This sermon is based on: Luke 23:33-43
Today we celebrate the festival of Christ the King. But today is also the last Sunday of the Church’s cycle of the seasons. With the coming of Advent next Sunday, a new cycle of festivals and seasons begins and we will prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child, God-with-us in human form.
And so as this old year draws to a close it’s fitting that we end the year by recognising and affirming the Kingship of Christ. And it’s fitting that we acknowledge our belief that he is the one who will rule in the coming Kingdom of God.
The issue I want to explore this morning, however, is what do we mean by the word ‘King’? And what does it mean to acknowledge Christ as our King?
A Royal Figurehead
Queen Elizabeth II is obviously not a King, but her reign probably embodies what it means to be a monarch of a Western country today.
As I’m sure you all know, the Queen and Prince Philip celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary this week,
but the celebration at Westminster Abbey of this partnership between two individuals was nevertheless a public affair because of the identity of the two people involved. As one newscaster put it, the marriage of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip has been a marriage that has always been punctuated by duty.
There are some people who think that they would fancy such duties as the Queen has, but I’m not one of them as I think that she has a demanding ‘job’. I actually think that she has what I’d call a pastoral role; she may not be a pastor in a church or in a school, but the nation does look to her in times of trouble to visit and encourage people - even if this is in a formal and official capacity.
And so the public admires the Queen - as it admired her parents - for her devotion to duty and her willingness to be among the people and encourage the nation.
And the Kings and Queens of other Western countries: The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, to name but a few, play a similar role in their own countries, albeit usually on a smaller scale. Although these royals are figureheads, they are nonetheless important figureheads who somehow embody the nation, its existence and its values.
I’m just not sure that our experience of Kings and Queens today is entirely what the early church meant when it talked about the image of Christ as King. Does the celebration of Christ the King bring to your mind a picture of a man remote but mild, dressed in royal finerery, for a state occasion? A figurehead, perhaps. A Head of State, perhaps. But not anyone with significant political power.
The Perils of Power
Ancient kings were certainly not figureheads and, even if they themselves were personally remote from the people, their decisions were anything but remote. Ancient kings may have been either good or bad, but they had power to significantly affect the lives of everyone under their rule.
Perhaps today’s equivalent of an ancient King is a Prime Minister, President or Ruling Political Party. The effects that a bad king could have on his people were significant and life altering.
We have only to look at Zimbabwe today to see one example the devastation that can be caused by a government wielding unfettered power against its citizens. This is a country where anyone who is even remotely suspected of being in opposition to the government is immediately imprisoned. Property is often confiscated and loved ones killed. In the summer of 2005, over 22,000 people in the slums of the capital of Harare were targeted because of their alleged opposition to the government; and people’s homes, communities and livelihoods were destroyed overnight. Today, many of the country’s own citizens do not have the basic necessities of life and South Africa recently reported that Zimbabwean refugees are regularly arriving in South Africa at the point of starvation.
This is an example of the horrible consequence of a modern government using unfettered power selfishly and for its own benefit. This is the kind of power that ancient kings had. They had not only the potential to for good but almost unfettered power to destroy the lives of their subjects.
God’s Reign Begins on the Cross
Scripture and Christian tradition, however, teach that the Kingship of Christ is something different.
Jesus is not a powerless, figurehead King who can only be pastoral. He is a King with real power for good or for evil. But his is also a King who refuses the temptation to enter into the game of Might Makes Right. Christ is King, but he refuses the temptation to play Superman.
When we understand this, we can begin to understand the significance of using Luke’s account of the crucifixion as the Gospel reading for the festival of Christ the King.
To wield unfettered power in the cause of Good was Jesus’ temptation in the desert and it’s the temptation that the unbelieving thief presents to him again in today’s Gospel reading: If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and save us all. If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from the temple, gain political power and use that power to crush evil.
But Jesus is a King whose reign begins on the cross. And Christians throughout the ages have been forced to grapple with this image of a King who refuses to save himself in the way that we would normally expect: by coming down from the cross.
This image of a dying, defeated King who nonetheless claims victory is a scandalous image and it’s supposed to be a scandal. On this last Sunday in the church year, let’s not skip forward too quickly to Easter Sunday. And let’s not turn the crucifixion into some kind of transaction that is too easily understood as a simple exchange between Jesus and the Father.
Let’s sit for a moment and be confused and outraged by the image of a King who refuses to come down from the cross as we would have him do.
If we turn the story of Jesus into the story of a Superman who eventually does use the method of Might Makes Right to crush evil, we’ve missed the point. The Christian faith affirms the Kingship of Christ in defiance of everything that denies it, including his apparent defeat of the cross.
If we believe in Christ-as-Superman, we will be tempted to say – we would be right to say - ‘There is no God. If there were, where is our Superman God in Zimbabwe? Where is God in Bangladesh? Where is God in my personal suffering?’
But the Christian faith affirms that Christ reigns from the cross. Jesus told the second thief ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’. Joining Jesus had nothing to do with dying. It had everything to do with seeing beyond the appearance of defeat to the truth that somehow God is victorious in the cross.
This is this kind of faith that conquers fear and leads to freedom. This is this kind of faith that gives us the courage to imitate Christ and to live our own lives in the power of the crucifixion.
The Christian faith affirms that Christ on the cross is present in Zimbabwe, that Christ on the cross is present in Bangladesh and that Christ on the cross is present with us in our own personal suffering.
And that’s not meant to be a glib statement. It’s meant to be a troubling statement. It’s meant to provoke at least a little bit of outrage. It’s meant to be a statement of faith.
My prayer is that, as we come before the table of the Lord this morning, we grapple with this troubling, outrageous Christ. The King who gave up his life on the cross, who participates in the suffering of the world and who invites us, by the power of the Spirit, to do the same.