25/11/18 Christ the King 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
(Daniel 7.9-10,13,14) Revelation 1.4b-8 John 18.33-37a
‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred’. C P Scott wrote that well known line in his 1921 essay to mark the centenary of the Manchester Guardian. I quote it in a short piece I’ve recently written for the ‘Christian Comment’ column of the Chronicle. I make the point that, for an editor, such a column isn’t the sacred part, the holy corner of the paper. The Chronicle’s saints should be its reporters who tell the truth of what has happened. Their job is to establish the facts.
Not that the division between fact and comment is altogether clear cut. It would be correct to tell you that there are 700m people in the world living in ‘extreme poverty’ (under $1.9/day). It would also be true to say that the number of people living in extreme poverty peaked in 1970 and has since reduced by 80%. Each fact on its own may make us, respectively, pessimistic or optimistic about current economic policies. Our choice of facts is itself a comment.
We hear a lot about fake news but I worry more about half news. We cherish the facts which support our opinions and prejudices, and find it hard to be open to uncomfortable truths which unsettle our thinking. One reason why the level of political debate is so poor at present is that often each side of an argument is looking at a different set of facts.
‘Truth is the first casualty of war’. That’s a much older quote going all the way back to Aeschylus in the 5th century BC. Truth is a casualty, not just in physical war but in wars of words, in battles of ideas, in a dispute such as Brexit. In any conflict where priority is given to winning power or territory rather than establishing the truth.
Pontius Pilate was a politician, concerned above all with maintaining imperial power and thereby his own position within that system. Jesus of Nazareth was a political problem. So Pilate asks his famous question, ‘What is truth?’ He’s not being philosophical. He’s being dismissive. He’s evading the truth in front of him. He’s not going to be drawn into more conversation because for his purposes some truth is better not known.
If you want to hold on to the control and security you have, don’t talk to Jesus. If you want to remain settled in your ways and opinions, in your world view and the company you’re comfortable with, don’t expose yourself to too much truth.
It comes down to which kingdom you want to belong to. This world is full of kingdoms. I don’t just mean kingdoms like the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I mean all those domains where power is held and territory defended, from nation states all the way to towns and churches and workplaces and families. And then there is the kingdom of Christ, a kingdom, which Jesus said, is not of this world.
A kingdom which, if it were from this world, Jesus said, my followers would be fighting to protect it, fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But the point of Christ’s kingdom is truth. ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’.
Let’s be clear what’s being said here. It’s not just that it is a principle of this kingdom that you don’t fight. It’s not just that it doesn’t look good, that it doesn’t fit with the values of this kingdom if its power and authority is upheld by violence. It’s rather that it cannot be defended by violence. It’s a logical nonsense.
It would be a little like fighting to establish that 6 + 7 = 13. Imagine if the church were divided over that and we had the 6 + 7 = 12 party and the 6 + 7 = 13 party. Would a fight be a good way to work out which should prevail? That would be absurd.
Similarly, Christ’s authority is beyond all earthly struggle and competition because he is the truth and the source of all truth. Christ doesn’t come to the world with an alternative set of ideas, a new way of seeing the world that needs to establish itself, and win arguments, and gain ground.
If there is any truth in any sphere of earthly endeavour, whether in politics, science, justice, religion, the arts, or even in saying 6 + 7 = 13, then that is because all such truth is a participation in the fullness of truth who is Jesus Christ.
The kingdom of Christ is therefore not advanced by gaining ground. It is a truth to be recognised and acknowledged. It’s not a power to be established, as if Christ is in competition with other powers. Christ is your King, however much or little you accept it. He is the source, the authority, of all that you are. He is your truth. Many people can tell true things about you – the doctor, your family, colleagues, yourself, scientists. But the whole truth is only found in Christ.
Christ is King of St Mary’s. He’s King of Nantwich and Cheshire East. All this is very liberating. The last thing we are about as a church is gaining ground, competing with other groups.
Don’t get me wrong. I would love more people in this town to see that Christ is King, and to come to St Mary’s as a place where you may grow in that faith. But Christ is not more or less King according to how big or small St Mary’s is. We’re not building a kingdom for Christ. We’re telling the good news that he is already crowned king over all. We want people to know that because ultimately the truth about ourselves is not something to be afraid of. The truth sets us free.
That means we should not be anxious about the strength of the church, or the place of Christianity in society, or how much people recognise the true meaning of Christmas, or whether bishops remain in the House of Lords, or whether the National Trust use BC and AD for dates.
Inherited Christian culture is losing ground but Christ is losing no ground. He is the ground. Our faith should not be greater or smaller according to how successful the church is. What we believe is not more or less true depending on how many people believe it. If this magnificent building were to crumble tomorrow we’d be upset, but the kingdom would be completely untouched.
Also, just as Christ’s kingdom is not in competition with any earthly domain, so the truth of Christ’s kingdom is not established by any earthly standards. What I mean is this. There are many ideas for how we should establish truth. A still dominant one in our time is that it can be demonstrated by the methods of scientific and empirical enquiry. Another is that it passes the tests of historical investigation. Another is whether it feels true for oneself.
When it comes to our faith we may use all of those, but they are never enough. If Christ is himself the truth in its absolute fullness then we can’t put him under the microscope of our tests. Tests which are only ever limited and which only examine limited kinds of truth.
That’s another area where we can fall into the trap of thinking that God can be defended or needs to be defended. The powers of this world will often want to control the means by which truth is established. That is also true in the battle of ideas. Different philosophies set different rules. And as Christians we can go along with it if we think we somehow have to prove the truth of Christ – whether by science or history or claims for personal experience, or even by making the text of the Bible a more fundamental source of truth than Christ.
Many of these things can lead us to Christ. But this morning we stand before him. And like Pilate we have a choice. We can remain the judge, as he did, applying our tests and criteria, or even dismissing the truth. Or we can accept that before this King, I can only stand and face the whole truth. A truth that grasps no power but only gives itself in love, as Christ gave himself on the cross. A truth that won’t leave you or your opinions and attitudes the same, but a truth that sets you free.