Sunday 25 November - Christ the King - Eucharist - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN’S: Christ the King: 2 Samuel 13.1-7; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37.

‘Poets’, the poet Shelley declared, ‘are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. But at times like the present, when politicians, our acknowledged legislators, are in trouble, can poets really help? It’s difficult to see how, not any longer. Statesmen such as Churchill and Lincoln once rallied their troops and reconciled their nations by skilfully deploying elevated poetic rhetoric: but today, such high sentiments seem doomed to be drowned in a cacophony of tweets and twitters, dog-whistles and catcalls, and the impenetrable jargon of backstops and technical fixes, not to mention fake news and alternative facts. It’s difficult to see how poets can help, not any longer.

It’s difficult to see how poets can help: but perhaps that’s jumping too quickly to a conclusion. It is difficult to see how poets and poetry can help with today’s political problems, at least not directly. But ‘not directly’ perhaps is what poetry is all about, and the deepest political problems we confront today – the problems fundamentally of world peace and social and environmental justice - are our problems, precisely because of what the great poetry of the past has indirectly instilled in human minds and hearts. It goes all the way back to the psalm we sang and the first reading we heard this morning. As a fine Old Testament scholar, Professor Rogerson on Sheffield, has recently written, it ‘was not the great and advanced civilizations of the Ancient World… but a small group of prophets from the tiny and culturally insignificant nation of the Israelites that gave the world [the] precious gift of ethical monotheism’; and these ‘Old Testament prophets were poets’.  

Now ‘ethical monotheism’, of course, may sound rather an abstract term, and little to do with poetry. But what it essentially reflects was a dawning awareness that human existence is not just one ‘nasty, brutish and short’ thing after another, but a life in which we are responsible for one another, and to the One who is responsible for us. In the language of our psalm and first reading, the One to whom the Israelites are responsible, and who is responsible for them, is ‘the Lord’, the ‘God of Jacob’, the ‘God of Israel’ This was not a description of what this One, this God, is: it was, rather, an expression of who, the prophets sensed and trusted, was calling them and the people of Israel, to responsibility for one another; and this awareness of theirs could be expressed only in the intuitive and imaginative language of poetry. What the prosaic language of the outward senses could not describe, only poetic language could evoke, awaken, bring alive in the human mind and heart.

Poetry evokes what prose cannot describe: but the difficulty of this, for many people, is that what poetry evokes cannot then be clearly described: the imaginative and intuitive language of poetry is a matter not of clear and distinct concepts but of a much more indistinct and imperfect awareness, ‘through a glass darkly’, of what our minds can never fully grasp, of what we ‘apprehend’ or reach out to, but can never fully ‘comprehend’ or get our minds round. This is illustrated by the Church’s many attempts to express its indistinct and imperfect spiritual awareness in terms of clear and distinct theological concepts, attempts which have never been entirely successful, except sometimes unhappily by force; and perhaps this also was Pilate’s problem in today’s Gospel, when he was confronted with Jesus. Who was this Jesus who confronted Pilate? The Old Testament prophets might have been very surprised indeed to hear the New Testament writers telling them how much and often their prophecies were about this unknown man from Nazareth: but as the Old Testament scholar I mentioned earlier also points out, the New Testament writers were able to do this because Jesus himself, a Jew steeped in the Old Testament, listened to, learnt from, was guided in his own ministry, and was sustained through his own suffering, by the timeless and profound insights of the poet-prophets who had gone before him. From what the gospels tell us, at first only Jesus himself understood his mission in these terms: his followers up to the time of his death failed to understand; and Pilate perhaps least of all. Pilate’s cynical question, immediately after today’s reading, ‘What is truth?’ demonstrates his failure to understand the truth to which Jesus told him he had come to testify, the truth listened to, Jesus said, by ‘everyone who belongs to the truth’. It was all beyond Pilate, most of all Jesus’ claim that his kingdom was ‘not from this world’. What other kind of kingdom could there be? Or as Stalin no less cynically remarked, ‘How many divisions has the Pope?’

But Stalin died, as had Pilate, and as the poet-priest Malcom Guite has written, about the no less cynical Herod’s massacre of the innocents: ‘But every Herod dies, and comes alone/ To stand before the Lamb upon the throne’. ‘The Lamb upon the throne’: these words come, a few chapters after our second reading this morning, from the Revelation to John, the wild New Testament prophet who took poetry to its most impenetrable extremes, yet sometimes also, as a second century theologian put it, to ‘the hidden depth of the ineffable mysteries, a depth apparent even to the person who does not understand what the text says’. ‘The Lamb upon the throne’ whose ‘kingdom is not from this world’, whose truth is listened to by ‘everyone who belongs to the truth’. These poetic words, I believe, have something essential to say about what I called earlier ‘the deepest political problems we confront today – the fundamental problems of world peace and of social and environmental justice’.  These, I said, are our problems, precisely because of what the great poetry of the past has indirectly instilled in human minds and hearts. The ultimate historical reason why so many people of good will today, and not just Christians, almost automatically assume that the causes of world peace and social and environmental justice are worth struggling, even suffering for, is that the poetry of the Bible has once and forever evoked, awakened in the human imagination, this undefeated dream, this lively hope, that repeatedly rekindles itself out of the ashes of experience.

What the Old Testament prophets and poets proclaimed, has political implications today as in their own time. But the reason why they proclaimed it, was beyond anything political. They saw visions and dreamed dreams of what remains when all political and personal human resources have been exhausted - the LORD, God who could not be named – the reality whom they could never pin down intellectually but somehow knew they could trust.  They knew it, not by external evidence or by human reasoning – except the reasons of the heart which the reason knows nothing of. They knew it by the truth of recognition – recognition like the recognition of being assured and encouraged by the love of another person. The truth Jesus testified to before Pilate, again was the truth of recognition – recognition of the assurance and encouragement of an inexhaustible love at the heart of all things. In the end perhaps, that is what our deepest human nature longs for; and that it is the ultimate truth, is what Jesus invites us to discover, not in theory, but in experience.

What might this experience mean for you and me, in our everyday lives? In the light of all that Jesus taught, we can see that ‘this world’ with which he contrasts his kingdom of truth, refers not only to the world of politics in its more cynical sense, but also to the many ways in which all of us think or act ‘politically’ in our relationships with other people – ‘politically’ in the sense of trying to get the better of them, or manipulate them, or think of ourselves as superior to them.  It is all too easy to think and act in this way, because our human egos are weak, and we tend to boost them, or when we feel low depress them, by comparing ourselves favourably or unfavourably with others. All too often we delude ourselves into thinking that we are different from people whom we are more like than we care to believe. The only remedy for these delusions, Jesus teaches, is to raise our eyes, above our personal political preoccupations, to the realm of truth in which we can come to recognise that we are loved with an unconditional love, by the ultimate reality whom Jesus called ‘Abba, Father’. This is how the reality of truth and love comes to us, not in power but in patience - the all-enduring one, ‘reigning from a Tree’, whose human face is Christ, and in Christ the face of our needy neighbour, who, in the realm of truth, we must learn to love, with all our needy hearts.