Finding God in Unexpected Places (A sermon on Luke 23:23-33)

33When 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.”

 

It is the last Sunday of the Christian year today – a Sunday that since 1925 has been celebrated as the feast of “Christ the King” – so proclaimed by Pope Pius IX.

It seems like an odd time for the year to be ending and it’s not obvious why this should be an especially appropriate time to celebrate the kingship of Christ. Most strange of all, perhaps, is when we come to the readings set down for this special day we find ourselves back at the crucifixion! That’s the Easter story, isn’t it, and surely we’re at the opposite end of the Christmas/Easter spectrum!

What has the kingship of Christ got to do with this time of year and what has the crucifixion of Christ got to do with the kingship of Christ?

Of course I know that we long-term Christians intuitively associate the power of Jesus with the death of Jesus but it’s really an absurd association when you reflect on it!

I think it epitomises the way culture and environment shape rationality – the way in which the cross of Jesus has become a symbol of all things bright and beautiful rather than an instrument of suffering and death, which is what it is.

The comedian, Lennie Bruce, used to say that if Jesus had been born in his time we would have all been wearing little electric chairs around our necks, or perhaps little guillotines if He’d been born a century or two earlier. Perhaps if it were today’s time it would be a deadly needle that we’d all be wearing. Either way, it does seem absurd, on reflection, to so sanitize this deadly weapon that it becomes an ornament!

It’s our culture, of course. It’s the way we were brought up. If we’re raised in violent and abusive households then perhaps we aren’t too shocked when we saw women beaten up and children brutalised. As it is we’ve grown up in a culture where the cross is a form of eye-candy and no longer scandalises us.

One of the big themes pushed by church growth experts is the idea that we should make our worship services appear less odd to the outsider. Get rid of the stiff wooden pews and the stained glass that is the legacy of an age long passed. Get rid of the strange robes and archaic hymns that can only serve to alienate 21st century Australians. Let’s all dress as we would normally dress and meet in an environment that feels more familial. Bring down the barriers and turn the church into a user-friendly environment!

If you ask me, the really alien thing about the church is not its format but the message, and most especially this fundamental obsession that we have with the death and suffering of Jesus! How is that supposed to attract anyone?

The German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche, saw this quite clearly, I think. He was a great opponent of the church and saw Christianity as a religion of weakness that humanity had outgrown.

“When we hear the ancient bells growling on a Sunday morning we ask ourselves: Is it really possible! … the cross as a symbol in a time that no longer knows the function and ignominy of the cross – how ghoulishly all this touches us, as if from the tomb of a primeval past!” (“Human, all too Human”)

“Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.” (“The Birth of Tragedy”)

Nietzsche saw the Bible’s emphasis on the suffering of Christ as a tragic embrace of weakness that leads to Christianity becoming the “religion of pity”.

“Pity stands opposed to the tonic emotions which heighten our vitality: it has a depressing effect. We are deprived of strength when we feel pity. That loss of strength which suffering as such inflicts on life is still further increased and multiplied by pity. Pity makes suffering contagious.” (from “The Antichrist”)

While those who have labelled Nietzsche a Nazi are incorrect, I believe, it’s obvious enough why the Third Reich had Nietzsche’s works on their list of acceptable reading. Even so, the offensive nature of much of Nietzsche’s writings should not blind us to his insight that the Christian focus on suffering, weakness and pity is not something that makes a lot of sense in our world!

Outside of the hallowed walls of these strange buildings we call churches, weakness, suffering and pity are not hallowed values. They are despised!

We live in a get-ahead world where money and power are hallowed, not suffering and weakness! We live in a world where success is measured by size and strength and, most importantly, by the volume of your bank account!

As I say, we are children of our environment and we have been brought up in a culture that sanitizes the cross and allows us to sit comfortably with our children while we have the details of Jesus’ execution read to us when perhaps we should be covering their ears!

You heard the story! They nailed Jesus and His two companions to a cross. They hurled insults at Him, divided up His clothing, and, yes, there is the word of hope that Jesus gives to one of those dying with him, but it’s not a hope that he is going to avoid a torturous death! Would that be acceptable bedtime reading in any other culture?

I imagine wandering into a church as a Muslim and hearing the Christian Gospel proclaimed for the first time – that Christ suffered and died so that we might be forgiven. I think I would find this rather confronting to say the least!

Is it any wonder that the Qur’an teaches that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross? The whole idea of the cross is offensive on any number of levels!

St Paul saw this quite clearly: “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Paul recognised, in other words, that the cross was both morally obscene and intellectually repugnant and yet, Paul says, it is the essence of his message and the very heart of the Christian faith!

And that is true – that the cross is at the centre of the Christian faith.

The cross of Christ is the centre of the Christian faith and it is the central story of the New Testament. If you read through the Gospel of Mark, for instance, it reads (as many scholars have said) like a crucifixion narrative with an extended introduction.

The death of Jesus is the epicenter of the Christian message and hence it is at the centre of our worship every time we gather as a Christian community – proclaimed sacramentally in the Eucharist every time we meet – the body broken, the blood poured out. And hence it is remembered again, even more specifically, as we conclude this Christian year and proclaim the rule of Christ in our world – our focus once more is drawn to the cross.

Why? Because this is where we find God! Contrary to all expectation, and in complete contradiction to all the wisdom that this world has to offer, this is where we find God – in the humiliation and suffering of the cross.

“Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on….”

So says Martin Luther in his ‘Heidelberg Disputation’ (22, 20) and goes on to say “Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognises him in the humility and shame of the cross.”

This is where we find God – in humiliation and pain. We thought that the way to reach the fullness of life was to fight your way to the top but it is the uniquely Christian revelation that God is actually to be found at the other end of life – at the very bottom!

This is what St Paul discovered on the road to Damascus. After a life of moral scrupulosity and spiritual striving Paul came to the crashing realisation that God had not actually been waiting for him at the end of the religious rainbow! God instead met him on the ground after he fell off his high horse (literally as well as figuratively).

And this is what we discover too – that it’s not when we ‘make it’ in life, either professionally or spiritually, that we finally get to meet God. Instead God comes to us in our weakness as one who is familiar with human weakness. God comes to us in our suffering as one who has known the depths of human suffering. It’s when we reach the cross that we discover Christ crucified – “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24)

Christ the King Sunday was, as I mentioned, the brainchild of Pope Pius IX in 1925.

1925 isn’t really that long ago though few of us, I think, would be able to cast our minds back that far to remember exactly what the world looked like then.

In truth, the world was in a volatile state back in 1925. Mussolini had just celebrated his third year in office in Italy, a young rabble-rouser by the name of Adolph Hitler had been out of gaol for a year and his Nazi party was growing in popularity, and the world was in the grip of the ‘Great Depression’.

They were volatile times, though not unlike our own. And while we aren’t in a position to dialogue with Pius IX as to why he felt that this was the time to proclaim the kingship of Christ, I’m guessing that it was more than a simple desire to remind everybody who was in charge.

I think that Pius may have had some insight into where the world was heading – that humanity was at a crossroads and was about to choose a path that would lead downwards into worldwide degradation and suffering.

Pius’ proclamation of the cross at that volatile time was not simply a reminder that God was in His Heaven and hence that all would be right with the world but rather an assurance that even on that downward path we would again find Christ!

I am not sure where our world is heading right now, though I do truly believe that if the United States had attacked Syria a couple of months ago, as their President had intended to, we might even now be in the early stages of a third world war!

Thanks be to God, that did not happen, and yet things are still very volatile, and there is every possibility, I believe, that human history is about to take another very decisive downward turn.

Indeed, if not through war it may simply be through our lack of concern for the environment! None of us knows precisely where the phenomenon of global warming is going to take us. Perhaps it will not be our brutality towards one another this time but our violence towards the environment that will commit humanity to the downward path!

Either way, whether calamity comes to us by war or murder or fire or flood or famine, the truth that we are here to proclaim today is the same – that there is no pain so deep, no place so dark, and no suffering so terrible that Christ cannot be found in the midst of it all!

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38)

This is the word of hope that comes to us through the cross of Christ, this is the Christian Gospel, and this is the very special truth that we celebrate once again on this very special day, the feast of ‘Christ the King’ – that we can never sink so low that we will not find Christ alongside us.

Hallelujah! Christ is King!

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 24th of November.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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