The Sunday of Christ the King
Gospel: Luke 23:26-43
Clay Farris Naff says
Monotheism in the West has undergone two major adaptive changes in the past 2,500 years. A third great leap is nigh. Can it succeed? Whether you are religious or not, you'd better hope so.
Like life itself, religion has repeatedly met the challenge of extinction with a phase change -- a sudden transformation so dramatic that it is hard to relate the before and after pics.
He does not understand just what the phase change is; he thinks it is about putting the Messiah in heaven rather than on earth, but he understands the idea of change!
He also understands that it is people who are changed, not God. In the tradition from which I come there is sometimes more than a whiff of God changing, rather than us being called to change. God is the same; the Sunday of Christ the King is a call for us to change. We are called to believe the church in its witness to the significance of Jesus' death.
Phase change is a good term for what we contemplate on the Day of Christ the King. A phase change is a change from one state to another without a chemical change. There is radial change which is still not yet discontinuous.
The Sunday of Christ the King is the church calling us to be changed, to see God anew.
The point is that we are changed by the crucifixion, not God, and not Jesus.
Believing the Church
The passion narrative does not merely say Jesus was killed. That much can be said in a sentence. It is the way of his dying, and the way that the dying is told to us, as much as the fact of his death, that creates the meaning of our phase change.
How is the story told?
"The passage bristles with irony." (Bill Loader)
There is a king being crucified. Charles 1 of England is not remembered as triumphant, but this story is presented to us as a story of Jesus triumph and vindication.
It is full of paradox and contradiction, inviting us to synthesise a new way of seeing. He is king, messiah, criminal, powerless, derided innocent, saviour.
Bill Loader says
The complexity is not to be disentangled. Paul knew that when he spoke of the powerful powerlessness of the cross. The risen Christ carries the marks of the crucified [on] his heart. The crucifixion confronts the norms of power with a new way of being; ultimately, a new way of being God...
although that new way of being God is our understanding of how God is God.
The King of the Jews
The sign posted with Jesus is a charge of subversion against the state. In the story Jesus is pronounced as innocent. To understand the King, to be "phase changed," as it were, we have to hold his real guilt and his complete innocence together. Bill Loader again:
Was Jesus then a messiah, a Christ, of a rather harmless kind, concerned primarily with the inner or other world? Were those who colluded in his execution totally wide of the mark? Was it all a terrible misunderstanding? Certainly Luke is at pains to emphasise that Jesus was innocent of the charge. He has both Pilate and Herod Antipas say so. But there is no smoke without fire. Something was smouldering in the movement of Jesus. But it was clearly not military revolution. It was, however, something which gained a following of a kind that presented a danger. It is impossible to make sense of this without recognising that there were indeed elements of potential subversion in the movement.
[The centurion and the criminal pronounce his innocence, which is affirmed by the people in their contrition. (v45)]
To affirm that Jesus is king is to affirm a different kind of kingship. But it is not a kingship which abdicates into an inner or other world. Powerlessness is simply passivity if no power is taken up. Jesus was enormously powerful and assertive.
The Sunday of the Dictatorship of Christ
Bill points out that "King" is a gendered term. Because of this we sometimes speak of "The Sunday of Christ's Rule" or "The Sunday of the Realm of Christ."
Gender issues do not deal with the affront of the claim of Christ the King, rather, they obscure it. The point of this phrase as used by the church today, and as used by Luke when he puts it upon the sign above Jesus head, is that it is meant to be far more confronting that any insult of gender exclusivity.
In our age where Kings are mostly powerless, and where the Queen of England is held in high favour, the affront and shock and contradiction is lost. The king had absolute power. Some kings, from a Jewish perspective, were great and relatively benign; David or Cyrus are examples. But even they had the power of Idi Amin and Adolf Hitler. We do not understand the title Christ the King unless we let the title stand and rather than seek to reduce its offence, add to it and appreciate it more fully.
Christ the King has all the power and all the potential for inhumanity and evil as had Idi Amin, Peter the Great, Adolf Hitler and the rest.
Christ the King does not "work" unless we understand this and even celebrate this. "The King" implies world beating power and world beating potential for evil. The paradox of Christ The King is robbed its phase changing acuity and is diluted towards mere piety, if we ever forget this.
The Phase Changing Salvific Irony
The irony is that it is in being humiliated, falsely accused, and killed, that Jesus triumphs as a human being, as an icon of God to us, and as one who is divinized; that is one who has become like God, as God wishes all humans to be; one who has truly lived up to their creation in God's image.
What the phase change that institutes the Church has seen is an entirely different way of being, and and entirely different way of seeing power.
Ultimate Godly power is not to control, but to allow change and healing and wholeness by serving and setting free. In Jesu's death and resurrection we see the apex of being human. This is how to live. This is the underlying reality of the universe, not the strong power of brute force and guns.
The power/weakness of God is manifest in "being made nothing" in the world. The power/weakness of God is found in failure, loss, and humiliation." (Richard Beck)
You notice that I said "Ultimate Godly power is not to control, but to allow change and healing and wholeness by serving and setting free. " God's power does not cause— it allows. It is self emptying. There is more to say on this emptying, but firstly...
The Gospel is subversive; the charge was true. It says to the power hungry, whether they be Vladimir Putin or Tony Abbott, you are wrong. But rather than crush them and kill them, which is the fear of the Herods and the Caesars; rather even than even a bloodless coup like that of Gillard over Rudd, the gospel offers the power hungry, which finally, includes me and you, the freedom of transformation to true humanity and real power.
It offers Abbott true freedom rather than the need to demonise and destroy in order to gain power to do Good. His negative demonising ascent to power as a man who wishes to do good by pandering to the rich and the frightened (witness his attitude to refugees and climate change) is no less ironic— simply an inversion— than the irony of the validation of the rule of Jesus by his crucifixion.
We are all Tony Abbott. We all seek significance. We all seek to survive, to be real, to feel significant, and have a measure of control in life. There are very few people indeed who do not wish to do the good in some form or other. His compromised life is simply more visible than ours; we are all complicit in the abuse of other folk and of the earth.
The Paradox of Absolute Power
Jesus' power would change everything. It does overthrow the status quo. The entire gospel of Luke, and of Mark before him seeks to subvert the empire of Rome and the institution of the temple.
But it is done in love, decency, honour, humanity, compassion, the call for justice and by living justly. He is not a guerilla, much less a general; put down your sword. (Matt 26, John 18)
Godliness and humanity consist of weak power. (Caputo) Philippians 2.5-8 says
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
This says as much about the nature of God as it says about Jesus the man.
John Caputo says
The paradigmatic example of what I mean by a weak force and the weak force of God, in particular, is forgiveness. When we are beset by evil, when we are attacked, when we are assaulted, when we are aggrieved in one way or another by the other, the human, all too human, responses retaliation, and the cycle of retaliation is endless. It's a series with no first cause, nobody ever admits they started it; it's an unbroken change of retaliating for previous violations. That is Hannah Arendt says, what forgiveness does is releases from the past, from the chain of retaliation, and it makes the future possible. Philosophy Today › Vol. 51 Nbr. 2, July 2007
This, says Richard Beck, gives us
… a radically different view of God's power. God does not exercise top-down power and control from on high. God doesn't "lord over" the world. The power of God works in the opposite direction, from the bottom-up. God's power is the power of the cross, the power of weakness and powerlessness, the power of loving servanthood and self-giving. This is why we must become like little children--become weak, lowly and despised as those described in 1 Corinthians--if we are to enter the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom not characterized by top-down power but by being the one in the "last place." And when we step into this loving and powerless way of living we become born of God, we come to know God, and God comes to live in us.
... in his book The Weakness of God Caputo rejects [the God of strong power.] Beyond the cross there isn't a reservoir of awesome force. The power of God just is the weakness of the cross. The cross exhausts what we mean by "the power of God," with no remainder. As Bonhoeffer says, God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which God is with us and helps us. Key those words, "the only way." In this view there is no other power but powerlessness. No other form of control than weakness. And this is the only way. There is no Big Stick, no Big Power Switch sitting in reserve. The weakness of the cross is the only way God rules the world. The. Only. Way… (I have added the emphasis.)
Clearly this is a political faith. It is not timid. It will not acquiesce to injustice. Faith is faith in a vision of God who will not be silent, so it will not be silent. It is not about ensuring a way into heaven. It is subversive. They were right to crucify Jesus, because he was about destroying everything they held dear. They were wrong to crucify him because if they had let themselves be electrified by the phase change of the King of the Jews, they would have received everything they longed for!
Clay Farris Naff is both right and wrong in his assessment of the church and its antecedents. There has been phase change at the time of the Exile and as the church began to understand the significance of Jesus. There was a phase change in the way people understood the nature of God. But the Messiah was not moved to heaven. The Messiah was moved to our hearts, ever calling us to change.
Naff thinks the idea of God is all that there is of God. This is the phase change he thinks we need to accept, but the original phase change of Jesus is the same phase change still calling us. God in us indeed, but a real God calling us to re-understand what it means to have power. It is calling to us to see God not as potentate, but as the claim and call to service and love and compassion which humanises.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Online resources I found helpful for this study are:
Bill Loader First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary Christ the King
Clay Farris Naff God's coming phase change: Can the rising generation get religion?
David J Dunn Theology is not about God
Richard Beck One Warfare and Weakness: The powerlessness of God
John Caputo An interview
I have previously covered this text i n Luke 23:26-43 - Chirst the Chemistry Teacher. Since I begin fresh with each of these studies, I may even disagree with myself!
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