We have reached the end of another ecclesiastical year. The church year differs from the calendar year, of course, because it is structured around the life of Jesus rather than around the movement of the stars. It begins with the lead-up to Jesus’ birth (Advent) and concludes today with celebration of the rule of Jesus over all the earth – the ‘Feast of Christ, the King’!
I appreciate, of course, that most of us tend to save our celebratory vigour for the end of the calendar year on December 31st but I’m not entirely sure as to why that is the case. Surely the kingship of Jesus over the earth is far more worthy of celebration than anything we might have achieved in the last twelve months, and even if the goal of New Year celebrations is more to drown our sorrows over 12 months of catastrophic failure rather than to celebrate victories, it would surely still make sense to do this at the time when we remember that it is Christ who ultimately calls the shots!
My guess is that the reason we don’t break out the bubbly and let off fireworks on this special day – the Feast of Christ the King – is because we don’t really believe that Christ is king, or, at least, we don’t believe it in any literal (meaningful) sense. If Christ is king, He must be king of some other world a long way away (Heaven perhaps) which has very limited connection with the world in which we live, and hence His kingship really has very little to do with the lives we live!
Is that it, or is the proclamation that ‘Christ is King’ our way of expressing unwavering optimism about the future – a bit like when I proclaim that the Newtown Jets are the greatest Rugby League team in the history of football?
Now, I do sincerely believe that the Jets are the greatest footy team in Rugby League history, but I appreciate that this is more from the standpoint of a fan than as a statistician. From a logical/statistical point of view, the Newtown Jets have not shown themselves to be unbeatable by any means. On the contrary, they were relegated from the first grade of the competition some years ago, and haven’t exactly dominated the pool of teams they currently compete with.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that they are not better men with a more noble cause than any of those they compete with, and hence they may certainly be judged to be the greatest in that sense. It’s just harder to maintain that they are the greatest in the sense in which those words are normally used in a sporting context, where it normally means that you win a lot.
Is this much like what we mean when we say that Christ is King? Are we just being fans? Is it our way of saying that we love Him, and that we consider His teaching to be profound and beautiful, and that we wished He were in charge? For let’s be honest, brothers and sisters, He doesn’t seem to be in charge!
Even if you, like me, saw the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency last week as a good thing (or, at least, as the better of the two alternatives) he’s not exactly the Messiah, is he? God doesn’t appear to be running the show at the moment. On the contrary, the world appears to be very firmly under the control of the people with the most money and the largest armies.
In the waning days of World War II, during a discussion of the future of Eastern Europe, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cautioned Joseph Stalin to consider the views of the Vatican. To this the Soviet leader apparently responded “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?”
Nothing seems to have much changed since then. The world still operates according to the golden rule: those who own the gold make the rules!
Every day I’m reminded of this when I read what’s happening in Syria. I’m privileged to have access to multiple sources of information when it comes to Syria, but I always look at what the mainline media are saying before I turn to the alternative media and then to the emails that come to me from my friends in Syria and from journalists I know who are on the ground there.
The experience is always the same. The reality depicted by big-money media bears almost no resemblance to that depicted by those living the reality! Those who have the gold make the rules! Those with money and battalions decide what is right and what is wrong and who will live and who will die, and what sense does it make for us to assert ‘No! It’s Jesus who rules the world!’? Is this naivety or wishful thinking, or have we missed something?
Well, if we have missed something, the answer will almost surely be in today’s reading that speaks of the crucifixion of Jesus, for it is the crucifixion of Jesus that is, according to all four of our Gospels, Jesus’ crowning moment, literally! It is on the cross that Christ becomes king, and this is testified to explicitly by the words attached to the cross – “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:38)
As far as we know, these were the only words ever written about Jesus during his lifetime, and the inscription is testified to in all four Gospels. He was the Messiah – the Christ, the son of God, the King of the Jews. It is on the cross that Jesus is ‘lifted up from the earth’, just as he had prophesied, with a crown upon his head (John 12:32) while onlookers hail Him as king – the only problem being that it’s all done in derision!
When St Paul says that the cross of Christ was offensive to his Jewish contemporaries and nonsense to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23) he wasn’t kidding, and indeed this whole depiction of the crowning of Jesus in the Gospels reads like some grotesque parody!
One of the great privileges for me of having a lot of regular contact with people of other religious traditions (most obviously, my many Muslim friends) is that it keeps me honest in this regard when it comes to Christian dogma.
Like many in our congregation, I grew up in a church-going family, listening to the stories of Jesus from my earliest years, and after you’ve heard the words ‘cross’ and ‘crucifixion’ and ‘suffering’ and ‘death’ associated so regularly with words like ‘king’ and ‘rule’ and ‘sacrifice’ and ‘forgiveness’, they seem to go together as naturally as peas and carrots! We no longer see the irony, the offensiveness and the incongruity of it all!
Let’s be clear – the irony was not lost on the first readers of the Gospels! The irony was not lost on the disciples either! They themselves felt the incongruity of it all more than anyone! They didn’t understand what was going on to begin with. The whole coronation of Jesus (if you can call it that) initially appeared to them as an unmitigated disaster!
I think we often assume too that when St Paul arrived in a town like Corinth to share his Gospel message that he’d go to the local synagogue and say “this Jesus, who the authorities in Jerusalem had crucified, was actually our long-awaited Messiah!”, and people said ‘Of course! Why didn’t we think of that?’
Paul would then wander into the streets and tell anyone who cared to listen – Roman or Greek or anybody else – about how this Jewish man who had been killed had come back to life and was now the king of the world, and everybody would say ‘that makes sense! Why not?’
I personally think that nothing testifies to the presence of the spirit of God in the ministry of St Paul more powerfully than does the fact that so many people bought the message – indeed, that his message quickly captured the imagination of the whole world, for as St Paul himself said, while his gospel message did indeed contain the wisdom of God, it initially appeared to most people to be either offensive or absurd, or both (1 Corinthians 1:23).
What was the nature of the penny that dropped, such that those who initially laughed at the absurdity of the crucified Messiah somehow came to proclaim Him as the king of the world? Can we make sense of it? Do the Scriptures themselves make sense of it? The difficulty we have here is that Jesus didn’t give us any straightforward theory through which we could interpret the cross. He gave us a meal!When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“[Jesus] said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:15-20)
This story of the last supper comes from the chapter immediately preceding the depiction of the crucifixion in Luke’s gospel, and it does, I think, interpret the crucifixion for us in terms of self-sacrifice, forgiveness and love.
To understand this meal properly, of course, we need to understand the back-story behind it – most especially the fact that it was a ‘Passover’ meal that celebrated the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
The crucifixion of Jesus is thus to be understood as another Exodus of sorts – another act through which people will be freed from bondage, with Jesus, in this case, playing the role of both liberator and sacrificial Passover lamb.
Of course, to understand the significance of the Exodus and Passover in this context requires familiarity with the larger back-story that takes us from the garden of Eden, where things first fall apart between God and humanity, through to Abraham, whose people are commissioned to bring God and humanity back together, through to the exile, where the people of God (the children of Abraham) seem to have failed in their commission, and it is in this context that Jesus comes as the representative of Israel, suffers for the sins of Israel that had taken her into exile (Isaiah 40:2) and so gets His people back on track towards the ‘promised land’.
Now I’m going to stop working on the big picture back-story right there as I suspect that even if you’ve been studying the Bible all your life, it is difficult to hold all that in your head at the same time. Let me focus instead on question we started with today – namely, in what sense does this make Jesus king?
The answer, I believe, is that Jesus becomes king on the cross because it is on the cross that Jesus confronts all the evil of this world and defeats it!
This evil is the power of the empire (Rome) and of the religious authorities and of all the false gods that the people of Israel had given themselves over to that led them into exile. Jesus overcomes them all on the cross. He doesn’t beat them down with His battalions, of course. He defeats them by suffering and absorbing all the violence they can throw at Him and then by rising!
When I agreed to be the subject of the mural that was painted in Martin Place (in the centre of Sydney) I was interviewed by a documentary team that asked me “what has been the secret of your success?” I laughed, as I’d never thought of myself as a success story.
I then asked them what they meant by ‘success’. If you judge success in monetary terms, I am by no means a success. Likewise, if you judge success in terms of power, I think I’m an abject failure! I did concede though that I had been successful in the way in which boxers are successful, in that after 26 years of being pummelled, round after round, I’m somehow still on my feet!
I think the victory of Jesus needs to be understood along these lines. Jesus doesn’t defeat the world’s enemies by annihilating them. Instead, He absorbs all the punishment they can throw at him and outlasts them!
Jesus – Israel’s representative and our representative – is no Mike Tyson, smashing his way to victory with a few powerful and well-chosen punches, and coming through virtually unscathed! On the contrary, Jesus is very much scathed! He is pummelled mercilessly, round after round, and eventually killed, and yet, when the bell sounds again, He is back on His feet!
He takes every blow, to the point where the enemy no longer has anything left to throw at Him, and yet He won’t stay down, and that’s how He shows Himself to be the king of the ring!
Maybe this isn’t the sort of king we were looking for? Perhaps we would prefer the kind with gold and battalions and political power and worldly might? Sorry! His kingdom is not of this world and His rule is not imposed through violence! And yet I am confident that in the end all the world will ultimately acknowledge Jesus as king, for there is simply no way of stopping someone who keeps coming back to you and forgiving you every time you hurt them!
In closing, let me say that I am confident that the Newtown Jets will one day prove themselves to be the greatest Rugby League team in the history of football! Well … I’m optimistic anyway. I am, in truth, far more confident that sacrificial love will prove to be more powerful than any act of violence the powers of this world can come up with, and so I proclaim today with confidence that Jesus, who became king on the cross, is still king of the world today, and He will reign for ever and ever. Hallelujah!
preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, November 20th 2016