Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King and Baptism of Oliver Housley by Kenneth Padley 24th November 2019.
Readings Jeremiah 23.1-6; Luke 23.33-43.
The year 2019 marks the anniversaries of two major endeavours in human exploration and discovery. Most obviously, there was the first manned trip to the moon fifty years ago by Neil Armstrong and his colleagues. 4 days out, two and a half hours on the surface, 4 days back, 250,000 miles each way.
No less significant but rather less celebrated was the five hundredth anniversary this year of a voyage which left the port of Seville on 20th September 1519. Five ships and 270 men commanded by Ferdinand Magellan set sail with the goal of becoming the first humans to travel around the world. For Magellan, the mission ended in failure; he was killed by uppity natives in the Philippines. However, three years later, Juan Sebastian Elcano limped home to Spain with one ship and 18 survivors. Drink and the devil had done for the rest but what an extraordinary achievement. The circumnavigation proved that the world was spherical and that human influence might pervade the entire planet.
And so we set our sights on new horizons. Might we land on Mars? Might we head further into the solar system? What frontiers and conquests lie ahead of our species? Are there any limits to where we can boldly go? And, as we reflect on such potential, what role might Oliver Housley play in the future of humankind?
The excitement of these possibilities was brought to life last month in the glorious Space Voyage sound and light installation in the Cathedral. Images of planets and stars and whole galaxies were projected onto the external elevation of the west end. What really struck me was the interplay between the celestial imagery and the giant canvas of stone and glass behind it. In particular, we could see the carved cross atop the main porch standing proud in the middle of the revolving scene. It was a strikingly powerful image, the cross at the centre of the universe.
It is the same idea which lies at the heart of this feast of Christ the King at the culmination of the Church year. Indeed, the same message pervades the whole Bible. The cross is at the centre of all things, all time and space.
And what a very odd idea it is, that a means of barbaric execution, reserved by Romans for punishing slaves and the worst of crimes, should become the place where God’s plan finds completion and victory. And what very odd things this does to our concepts of kingship, and glory, of power and purpose. Hands that flung stars into space to cruel nails surrendered.
As we heard in the gospel text, Jesus hung on the cross under an inscription which pronounced him ‘King of the Jews’. It was, of course, derision by those who feared that Jesus was a threat to their power. Had he not spoken of the coming ‘Kingdom of God’? And so they sought to ridicule this claim through a humiliating and agonising death. By stringing up Jesus on the town rubbish dump, his opponents thought they had firmly ended his idea of God’s kingdom. Even his disciples seemed to agree. They ran away. Only a handful of brave female followers remained loyal.
Given this, what must the penitent thief have seen in the man hanging beside him? Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. When everyone else had given up, and as his own life seeped away, here was a man who still found faith in Jesus and God’s kingdom. Here was a man who placed his trust in the most improbable of hopes, that the dying man beside him might make a difference.
The penitent thief was clear that Jesus was not going to get them off their crosses. That was the misunderstanding of the first criminal: ‘save yourself and us’ was the mockery of that man. Rather, I’d like to suggest that what the penitent thief saw in Jesus was something of innocence and unfairness. We are getting our just deserts; but this man has done nothing wrong.
In that innocence the penitent thief knew that Jesus was different. He was the embodiment of that perfect, divine justice read to us from the prophet Jeremiah. ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.’
And, somehow, the penitent thief knew that the justice which Jesus embodied transcended and transformed the ways of the world. He saw in Jesus the hope of a different world. Just so in reply, Jesus promised a different world. ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’. Literally, Paradise means ‘garden’ or ‘park’. Specifically, we are talking here about the Garden of Eden, that primeval mythical land from which Adam and Eve were driven by their mistakes. In telling the criminal that they will rest in Paradise, Jesus says they will enjoy that perfection where everything is in its God-given balance.
Jesus on the cross is thus the mirror-image of Adam. We don’t need to accept Adam as a historical figure for this to be true. Adam is metaphor for the failings in each of us. By accepting all the unfairness which the world threw at him, Jesus undid sin and reopened Paradise, the potential for unrestricted loving relationship with God.
This mirror-imaging is what an early Church bishop, Irenaeus, called ‘recapitulation’. The Paradise Lost in Adam’s sin is the Paradise Regained in Christ’s defeat of sin. Just so, the wood of the cross recalls and undoes the wood of the tree of knowledge in Eden. ‘O wisest love! That flesh and blood, / Which did in Adam fail, / Should strive again against their foe, / Should strive and should prevail.’
What does all this mean for us and for young Master Housley in particular? I think it is something about the importance of faith. Faith was all that the penitent thief could offer to Jesus. There was nothing he could do or give that could win anything from him. Likewise, however clever we are as individuals and a species, able to sail around the world and reach to the stars, we cannot win God’s affections because we remain marred by our own inner Adam.
The cleansing waters of baptism are an outward and visible sign of the inward washing which we receive from God through faith. That is why the contract which we will shortly make, as parents godparents and congregation, to nurture Oliver’s growth in Christian holiness is vital. Nobody can be forced into faith but together we can put into Oliver’s hands the resources and examples which will encourage him on his lifelong walk with God. And as we trace the cross on the centre of his forehead, we are reminded that it is nothing less than the centre of the universe.