Christ the King Sunday Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Psalm 93, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37
Confirmation is a rite in the Church which reflects what the first Apostles did in the book of Acts, when St. Peter went to visit the Samaritans who had received the Gospel and laid hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit
, and when St. Paul met disciples in Ephesus and laid hands on them to receive the Spirit. By no means should it be thought that those who have not been confirmed have not received the Spirit of God, indeed Paul asks the question “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” which indicates that the answer could have been in the affirmative. Rather what we see in the New Testament pattern is that someone who has embarked on the life of faith has their beliefs examined and confirmed by one of the eye-witnesses of Jesus, the Apostles. This practice continues to our day and is one of the ways in which we can be assured that the faith we believe is a true reflection of Biblical faith, and that we can more readily trust others who claim to share our faith.
Certainly doctrinally this Church affirms what is plain in Scripture – that whose who repent and are baptized are filled with the Spirit. Confirmation is not about the individual and God, but about establishing that we have come to understand certain foundational truths of the faith and seek to live in agreement with them, in the community called the Church, which has the local Bishop as its focusing point for unity. Practically, this means that as a confirmed person I can be a full participant at any church in the Anglican communion because my faith has been vouched for by one of its Bishops. The Bishop lays hands on the Christian, praying that they may be filled with the Spirit so that they can step up and serve God’s purposes within the household of God and in the world. Here is a very human ritual of accepting someone as a member, but because the Church is also the body of Christ this act echoes in the unseen realm of spiritual things.
Of course it is the case that there are other churches even in this city who are overseen by different Bishops, our brothers and sisters at St Mary’s Catholic Church or Holy Archangels Orthodox Church, where I would not be invited to receive the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table. The reasons for these divisions within God’s church are frankly far beyond me to fix, and they are indeed the sad consequences of prior generations, but we love them and pray for them, as I hope they do for us. But if God did not use violence to bring us to himself, but rather bore with his people in their many faults in order to bring about the revelation of his Son, Jesus Christ, then we understand that God’s ways are steadfast faithfulness and love enduring a great many sins. I think we can have confidence then that despite the visible fractures of God’s Church, God desires that his people walk as he walked – in steadfast faithfulness to the things we have committed ourselves to, even if by human innovation we believe we could solve all the problems we see before us.
In light of this, I came to understand is that I ought to commit to being a member within God’s church in the place and way in the closest proximity to me. This meant sitting down with the Priest of my local Parish in England and asking him to lead me through Confirmation. As it happens, I was such a precocious student that I was told not to bother attending the class with all the others and instead had a long lunch with Father David where we covered the basics together. I think that was for the sanity of Fr. David as much as it was for mine.
What he did not tell me, and what neither he nor I could know, it how profoundly it would change my life to have the Holy Spirit poured out on me in a unique way on that feast of Christ the King in 2015.
Before I was confirmed, I served in ministry in a non-denominational faith community who would ask me to pronounce the forgiveness of sins, to announce God’s blessing, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper among other pastoral duties. I did well in this service and was well received, yet I knew at the very least that being confirmed would mean I must leave behind these ministries of absolving sins, pronouncing blessing, and presiding at Communion, as these ministries have throughout the global history of the Church been reserved for Priests. See, to kneel before the Bishop and have him lay hands upon me meant that I was ready to surrender my ideas about the way the Church should be, to the reality that God’s Church already has a way-of-life established by the Lord Jesus Christ in his Apostles. Just as Steve did not ordain himself, so too Bishops do not choose themselves but are consecrated by the laying on of hands by a Bishop before them, in a practice which extends back to the New Testament. Paul made Timothy a Bishop not by a letter of commendation or by ensuring he had completed a standard course of instruction, but by the laying on of hands as seen in 2 Tim 1:6. The new life of Christ is not gained by knowledge or work, but by God’s work in us. Ordination of Deacons and Priests, and consecration of Bishops, mirrors this inasmuch as their office comes not from anything they earn or prove, but from the fact that someone gives it to them in God’s name. Confirmation then is another ministry which is conferred by human hands, yet is truly the work of God.
Now if you look in your ESV you will not find the word Bishop. I have no idea why this is the case, as the King James, the Revised Standard and New Revised Standard all agree that ‘episkopous’, which the ESV renders ‘overseer’, ought to be translated ‘Bishop’. Indeed before the Reformation there was no disagreement that the role of ‘overseer’ in the New Testament provides the template and seedling for what later becomes a more recognizable and distinct office of Bishop. I suspect the ESV translation committee are attempting to take a neutral position in an era when many Christian traditions reject this ecclesiological shape of the Church, as ‘episkopous’ can be literally translated as Overseer, but this is not how the Church has historically or globally understood this word, preferring to connect it to the Apostolic line of what have come to be called in English, Bishops. I suspect also that this rejection of tradition is rooted deep within the consciousness of Western society.
And yet this suspicion of stories and ways of being which do not attempt to win over our understanding has left many of us without any story at all. Many people are thrust into the world having never been told who they are or where they come from, encouraged that they will find their way if they just use their brains and think rationally and skeptically. They are told that they should make up their own story if they need one, or choose something which seems vaguely plausible to them. Yet the problem is that if we only accept as binding on ourselves what we can comprehend, we will quickly shake it off the moment our lives begin to feel incomprehensible. We are a people who have been tasked with having faith, which I suspect means at least that we should be faithful to the story and traditions of God’s people as we discern what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this time before he comes to make all things new.
By receiving the rite of Confirmation I at least knew that I was surrendering to the shape and practice of the Christian faith as defined by the unbroken line of Bishops who gain their authority not from earning, or being the smartest, or the most charismatic, but from the fragile vessel of another human being who lays hands on them with Christ’s authority and in his name; in particular the Church of England, whose spiritual daughter Redeemer is. I knelt before Bishop Alan, and in doing so I was kneeling before a reality I could not escape – that God’s Church was begun with a certain form which I could no longer find any excuse not to accept. In truth, my surrender to the global and historic shape of the Church is a surrender to the Kingship of Jesus Christ, who is seated at the right hand of God the Father and has dominion over all things.
This decision is not without uncomfortable consequences. I have many friends in pastoral ministry in other traditions with whom I can no longer share fellowship at the Lord’s Table, whose assurances or admonitions I cannot unquestioningly accept, whose ministry I cannot receive without big caveats and exceptions. For me, surrendering to the lordship of Christ means that whether I like someone, or agree with them, has little bearing on whether or not I should follow their lead. It means that when I don’t prefer something Steve decides, or misunderstand him on some matter, that in spite of this I have agreed to follow his direction as my Priest and Rector. I follow him not because I think he’s more doctrinally correct than me, or smarter than me, or because I desire his approval, but rather because he has been granted the right and authority to perform the ministry of Word and Sacrament, which is to say directing the teaching, mission, and worship of this Parish, by the laying on of hands by Bishop Julian.
You may have noticed that our Liturgy has undergone some subtle changes over the past year or so. Again, this is not because Steve and I like it better this way or that way, but because we are bound to worship using forms and orders commended to us by our Bishop. I knelt before a Bishop of God’s Church, who has been given the Apostolic mantle from the first Disciples of Jesus Christ and so I turned my back on the belief that being a Disciple of Jesus was a matter of private decision and individual preference, acknowledging that fundamentally we Christians are members not of a democracy or republic, but rather a Kingdom.
This feast, Christ the King, is a witness in our fragmented and violent world, that all things are ruled and ordered by Christ, and it is an invitation that if we should lay aside our pride and false beliefs in our independence, that we would find that we have awoken from a dreadful nightmare into a kingdom which is not of this world. The feast of Christ the King is a punctuating moment in the liturgical year, when we celebrate that all things will be brought into gentle and peaceful order under his kindly rule. Pilate asks Jesus whether he was the King of the Jews, and Jesus responds that his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world, where those who are loyal to a ruler would fight against other nations to prove the superiority of their cause. No, rather Jesus does not gain his kingship from the assent of the people, or from violence, or from fear, but rather he is king because he is the Son of God and first born from among the dead. The Christ who accepted death rather than summoning his disciples to fight for him is the one who God chose to exalt as King above all, and we ought to bear this in mind when we consider what it means to follow authority or to weild it.
Christ the King is a relatively new feast in the life of God’s Church, having been commended to the Church by Pope Pius 11th in 1925, during an era when the world was rapidly changing. Fascism and Nationalism were on the ascendancy with sophisticated modern Nation-States affirming that the government should have total control over their people, that the state should never be questioned or opposed, ideas which would lead to decades of misery in many places. In the midst of this God’s people were called to remember that all authority comes from Christ, and to Christ will all rulers answer. This feast is a reminder to the Church that we are not of this world, and reminds us that whichever way we see our society going, no matter what governments say, that all these things will be and are now being brought into obedience to King Jesus, the King who uses no violence to get his way but rather dies for his people to give them life.
The Apostle John warns that when every eye beholds the royal majesty of Jesus, all the tribes of the earth will cry out. This is the cry of the old things passing away, the divisions between nations and tribes, and the cry of all who profit by them when they realize that they have opposed the rule of Christ in vain and foresee the end of their fiefdoms and empires. Let us today be attentive to see all within ourselves which is set against God’s Kingdom, and let us mourn and celebrate it’s passing, for soon we will begin the season of Advent when we are confronted by the coming of Christ in humility and glory. It is not without cost that we kneel before God and follow his Christ, but let us remember his kindly patience with us and all the world. Even so, let us seek to conform our lives to the ways of Jesus Christ. For me this meant receiving the laying on of hands by a Bishop in Confirmation. When I did this I recognized the reality that I belonged to a people who were not defined by tribe, nation, language, race, gender, sexuality, or socio-economic status, but by the Lord Christ who died for them. If we who are baptized into Christ have become citizens of an other-worldly Kingdom which is destined to outlast all others, let us shrug off with haste any other claim to allegiance or identity we may have. Let us instead set as our first identity that of Christ as members of his global, multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-faceted, kingdom of Priests in the service of the world which is to come. And let us consider again drawing closer to the ways and forms of God’s Church as set forth in Scripture and practiced throughout the world. We Christians are known as a people who follow a king, not a people who follow our own opinions, after all.