t probably seems a bit jarring to find ourselves confronted with a gospel reading having to do with the crucifixion of Jesus. After all, with the fresh snow on the ground and the downtown streets lined with sparkling lights, angels and wreaths, most people are thinking more about Christmas than they are about Good Friday. But the lectionary cycle of readings is intent on shifting our gears—at least when we’re in worship—to keep us all focused on the bigger picture of the life and work of the one born in Bethlehem. We’ll get to that story, of course, but only in the right time.
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This is the final Sunday of the Christian year, with next week marking the beginning of the season of Advent. This final Sunday of the year is marked as “the reign of Christ”, and it stands as an invitation to take everything we’ve read together in worship over the past year and bring it together under the theme of kingship. Not just any kingship, of course, but the kingship of Jesus Christ. And it is a kingship unlike any the world has ever known.
In some church circles there has been a level of resistance to the use of the language of kingship for speaking of either God or of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ. After all, we don’t have much real experience of kings in modern Western society; whether here in Canada or in England, Sweden, the Netherlands, kings or queens are generally just wealthy figure-heads who have little real authority. One has only to look back a few centuries to find contexts where European royalty did wield real power, and what we tend to see is a royalty quite out of touch with the societies in which they ruled, often wielding what looks like a very arbitrary kind of power and living remarkably decadent and indifferent lives. Think here of the royal lifestyle lived by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, as France was being plunged into the revolution of the late 1700s.
And from places like Saudi Arabia that still have a monarchial structure, we hear stories of unthinkable wealth and unfathomable waste. How could the image of king possibly be a useful one for Jesus?
The thing is, the biblical witness itself subverts, redefines and reimagines the very notion of kingship. Watch.
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
That’s what Luke tells us took place that day at the place called “The Skull,” the hill just outside of Jerusalem where the Roman occupiers executed political criminals. It is pretty clear from the gospel narratives that Pontius Pilate—the bureaucrat who actually signed the writ of execution—did not think Jesus of Nazareth was any kind of a serious political threat, much less a king, but Pilate was a canny and strategic character, who realized that this execution was a practical necessity. He’d heard the accusations made by the local Judean leadership regarding Jesus—that Jesus was a dangerous pretender who had claimed for himself the kingship of the nation—and in a deeply cynical gesture he has sign hung on the cross reading “King of the Jews.” Pilate is thumbing his nose at the local Judean leadership, and the centurions are only too happy to join the game: ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’
It is a horrifically violent scene, made all the more so by the presence of a crowd prepared to watch the violence and to throw their own words of mockery into the mix. Luke tells us that even one of the others being crucified with Jesus took part in this horror: “One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him.”
It is not that kings never die like this, as anyone who has studied European history can tell you. Failed kings die like this. Defeated kings die like this.
But to borrow a phrase from Frederick Buechner, this is the “magnificent defeat.” Luke tells us that Jesus both pronounced words of forgiveness over the lives of those who had done this to him—‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’—and spoke a deep grace into the life of one of those men executed alongside of him—‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ This is not a proud king going bravely into death, committed to the righteousness of his political claim to the throne. This is a complete undoing of the very definition of what it means to reign as a king.
This is the magnificent defeat, for in Jesus’ loss of everything, life is poured back into the world. What Luke points to in his handing over to us Jesus’ words of forgiveness and grace, Paul sings to us in the great hymn of the Christ contained in the letter to the Colossians.
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.
This broken man on an executioner’s cross is indeed a king… at least a king… but not one after the manner of any human monarch. From the very beginning of creation the Christ was and is. “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together,” Paul sings to us. Do you hear the force of that claim? If not for this dying man, the whole of creation would spring apart.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
“… and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” When Louis XVI of France and Charles II of England were beheaded, the political systems of their respective countries were changed. And in differing ways, the new political systems became first oppressive, then violent, and then each failed. Violence like that seldom begets anything more than further violence.
But Jesus the Christ is not that kind of king, and his reign is not one that can be ended by execution. In fact, as Paul sings it to us, Christ’s reign is unveiled and revealed though that violence. All things are reconciled to God, and peace is made “through the blood of his cross.” The magnificent defeat.
If that is what kingship means under the reign of Christ, I will joyfully drop to my knees in the presence of the King.