The Christian Year is marked by two bookends, one at the beginning and the other at the end. It begins with the first Sunday of Advent, which is of course next week. Advent looks forward to both the coming of Christ, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, and also to the end of time when all things will be brought to fulfillment, which we express in the phrase “Christ will come again”. That final hope is also held today, at the end of the Christian year, with the feast of Christ the King. This is when we celebrate and mark that the Kingdom of God is a reality now, this is God’s world, God’s creation, and all things are subject his just and gentle rule. We can have confidence and trust that whatever happens to us personally and more widely in the world, there is reason to have hope. Ultimately the life we have now is provisional; its lasting value is only to be found in the love and grace of God, which will bring all things to fulfillment in Christ.
Interestingly, this provisionality and fragility of the life we have now was recognized in the court judgment on the case of ‘JS (Disposal of Body)‘ which was in the press this week. This concerned a teenager who asked for her body to be preserved through cryogenics after her death from a rare form of cancer, until some future date when she could live again. The court judgment actually said that this was already allowable under the law, but this case came to court because her parents did not agree and the person concerned was only 14 years old. In the judgment there is a statement that a body is not an item of property. It does not belong to anyone and cannot be left in a will. In law we do not own our bodies and neither does anyone else. We can express our preference for what we would like to happen when we die, but it is down to our executors to achieve what they can and to make arrangements for “proper disposal”, a phrase which has itself changed over time. The judgment was on who, which of the parents that is, would have the power to determine and make the arrangements given that they disagreed on what should happen.
The judge also referred to cryogenics as being a “speculative science”, given that it is a process which looks to an unknown solution to the problem of death. It relies on scientific procedures which are not yet known, if they exist at all as a future possibility, to reanimate cells and therefore the life which has ceased. There have been some interesting questions raised about what it means to reanimate the cells and bring back ‘life’. What does it mean to be a person of memories and relationships, environment and context when we are reanimated in an unknown future with none of our current setting? The desire to live is contextually based and rooted. We are persons in community and relationship; we are not persons in isolation. It is one of the confusions of our time where we forget this or it is diminished in various ways. So the level of dislocation which a reanimated person would feel several centuries in the future is likely to be significant and possibly unhealthily so. It also assumes the memories would survive, like in Dennis Potter’s 1996 film Cold Lazarus, where a head is cryogenically preserved and the memories accessed in the future. In Potter’s film the preserved head becomes distressed when it is woken or reanimated at its state. Persons are persons in community and relationship, and memory functions in that context too.
The bible readings chosen for this celebration of Christ the King give us a real person in community and relationship. We are not given a remote figure who issues commands and exercises some kind of celestial magic power. Even miracles, whatever lies behind these stories, involve the elements as we know them. The raisings, the bringing of the dead back to life, which could be seen as a kind of cryogenic outcome, involve the body we have in front of us coming to life again and rejoining the context it knew and is known in. The resurrection is a future event into a very different reality and a different context with different ways of relating, which I talked about a couple of weeks ago with the story of the unfortunate woman with 7 dead husbands. The Epistle reading, then, this morning gave us the hymn celebrating Christ as the image of God among us, in a real context and web of relationships, and the peace that comes is brought through the cross (Colossians 1:11-20). The Gospel reading was part of the crucifixion narrative (Luke 23:33-43). When we look at statues of ‘Christus Victor’, of Christ in Majesty and in triumph after the resurrection, always show him bearing and displaying the marks of the nails from the cross. Christ is the Wounded Victor; he is raised to glory but only after real death on the cross. This is not remote salvation, but among us and within the life we share in all its pain and sorrow. The Kingdom of God comes very near indeed; it touches earth not in the abstract but in the real. When we celebrate the Kingdom of God we do so through the cross, which grounds it in the reality of life, in the reality of a person in community and relationship.
It has become popular in some church circles to talk about growing the Kingdom of God; that this is our task. And growth is very much a focus of the agenda of the church at the moment, for good reason. The celebration of Christ the King, though, moves the focus to the other end. We have confidence that the victory is already Christ’s and so what we aim to do is join in with the purposes and hope of God; to allow the reign of Christ to rule in our hearts and lives, to live his justice and peace in where we are. So any notion of growing is actually about how many people join in. Christ in triumphing over the cross, through the cross, shows us that he has this under control. It shows who he is, that God’s sovereignty and ultimate hold is not in question, nor is it dependent on us. It is bigger than the provisional and fragile creation of which we are part. Our call is to join in through living in accord with his justice and holiness.
There will come a day when all that we know will end and the hope we have is not in some form of cryogenically reanimated status. It is for and in another reality altogether; it is in the Kingdom of God and in the victory of Christ which takes us beyond this fragile and provisional existence. This is why the Christian year ends with a celebration of Christ the King, of the fulfillment of the Advent Hope.
“Come thou long expected Jesus”; come to our salvation.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Christ the King, Sunday 20th November 2016