Christ The King :: Daniel 7:9, 10, 13, 14 :: John 18:33-37
This Sunday (25th November) I want us to take some time to think about imagination, and the role imagination plays in God’s world and in God’s love for the world.
Imagine that it is the 1960s and that you – as old as you are today – had lived all your life in the Deep South. It might very well be impossible for you to imagine a society where there was no racial segregation, and certainly to imagine a society where there was no racial segregation as being a good thing. Martin Luther King had a dream: and that dream, that had taken hold of his imagination, took hold of other people’s imagination and became their dream.
Walter Brueggemann wrote “The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing…Every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep conjuring and proposing alternative futures.”
Next Sunday (2nd December) marks the start of the liturgical new year. The rhythm of changing seasons is the means by which our shared lives experience colour and texture. A world without logic and reason would be frightening; but a world with only logic and reason would be terribly small and monochrome. As our imagination is shaped by God’s Story, our actions come to reflect and participate in that Story, and take a stand against the other devouring stories – such as capitalism, or individualism, or positivism – that clamour for our imagination:
It starts with Advent, a season of preparing our lives for Jesus’ return. That is to say, in Jesus, God has begun something that will also be completed in Jesus, and until then we are to live as if what has been begun has already been brought to completion. If then there will be harmony and not discord, we are to live as those brought into harmony. And every year we return to Advent, in order to have that future orientation recalibrated in us.
Advent is followed by Christmas, twelve days of celebration as we remember Jesus’ coming into our world as one of us, light shining in the darkness.
Christmas is followed by Epiphany, where we are reminded that there are signs of Jesus’ coming into the world, signs to be observed and interpreted and acted upon; a season where we can practice that seeking in our own context.
Epiphany is followed by Lent, where we go with Jesus into the wilderness, into the solitary place where God is to be met, where character is tried and tested, where the call of God on our lives is affirmed.
Lent is followed by Passiontide, where we approach, again, the moment in history where humanity passes judgement on God and – as those who exist only because God, out of love not necessity, caused us to exist – in so doing ironically pass judgement on ourselves.
Passiontide is followed by Easter, forty days of trying to imagine the unimaginable, that God has overturned our judgement on ourselves, our self-destruction; has revealed the cross to be a tree of life and throne of grace.
Easter is followed by Pentecost, where we are reminded that we are made alive by the breath of God; led, sustained, comforted, empowered, instructed by the Spirit of God breathed-into the Body of Christ.
Pentecost is followed by Trinity, a long season of knowing God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – in the ordinariness of our daily lives: in the joys and sorrows, the victories and the defeats.
Trinity is followed by All Saints, where we are reminded that we are part of a work of God that transcends and yet is imminent within every tribe and tongue and age on earth and in heaven, these two realms which are being brought together in Jesus who is not Lord-of-Heaven and Lord-of-Earth but Lord-of-Heaven-and-Earth.
And All Saints, and indeed the entire church year, culminates with the Feast of Christ the King, where we are invited to participate in the trial of Jesus. Is this man deserving of death, or king? And depending on our judgement, we are then invited to join in Advent – in living in the light of his return – or washing our hands of the matter.
Daniel has a vision. In it he sees the heavenly courtroom, the trial of the son of man. God, the Ancient of Days, takes his place on a throne of judgement. But there are other thrones: God chooses to act in community, to involve others. The case for the prosecution is made, by the representatives of the kingdoms of the world. The son of man is a representative figure – in the way dreams have of not being logical and literal, but symbolic – who stands for God’s people. And, having listened to the proceedings, God passes the verdict of those sat on the thrones: reign with me.
John also presents us with a symbolic trial. It would appear to be the trial of Jesus before Pilate; but really it is the trial of Jesus before God and before the listener (remember those other thrones?). It would appear that the accusation is brought by the representatives of God’s people; but really they speak as representatives of the kingdoms of the world. The son of man is Jesus; but Jesus as true representative of God’s people; really, Jesus and his servants, those he now calls his friends. And God passes the verdict of those sat on the thrones: be glorified (that is, lifted up on the cross).
Of all the feast days of the Church, the Feast of Christ the King is the most recent. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in the context of Mussolini’s messianic claims to power, to help Christians live out their allegiance to our heavenly King. On the surface, it might look as if Mussolini was passing judgement on Jesus and on his servants before God and the whole world, but the reality behind events was that the co-defendants were also sat on the panel of judges. Of course, logic and reason can’t handle being co-defendant and judge at one and the same time; but here we are in the territory of truth that surpasses logic; that even surpasses our imagination, and so stretches our imagination.
You see, it is a feast that helps us, not an argument. It is an apologetic of finest bread and wine, not of fine words.
We live in a society that rejects the claim that Christ is King, a society where there are many representative voices throwing accusation after accusation at Jesus and his people. And this vision of a courtroom is rich: at one and the same time we are invited to stand with Jesus in the face of his accusers; we are challenged to speak before the world as a witness for the defence; we find ourselves wondering whether we are called to be a defence lawyer, and whether we are competent (we aren’t competent, and no defence lawyer is required, as Jesus was almost silent in his trials); our conscience is interrogated as to whether we are, in fact, a witness for the prosecution; and we are encouraged by the revelation that we are also seated with the Ancient of Days and the Lamb (who, with the son of man, are themselves conflated in the Revelations shown to John).
“The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing…Every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep conjuring and proposing alternative futures.”
Please don’t be afraid of the imagination, or belittle it; don’t be deceived into believing that logic and reason are more effective, give us some short-cut in following Jesus or in helping others to follow him too. Don’t worry about Having the Right Answers, or being able to explain the church to the world. But do step into the Story, into the seasons by which we tell and retell the Story. And do invite others to walk on the way and to sit at the table with us as we watch and listen and imagine and dream into being.