Christ the King: "Seeing the World Differently"

The Revd Brutus Green


“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

Religious or spiritual knowledge is not like other kinds of knowledge. When we think of knowledge generally we think of lists of facts, all the species of birds, capital cities of the world, Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics.  There is very good reason to be wary of building up lists of facts as the basis of religious knowledge. Even creeds serve more as boundary markers than foundations, and from the beginning creeds have been used more to cut people out than to help them be faithful. When I was at university I worked for the Anglican chaplaincy. At the time I went along to a postgraduate Christian Union bible study. At the beginning of the year I suggested we run a drinks evening together, just a social event. They got back to me and said they could not “work” with me unless I signed their “doctrinal statement”. It was full of bad theology so I wouldn’t sign it. The drinks party didn’t happen.

But religious education should be more like training us how to see, than making a list of what is there.

So when St Paul prays that the Ephesians should have a spirit of wisdom and revelation, he is not praying that they learn more or memorize more scripture but that the eyes of their hearts are enlightened. This is in full agreement with Jesus’ most popular manner of teaching. The essence of parables is that they are fictional, made up. In a propositional or factual sense they add nothing. Their purpose, though, is to change the way we look at the world.

St Paul sets out the aim of this transformation - that ‘with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for those who believe.’

The aim of transformation, the purpose of spiritual knowledge, is to know the hope to which we are called, and the riches and power that we already possess. Not to know it in the sense of accepting it as a fact. But knowing it as a life-changing reality that determines our priorities in this life. Not knowing it like we know that the Earth goes round the sun, but knowing it like knowing we love our family. A knowledge that becomes part of who we are, but which we also need to continually remind ourselves of in order not to let it be obscured. A knowledge which can surprise uswith its strength, or by a sudden shift change in its intensity. A knowledge which has a significant impact on our day to day living.

So how do we come to know more of this hope to which we are called? These riches we’ve inherited? The greatness of his power?

There is only one way. Prayer. By this I don’t mean that five minutes before we fall asleep when we run through the things we really need to happen in our life, nor the intercessions in church when we set out the goals that we communally share as the body of Christ. I might mean something more like those moments when a cold shiver goes down our spine and we wonder what on earth we’re doing; or when someone’s just broken our heart, or when we’re asking ourselves if a relationship’s working out; or when a midlife, or quarterlife crisis has hit us and we’re reassessing where our life is and whether we want to be there. Or just five minutes that we give ourselves during the day, at a chapel, in a park, when we stop being continually busy and look good and hard at ourselves.

These are moments, often only very few, when we are really attentive to who we are and open to making changes. It was for this reason that St Ignatius insisted that all Jesuits make the examen twice a day - something that all people could greatly benefit from - at least doing at the end of each day.

There are five steps to the examen:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.

2. Review the day with gratitude.

3. Pay attention to your emotions.

4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.

5. Look toward tomorrow.

If we take time to be aware of God’s presence and review the day with gratitude we will find ourselves more and more attuned to finding God in the everyday, of seeing our own riches, of taking control of our future and keeping our minds attentive to the hope we have been given. We can do this at any point. Last thing at night, while we’re eating dinner, while we’re out running, or taking a walk. Anytime that we have a few minutes to concentrate and be attentive to ourselves.

But often we still get stuck, trapped within expectations, frameworks of seeing the world, established patterns, generally held beliefs about how the world, how people, how we ourselves operate. This is where parables can break through our preconceptions to offer alternative ways of seeing the world, and a glimmer of truth that cracks open our received wisdom.

Today’s Gospel attempts something of this. Christ’s kingship is always ironic. He is the broken king with a crown of thorns on a cross above which is written “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. Here he is the figure of judgement differentiating between the good and the bad. But he is only manifested as this figure of power because he is identified with ‘the least of these’, the least of the family of Christ. The parable reminds us that human and divine power are quite different. That the judgement of divine power comes from where human power is least on display. We are measured not by the riches and power of the world but by our charity and care of others.

But this is not a puritanical drive towards austerity and selflessness; but to say that actually if we cultivate our generosity we will discover in it a great richness. That if we allow ourselves more and more to love, we will discover it as a source of transformative power.

The parable is also remarkable by the surprise of both the sheep and the goats. Neither of them recognise Christ. Neither of them is actually aware of how they are serving God. The Gospel writer’s church undoubtedly would have encountered prejudice and persecution. What is inclusive in the parable is that it is not whether the people under judgement are Christian or not, but how they treat these least members of Christ’s family. Matthew here is challenging us to see salvation as intrinsically caught up in our ability to care for one another and our recognition of the need of our neighbours.

There are a myriad ways in which we protect ourselves from truth. As T.S Eliot said ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’. Accumulating religious knowledge is sometimes one of those ways. St Paul exhorts us to receive the gift of wisdom and revelation - which is not more knowledge but the gift of seeing the world as it is. This can be a very difficult and a very painful thing.

Today’s Gospel tells us that, counter-intuitively, where we see poverty we should see Christ; where we find generosity we should see riches; where we find weakness and vulnerability, there we will find power and judgement. If we run at life headlong, full of busy-ness, we will not notice this, inhibited by the prejudice of habit, in thought, word and deed, we will stop noticing Christ. But prayer is a liberation. Prayer gives us the space to reassess, to engage in slow thinking, to discern the presence of Christ in ourselves and in the many needs of the world. Prayer teaches us wisdom and shows us revelation. It brings us riches and power and it leads us to the hope to which he has called us.

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”