I am sure that you know as well as I do the rather profound children’s story about King Midas. King Midas was a very greedy king. Even though he was very rich he always craved for more and more. Nothing was ever enough for him. One day, he called his court magician and commanded him to manufacture a spell that would be able to get him even more treasure than he already had. Later, according to the story, the magician returned. “Your majesty,” he said, “I can give you a power that no one else in this world has. Anything that you touch will turn into gold.”
Of course the king was delighted with his good fortune. Everything he touched turned into gold. He turned trees, grass, tables, chairs, flowers, and vases into gold. He thought that he must be the richest man in the world. But that evening, when he sat down for supper, King Midas was in for a shock! As he touched the spoon for his soup it turned to gold, as he touched his bread that turned to gold as well. Tired and hungry, he had to go to bed on a hard gold mattress, with golden sheets because he touched those as well. It was not quite what he had intended. But King Midas was too greedy to be sad about it.
The next morning, the king’s daughter ran to hug her father. But alas, before the king had time to think about it, the moment that she kissed him, she turned into a golden statue too! King Midas, who loved his daughter very much. was very sad, and he ran to the magician for help. He cried, “Please help me, O Magician! I don’t want to be rich anymore. I only want my beloved daughter back.” Like all good children’s stories the magician used his magic powers to restore everything to how it had been before, and the King was never greedy again.
I said last Sunday, on the first Sunday of the Kingdom Season as we near the end of this Christian year, that sometimes when we think of monarchies, of kings and queens and princes, we have in our minds stories of people and situations that are synonymous with the grabbing and holding of power, and with the kind of injustice that only benefits themselves. That is not automatically the case, but throughout history it has often been true. I should also have said that there have been many examples of kings and queens throughout history who have governed wisely and justly, with a concern for the poor. But when we think of kings and queens throughout history, we think more often of their opulence and power, their castles and palaces, rather than their service of others.
Later in this Eucharist on this Second Sunday of the Kingdom Season we will sing a beautiful Easter hymn that gives quite a different vision of kingship. Graham Kendrick, the hymn writer’s words powerfully speak of a different kind of kingship. Listen to the familiar words that we will sing: “this is our God the servant king, he calls us now to follow him, to give our lives as a daily offering, of worship to the Servant King.”
In both our Epistle and Gospel readings today this theme of being at the service of others is uppermost in the minds of the writers. The writers to the Church in Thessalonica urges those first Christians to not be idle, “do not be weary” they say, “in doing what is right.” In our Gospel reading Jesus exhorts those who will follow him to be willing to make a defence for the Gospel, not in their own strength, but utterly dependent and in the power of the Holy Spirit. To be, through their lives, a witness to this kingdom of service. Jesus’ warnings are clear, those of us who follow him, and live lives of service in this way will risk being hated and persecuted. This is the not the pathway to power and wealth and control that comes from hanging around in the Court of any normal king.
As I was pondering these texts during the last few days, in this Kingdom Season, where we continue to wear the red vestments that remind us of the blood shed by our King Jesus, and those martyrs who have followed in his Way, it occurred to me that the origins of this season of the Kingdom, when we reflect on the Kingship of Christ, help us to remember these priorites: because the Kingdom Season is not an old celebration, it is a festival which was inaugurated relatively recently by Pope Pius XI in 1925.
It is worth remembering what was going on in European history in the 1920s which influenced the Pope’s decision to proclaim this festival. In the 1920s in Europe there were three significant movements developing all of which caught the attention of, and brought concern to the Church. The first was the rise of Stalin in Russia; the second was the rise to power of Mussolini in Italy, who had come to prominence after the First World War, which was causing great concern because gradually under Mussolini, the laws and regulations in Italy were becoming stricter and tighter, to the point that Mussolini’s true nature as a dictator was becoming clear. At the same time as these two great movements were emerging in Russia and Italy, further over in Germany, the Nazi movement (a political and military movement) was also coming to prominence.
It is often conveniently forgotten by those of us who are committed to the life of the Church, that Hitler began many of his speeches with words from the Bible.
He often held an old black tattered Bible in his hand when he spoke at rallies. His language was overtly religious, it appealed to the National Church in Germany which supported him, and it appealed as well to ordinary Germans who saw him as the one who had been called by God to lead their nation out of its post-war troubles.
Hitler spoke as one who had the whole weight of history on his shoulders and who was about to bring about monumental change for good. And yet we know how devastating his leadership proved to be, not just for Europe but for the whole world.
So for the Church in the 1920s there was an overarching concern that the leaders who were coming to prominence in Europe, regardless of their rhetoric, were not providing healthy models of Christian leadership as found in the life of Christ. They were movements which were essentially fuelled by fear and greed, and not by love. The Church, looking at the leaders of its day knew that it needed a more powerful image to help people from being sucked in to this rhetoric, and it looked no further than the image of Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe, the one who’s kingship was greater than any earthly leader, and who’s reign was more majestic than any earthly power.
The Church held up those ideals against the leaders which it saw around it, and it realised that there needed to be a central feast to promote the Kingdom of Jesus, in opposition to what was going on in the kingdoms of the world; and so the Kingdom Season, leading to the Feast of Christ the King was created by the Roman Catholic Church in 1925 and accepted soon after by other traditions as well, including the Anglican Church, which is why it is in our calendar: because the Reign of Christ is a constant challenge to all other reigns of power, including our own thirst and longing for power over others.
For Pope Pius IX in his context in the 1920s it was Stalin and Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, but in our context – here and now – there will be world leaders who try to persuade others that living in fear is actually living in freedom. And the image of Christ the servant king of love, the model for all leaders will shine a light which will reveal the truth in such situations.
The cartoonist Michael Leunig says this: “there are only two feelings. Love and fear. There are only two languages. Love and fear. There are only two activities. Love and fear. There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results. Love and fear. Love and fear.”
In the 1920s that was what the Reign of Christ was about, the reign of love in place of the movements of fear which were developing across Europe. And for us that is what the Kingship of Jesus continues to mean today. We celebrate a kingdom in which love advances and through which fear is banished. We put aside crowns of gold in favour of crowns of thorns. We put aside images of thrones, and replace them with the bare wood of the cross. The Kingship of Christ challenges how we perceive every kingdom, every power and authority on earth; and it orientates us back to the heart of the life of Jesus – this stark contrast – to live in loving service, and not to live in systems that generate fear.
Last week (as we began to focus on the Kingship of Christ), we celebrated that Jesus is the eternal king of glory. Today we celebrate no less, that Jesus is the servant king of love. There are only two feelings. Love and fear: the Kingdom of God is love. There are only two languages. Love and fear: the kingship of Jesus is love. There are only two activities. Love and fear: the reign of Christ is love. There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results. Love and fear. Love and fear. “This is our God the Servant King, he calls us now to follow him, to give our lives as a daily offering, of worship to the Servant King.”
Today brothers and sisters, on this second weekend in the Kingdom Season, we celebrate the servant king of love, and we ask for the help of his Spirit that we will have the strength to continue to fashion our lives to follow in his footsteps.