (19:12). Indeed. Pilate knows there can be none of this, not on his turf anyway, it would have to be quashed.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” asks Pilate. It’s almost laughable really and I’m sure he already knew what the answer was. Before him stands a poor man from the wrong part of the country. He had a small band of followers at one point but they’ve all run off by now. He’s no king but his own people have dragged him here so he must have done something wrong. Jesus’ response is somewhat cryptic: “My kingdom is not from this world…my kingdom is not from here.” We should beware of misunderstanding Jesus here. Certainly he is not saying that his kingship and his kingdom are other-worldly and that they really do not have all that much to do with this place. No, here Jesus is denying that his kingdom has a this-worldly origin or quality, he is not denying that it has a this-worldly destination. Indeed, that is why Jesus has come into the world himself (v37) and why he has sent and will send his followers into the world (17:18; 20:21). Think for example of those powerful words from the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” The rule of King Jesus is destined for earth, of this we can be sure. So, Jesus is indeed insinuating that he is king but a king rather unlike Judas Maccabaeus, Herod the Great, and certainly unlike Caesar. His kingdom does not come from this world but it is for this world.

Here is the tension. As has been the case throughout all of history, there are many rulers and regimes of all sorts of shapes and sizes. And of course the problem we see arising here is that if the proclamation of the gospel entails that Jesus is king of the universe, then no one else, or no other thing, is. This would have been Pilate’s concern, it would have been the Emperor’s concern, and it ought to be a concern to any earthly ruler at any point in history. For at the very least it means that Christ reigns over and above the earth’s rulers. Their authority is not final. Justice will be done, and it will be Christ who does it. Of course, we’re somewhat skeptical of our earthly rulers anyways, right? I suspect that few of us think that our politicians are characterized by a commitment to the truth. Perhaps we shouldn’t assume that they are opposed to the truth, necessarily, it’s just that it’s so easy to make the truth instrumental to some other thing and in our increasingly media and money driven method of campaigning for office (this month’s US election, for example) politicians are practically invited and encouraged to employ half-truths in the service of gaining or retaining power. This is not so with Jesus’ kingship. Jesus does not employ the truth as a means to some other end, no he comes to give evidence about the truth. “So you are a king?” Pilate asks. “You say that I am a king,” retorts Jesus, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” The truth is not instrumental to some other political purpose. It is, rather, the decisive identity marker of Jesus and his followers, they are “of the truth” not “of the world”.

Jesus came into the world to testify to the truth. Indeed, Jesus is the truth and he prays for his disciples not that they may be taken out of the world, though they do not belong to the world, but that they may be “sanctified in truth” precisely because they have been sent into the world. Here is where the tension continues and takes on a more personal tone. Pius introduced this feast day not only as a reminder that Christ rules over the hugeness of the entire cosmos but also to remind us that Christ must reign in the smallness of our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies as well. To proclaim Christ as King is not only a warning to earthly rulers but it is a warning to you and I. For if Christ rules then we do not, not even over our own lives. And here is the really important bit for us this morning. To be confronted with the truth of God in Christ is to be confronted with the truth about the whole world, ourselves included. This is to say that it is only in light of Christ that we can see God and the world truthfully, and also ourselves truthfully. In an age of self-discovery, it is to say that we are unable to know ourselves truthfully apart from Christ and, I would say, apart from the community which Christ gathers around himself, the church. It is to say that we must learn to know ourselves truthfully in light of the Truth, King Jesus and his inbreaking kingdom. This is, because, it is only in light of King Jesus, the King Jesus who died on a Roman cross and then rose to life three days later, that we are able to see that the whole world is under the power of sin and death and in need of redeeming. And it’s only in light of Jesus that we come to learn that we too are under the curse of sin and death and in need of redeeming, of being brought back to life again. Ask yourself, where else do you hear this? Where else might you learn that all of creation is groaning under the power of sin and death? Which newspaper will proclaim the triumph of King Jesus over these powers on the cross? Where else might you learn that the way to life is through death? Where will you hear and understand the news of the coming of King Jesus to judge the world and set it right, so that death does not have the final say? It is only here where we meet the risen Jesus in the breaking of the bread and the opening of the Scriptures that we can look back on ourselves and out into the world and begin to see things as they truly are. And because Jesus has done all this the Father has exalted him to the highest place, has given him the name above every name, has given him all authority on earth and in heaven.

This may all sound rather terrifying and rightly so, perhaps. For, we’re about to enter the season of Advent where we liturgically await the return of King Jesus to set the world right, set it right according to the truth, that is. This means that anything not in line with the truth will lose it’s place. That is to say, Advent and the return of King Jesus has very much to do with judgement. Judgement is, after all, properly one of Christ’s kingly duties, he decides what sorts of things are fitting for his kingdom and what sorts of things have no place there. Judgement can make us rather uncomfortable, and that’s fair I think given all of the ways we may have experienced poor judgement. However, I would implore us to understand the judgement of King Jesus as one of the many beautiful facets of God’s love for the world, the kingdom of God is for the world after all. Think, for example, of the fact that Christ’s kingship is one of humility and service, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Mk 10:45). The “no” of God’s judgement to sin and death is simultaneously the “yes” of God towards his good creation. God loves what he has made so much that he goes to the cross and tramples down death by his own death so that nothing may thwart his good purposes for creation.

This Sunday’s message is that change is coming, and Christ is its author and presider. Jesus the Truth will come again and make this place his home. The rule and authority of King Jesus challenges the compartmentalized smallness of our faith. For if Jesus is King then this has implications for everything we do, everything we fail to do. The truth which King Jesus testifies to is like the light which enables us to see all things rightly. When we celebrate Christ as King, we are not celebrating an oppressive ruler, but one willing to die for humanity and whose “loving-kindness endures forever.” May the loving, merciful and just king of the universe be forever praised and glorified. Amen.

This past Sunday as I helped serve communion we stopped at a young girl as the priest gave her a gluten-free wafer (which she required). I watched as she curiously examined it and put it in her mouth. As she chewed it, she looked off into space and said with the loveliest innocence and wonder: “This tastes like something I’ve tasted before.” To which I thought, exactly!

There is a deep theological profundity in those simple words.

In the Anglican tradition during the celebration of the Eucharist the priest prays, “…we offer you, Father, this bread and this cup. Send your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts, that all who eat and drink at this table may be one body and one holy people, a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ, our Lord,” (Eucharistic Prayer I).

After this prayer, in many Anglican churches (ours included), the prayer of humble access is prayed. In it we pray: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”

On the one hand, we offer up with thanksgiving and praise the bread and the wine, bits of the created order that we can touch and taste. Then, on the other hand, we ask the Holy Spirit to come upon us and these gifts so that in eating and drinking them we are eating “the flesh of they dear Son Jesus Christ” and drinking “his blood”. The result is that a community is gathered and transformed: we become “one body and one holy people, a living sacrifice”. We, “dwell in him, and he in us”.

Here, in this act we have the gospel in the form of a “visible word” (St. Augustine). The stuff of the earth, taken up with thanksgiving, transformed. It is a meal which remembers and makes present the death of Christ on the cross. It is a meal which anticipates and makes present the heavenly banquet. This is indeed a foretaste of the promise of God to see his creative work through to the end, when the whole of creation will be taken up into Christ, transformed, and made new. The result will not be alien and strange. No, it will taste like something we’ve tasted before.

Part 1 – What are icons?

Part 2 – A (very) brief history.

AD 330 – The date when then Roman Emperor, Constantine, moved his court from Rome to a fishing town on the shore of the Black Sea. Byzantion had been around from the seventh century BC but with the arrival of Constantine it grew into a fittingly imperial city and was renamed New Rome (1). It was later named after the Emperor, Constantinople.

Iconography began to develop even before Constantine and became established in the Byzantine Empire between 330 and 1453 (2). After 1453 iconography was affected to some extent by the Western Renaissance, but it’s special and distinctive qualities survived. In the West, icons were largely unappreciated during the twentieth century. During the mid-19th century Byzantine items owned by the British Museum were stowed away in the basement (3)! Icons were often seen to be outdated. More recently, however, people are discovering that Orthodox Christian art is not outdated but is beautiful in its own right. As Linette Martin notes, “there was no precise date when the visual language began because it grew out of Roman art; there was no date when it ended because it is still a living art,” (p.11).

The earliest surviving icons are dated to the 6th and 7th centuries and are now almost entirely preserved in the monastary of St. Catherine of Sinai. The remoteness of this outpost of the Empire preserved these icons from the systematic destruction of sacred art orded by the iconoclast emperors after 720 (4). All of these surviving icons are in a technique and medium called “encaustic wax”, in which powdered mineral colours were blended in hot wax, laid on with glass rods (5). This technique had been lost by the time of the restoration of icons in 843 and we are only now beginning to learn how it was done.

However, we know that icons were being made far before this time. Literary sources reveal that icons were made from the late 4th century. For example, St. John Chrysostom speaks of having a portrait of St. Paul on his desk to inspire him when writing homilies on the Epistles (6). Opposition to Christian art did not begin with iconoclasm. The fact that there was no controversy until the 8th century demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of believers had no objections. Indeed, by the late 6th century, icons were the principal focus of popular devotion among all classes throughout the eastern Roman world (7).

I mentioned above the iconography began to develop even earlier than the 4th century. According to the Orthodox tradition icons appeared very early on. The “image not-made-by-hands” is said to have been around during the time of Jesus’ own ministry. You can read more about it here. Another example of an early icon according to tradition is the image of the theotokos as painted by Saint Luke, who is said to be the founder of iconography.

(1) Martin, 10.

(2) Note how early icons appeared – at the latest early-4th century, possibly earlier.

(3) Martin, 11.

(4) Martin, 11.

(5) Martin, 12.

(6) Martin, 12.

(7) Martin, 12.

I was at a gathering of church folks recently most of whom, I would guess, were more liberal in persuasion than myself. At times this was rather boring and at other times it was maddening! At one point a gentleman who was in a position of authority within this group (he was on the board or whatever) began to blabber on about a pet-peeve of his (news flash: no one asked!). He didn’t like the presumption of some Christians, who might be visiting sick and shut-in people, that they were in some fashion the presence of Christ to said sick/shut-in. At this point he let us all know of his mantra, “we are always in the presence of God” and that the task of the person ministering is to point towards this (which sort of begs the question, what is said person ministering?).

This is a fairly common presupposition amongst many people, I think: God is everywhere. But if God is everywhere, then God is no where. But for the orthodox Christian God is somewhere, somewhere in particular. Namely, God is in Christ. What does God look like? Jesus. Where is God? In Jesus.

It is precisely this loss of particularity that seems to characterize (generally speaking, of course) liberal fashions of Christianity. Oliver O’Donovan elaborates:

“The inner shrine of the liberal gospel was its attitude of respectful attentiveness to the world as it is. The term “incarnation”, used without an article, speaks of this embrace of the world. This is something different from the incarnation, the historical birth of Jesus the Son of God from Mary, which is now reconstructed as a paradigm or model for a conjunction of the human and divine to be effected in all times and places. The incarnation of the Word takes place continually,” (O’Donovan, Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion, 8).

We see evident here a loss of particularity. To speak of God’s self-revelation is not necessarily to speak of the Virgin Birth or the person of Jesus of Nazareth but it is rather to speak of an ongoing process of embracing and knowing the world as it is. It is to make a positive conjunction of God and the world. However, there are two reasons why the orthodox Christian must reject this claim one eschatological and one ontological. For the orthodox Christian there is an eschatological frontier between this world and the next as well as an ontological frontier between the Creator and the creature. In the liberal paradigm, these frontiers are collapsed so that the world as it is is the world as it ought to be and so that the distinction between Creator and creature all but evaporates. O’Donovan continues:

“This world being the sanctuary of God’s full self-disclosure, talk of a reign of God can only be talk of this world projected to its logical term. The present harbors no ultimate antithesis; it faces no final judgment. God’s worldly self-disclosure may be seen as the dynamic of world history, as in the confident progressivism of an earlier liberalism…But one way or the other the theological liberal looks to “see the hand of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13), and knows that when seen it will be stretched out in blessing, not in judgment,” (O’Donovan, 8-9).

If God is everywhere then God is no where and the world is going no where for it has already arrived.

God is not everywhere.

God is in Christ Jesus who will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I’m trying to be more disciplined in my prayer life. However, growing up in low-church Evangelicalism I always thought I had to make prayer up. Needless to say, that’s a lot of pressure. Don’t get me wrong, I think we can learn much from spontaneous prayer, but in my journey into Anglicanism I’ve been drinking deeply from the well of ordered prayer. Some may find it strange to pray prayers that are already written down, to read the words off of a page. Yet, I have learned that there is a deepness here that often surpasses my fumbling prayers (genuine and meaningful as they are). When we pray through the liturgy on Sunday mornings at St. Matthew’s we are praying along with the saints. We are praying prayers along with folks centuries before us. These are prayers that have been passed on, traditioned from one Christian generation to the next. There’s something to that. Anyways, to the point of this mini-series, I was in a Christian bookstore recently and purchased my first icon, something I’d been meaning to do for sometime. It’s a beautiful image of Christ enthroned, surrounded by the four creatures, scriptures open, in a posture of authority and blessing (see photo). So, I’m learning to pray with icons. I’ve picked up a small booklet on the subject by Linette Martin and I plan to share some of this journey with whoever might read it. I’ve already had a number of Protestant brothers and sisters ask surprisingly, “Why?!” These few posts will be some sort of attempt to share an answer to that question. FYI, I’ll be sharing some insight from the booklet as well as my own experiences.

———-

Part 1 – What are icons?

An icon is graphic art: information concentrated in visual iconography. An Orthodox Christian will insist that a holy icon is far more than this; as a Western Christian I would say it is not less. The icon points beyond itself, we recognize the imagery and are beckoned to respond. Our response may be one of belief or disbelief, of praise, or wonder, or prayer, or encouragement, or terror, or questions. The icon insists that we respond as much with the mind as with the emotions – they are the thinking persons art (1).

This is what makes icons different from other religious art. The Orthodox teach that an icon is a two-way door of communication that not only shows us a person or event but makes this person/event present. When we stand before an icon we are in touch with that person and we take part in that event (2). When we look at an icon of Christ enthroned, the victorious and reigning Christ is present to us and us to him – what we call “our world” and what we call the “spiritual world” are opened to each other. According to the ancient teaching of the early church and the Orthodox Church today, an icon is a door. If that’s too much for you to accept now, don’t worry about it. At the very least icons are beautiful and rich pictures that show God and his work in a visual language that can be understood (3).

In the ancient world icons did not only portray religious subjects. Broadly understood, icon=image. In the ancient world statues of emperors or the imprint of Caesar on a coin was an icon. Where this image was, the authority of the emperor was present. In the New Testament scriptures the Greek word translated icon means “image”, “likeness”, “portrait”. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the  NT describe human creatures as created in the “image” of God (Gen. 1:26; Mt. 22:20; Col. 1:15).

A religious icon can be of Christ, the Virgin Mary, an angel, a saint, or an event in the Old or New Testament. It is usually painted on a wooden panel small enough to be portable and placed in ones home. Icons were also made in mosaic, textile, ceramic, fresco and many other materials. They could be large and built into a wall spanning the inside of a church or they could be small enough to hang around someones neck.

The visual language of icons has developed over the centuries. Just as spoken language develops but remains itself, so does the language of icons. The word for this visual language is iconography and to an Orthodox Christian a holy icon is a picture that is made according to the iconography of the Orthodox Church and that has been blessed by an Orthodox priest with fitting prayers. A holy icon is a picture made by a believing craftsman.

OK, I think that’s good enough for now. In the next post I plan to touch on a bit of the history behind icons and iconography.

Grace and peace.

 

 

(1) Linette Martin, Praying with Icons, p.6.

(2) While many Protestants might object to this it is not far from the view of the Eucharist that many Protestants hold. When we say that the Eucharist is a “remembrance” the Greek word used here is anamnesis. This is more than a basic remembering. Rather, it is the making present of a past event. Using this word in reference to the Eucharist we mean to say that Christ’s sacrifice is not a moment locked in time in the early first century. Rather, this is an event which happened in time but which transcends time, and thus is re-presented in the Eucharist.

(3) Martin, p.6.

A Litany of Peace.

 

Let us pray for all who suffer as a result of conflict,

and ask that God may give us peace:

 

for the service men and women who have died in the violence of war,

each one remembered by and known to God;

 

May God give peace

God give peace

 

for those who love them in death as in life,

offering the distress of our grief and the sadness of our loss;

 

May God give peace

God give peace

 

for all members of the armed forces who are in danger this day,

remembering family, friends and all who pray for their safe return;

 

May God give peace

God give peace

 

for civilian women, children and men whose lives are disfigured by war or terror,

calling to mind in penitence the anger and hatreds of humanity;

 

May God give peace

God give peace

 

for peace-makers and peace-keepers,

who seek to keep this world secure and free;

 

May God give peace

God give peace

 

for the Church of God who are gathered by the Suffering Servant,

may we lay down our lives and live in peace with one another and all of God’s good creation;

 

May God give peace

God give peace

for all who bear the burden and privilege of leadership,

political, military and religious;

asking for gifts of wisdom and resolve in the search for

reconciliation and peace.

 

May God give peace

God give peace

O God of truth and justice,

we hold before you those whose memory we cherish,

and those whose names we will never know.

Help us to lift our eyes above the torment of this broken world,

and grant us the grace to pray for those who wish us harm.

As we honour the past, may we put our faith in your future;

for you are the source of life and hope,

now and for ever. Amen.

 

*From the Church of England (with a few small tweaks).

 

I posted last week about some of my pet peeves with children’s bibles, among other things. I’m the father of a 15 month old girl, so this is a new and live topic for my wife and I. At any rate, a few people recommended The Jesus Storybook Bible. I looked it up online and saw that the subtitle was, “Every story whispers his name.” I was immediately impressed at this perceived spiritual reading of scripture and became curious to check it out.

Well, I picked it up today for 40% off (The Anglican Book Centre in Toronto is closing in January, so big sales!). Here is a snippet of how the book begins:

…Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. The Bible certainly does have some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing. It’s about God and what he has done.

Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heros in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times they are downright mean.

No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne — everything — to rescue the one he loves…There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story. The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.

It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story. And at the centre of the Story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers his name. He is like the missing piece in a puzzle — the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together, and suddenly you can see a beautiful picture.

I’m very impressed! What a wonderful beginning! We’ve only read the first few pages, but already this book gets the JT stamp of approval. To all you parents of young ones out here, this is a great resource.