Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 20 2016
Jeremiah 23.1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43
John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
How is the Christmas shopping going? Do you realize that next Sunday sees the beginning of Advent? Have you ordered your Christmas cards as yet?
This is the last week of the lectionary year. A year ago, last Advent, the bible readings took us through the prophecies and the preparations for the coming of Jesus. We have celebrated the incarnation last Christmas, we have read of the ministry of Jesus of his arrest trial and crucifixion. Easter saw us celebrate the resurrection and then the ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit and since then reflections on the meanings of all these events as they affect our Christian life today.
At the end of all of this, on the last Sunday of the church’s year, it is all summed up in the traditional subject for today, the kingship of Christ.
Where do we look for the controlling lesson for our bible readings on this Sunday? Do we look for the inspirational passages at the end of Revelation that describe the new heaven and the new earth? Do we look at Paul’s affirmations in the letters to the Thessalonians about the return of Christ? Do we look to the covenant passages that speak about God’s relations with humans as they should be. Any of these would be uplifting inspirational passages to look at.
But no, it’s to none of these.
It’s to the events of Good Friday – to the scene of Jesus on the cross. It is there that the nature of the kingship of Christ is revealed, in the agony and the disgrace of the crucifixion. Conditioned as we are to the association of physical power with kingship and leadership, we find it very difficult to recognize the nature of the kingship of Christ. It is so far removed from our usual understandings. Today we try to do so – to look at the kingship of Christ and ask “what is the nature of the kingship of Christ?”
This summer’s Olympics made the Statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro even more famous than it was before. The 30 metre high statue looks out over the Brazilian city, but there is an ambiguity in the sculpture. At first sight the figure seems to be stretched out on the cross, but there is no cross that he is attached to; and when looked at again, it is equally possible that the figure is cast in an embrace – arms out stretched to offer love, protection, or perhaps reconciliation.
Ambiguity, or perhaps paradox, lies also at the heart of the Christian understanding of the kingship of Christ. There is power, there is a regal authority about the divine king, but it is made evident through weakness, through vulnerability, through suffering and death.
In one of Charles Wesley’s most famous hymns (CH4 396) there are the words:
“’Tis mystery all, the immortal dies!
Who can explore this strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds enquire no more.”
Like the ambiguity of the statue, the paradox of the immortal dying echoes across the centuries that this is no simple understanding of kingship. It suggests a need to think in terms elsewhere never contemplated.
Luke’s description of the scene of the crucifixion uses few words and leaves a great deal unsaid. It is a scene of unimaginable cruelty, but also of humiliation. Those crucified are stripped naked in the most public of places and then left to die in agony. Yet Luke describes how Jesus’ response is not one of self-pity or of anger – he pleads for God’s forgiveness upon the very people who are causing his suffering. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
He is giving his tormentors a great deal of undeserved credit – on one level, they know full well what they are doing – they know this is a good man, they know this is a man who healed others, they know he is innocent of what they accused him of – yet they crucify him.
Jesus might have meant by his words that they don’t know that the man that they crucify is God – is the Son of God. These men are crucifying God, but Jesus says – don’t hold that against them they don’t realize that that is what they are doing. That however is at the heart of the incarnation, God made man.
Jesus gives them any benefit of the doubt. Luke doesn’t report on the scene at the foot of the cross that John does in his account of the crucifixion – where Jesus looks down from the agony of the cross and ministers to Mary his mother’s suffering at that moment – placing her in the care of John – “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
In both accounts we see the total selflessness of Jesus – that in the moments of extreme agony he looks to the needs of others, those responsible for the crucifixion being in need of forgiveness and Mary in need of comfort and future security. He looks to their needs, not his own, even in this most extreme of moments.
There is something here that is at the same time powerful, regal and profound. It describes a style of kingship – of primary leadership – that honestly and uniquely confronts the injustice, the failings, the sin of the world.
Usually kings use their authority to address things they don’t like by means of their physical power. They can order an army into battle to put right what the king believes to be wrong. However we know from so many episodes of human history that when military might is used to confront an evil, much pain and suffering results. More often than not – and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan provide two modern day examples – too often the only effect of the use of military might is to replace one dictator with another, or to replace one set of injustices with another.
If Jesus had led a rebellion against the Jewish leadership or against the Romans, there would have been untold suffering – but even if he had won, it would only be a victory that would be sustained with further use of physical strength.
What Jesus did was something quite different.
Jesus triumphed over the injustice because he didn’t give in to the suffering, he beat it by upholding his dignity. He remained in charge – despite being overcome by the physical force – spiritually he was quite undefeated, spiritually he won, hands down. That is regal, that shows a very different type of kingship.
In our Old Testament reading Jeremiah comments upon the failure of the shepherds of the sheep. He is here referring to the spiritual leaders of the people. They show none of this regal presence, their ways have not been just. They have failed to lead the flock, as a result the flock has got lost. Jeremiah recognizes the shortcomings of the human leaders.
Paul in our reading for Colossians recognizes the nature of Jesus “He is the image of the invisible God.” The qualities that are of the nature of God are the qualities that were seen in Jesus. Far from scattering the flock as Jeremiah condemns the shepherds of the sheep in his day as doing – Paul recognizes how in Jesus “all things hold together.”
The kingly actions of Jesus are in his not using power as we understand it, but using a power that has a much more ongoing effect. He takes on the suffering he doesn’t deserve, he takes on the suffering of others as Isaiah describes in one his most famous passages:
“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
That is a very different form of regal authority. It is kingship of a very different nature. That is leadership that changes things for the better. It is a way of being that far from increasing the range of human suffering, reduces it by absorbing it into the one. Whereas the use of physical power usually leaves victims and perpetrators this way of suffering for others, known as “vicarious suffering” creates no victims, no vengeful bereaved hell bent on revenge. Far from ramping up the scale of human suffering, this way of being a king, a ruler, a Lord, has the potential to bring reconciliation, redemption and new hope.
Kings and rulers set norms that others can follow.
After the Brexit vote in the UK, there was an outbreak of violence and threats against minorities. The language of the Brexit debate had legitimized racism and as a result some people thought that they could do what they previously would not have done. One of my fears about the election of Donald Trump in the US is that the awful things that he has said during the campaign have now been legitimized by the election result. Some might now feel justified in actions they would previously not have dared to do.
But the same is also true of good, spoken or enacted. That too affects the actions of others. The kingship of Jesus sets a very different model, and legitimizes the qualities and actions seen in Jesus’ life. As the followers of Jesus we don’t have to look at what he said about turning the other cheek and say – well it’s all very well in theory, Jesus has shown us that it works in practice. As followers of Jesus we don’t have to hear the words of the Sermon on the Mount and say, well yes that’s all very well but we have to live in the real world. Jesus lived in the real world and showed that humility, meekness, a passion for righteousness, mercy, integrity, peace-making and accepting hostility for the cause of right – does work – it really does confront the evils of this world and provide a different way that leads to hope, peace, truth and love.
Aspects of this model of divine regality are illustrated by some of the lines from the five hymns we are singing in this service:
“His kingdom cannot fail; he rules both earth and heaven;”
“This is our God the servant king.”
“Crown him you martyrs of your God, who from his alter call; praise him whose path of pain you trod, and crown him Lord of all.”
“Father’s pure radiance, perfect in innocence, yet learns obedience to death on the cross: suffering to give us life, conquering through sacrifice – and as they crucify says “Father forgive.”“
“Awake, my soul, and sing of him who died for thee, and hail him as your matchless king through all eternity.”
The kingship of Jesus shows leadership in a wholly different mode than we see from the models of leadership presented to us on earth – truly he shows a regal divinity. As our Lord and king showed us the role of the servant king – may we who follow in his way have the courage and the integrity to live our lives in the same way of selfless love.