The Psalm: Luke 1:67-79
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty saviour [lit: a horn of salvation] for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
The Epistle: Colossians 1:3, 11-20
1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
2To the saints and faithful brothers [and sisters] in Christ in Colossae:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father. 3 In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 4for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5because of the hope laid up for you in heaven....
11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for 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. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He 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. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and 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.
The Gospel: Luke 23:33-43
33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified him there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.1 [[34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing.2 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed3 at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah4 of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine5 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.’6
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding [blaspheming] 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, ‘Jesus8, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly6 I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. 47When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent9.’ 48And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Odd Bits of Interest
The Place of the Skull is translated from Luke's use of the word Κρανίον – Kranion. I’d put money on that being linked to our word cranium. Mark and Matthew use the Hebrew word for the same place: Γολγοθᾶν; that is, Golgothan. When the Latin Vulgate translates Luke's Kranion is uses the word Calvariæ, which is the skull cap, or the top part of the skull.
Paradise (in paradise) is παραδείσῳ - paradeisō. "The word pardes does not appear before the post-Exilic period (post-538 BCE); it occurs in the Song of Songs 4:13, Ecclesiastes 2:5, and Nehemiah 2:8, in each case meaning "park" or "garden", the original Persian meaning of the word..." (Wikipedia) To say that Jesus' death enables us to re-enter the garden seems to me a good theological instinct.
"Christ the King Sunday, is a relatively recent addition to the Western liturgical calendar, having been instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI for the Roman Catholic Church.... Pope Pius XI wanted the Feast to impact the laity:
"If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God." " (Wikipedia)
This week's First Impressions: Notes on the Sunday of Christ...
We don't know.
We don't know where we come from, or how. We don't know how we began, or what sustains us and sustains the world in which we find ourselves. We can guess. We have instincts about our being. We may be convinced by some deep experience. The scientific method has allowed us to see the complex molecular structures and the climate physics which allow us to exist. But when we are honest, nobody knows what it means, or how it began. No one. Everything we discern is shaped by the reality which engulfs us, and is larger than us, and is shaped by the culture which gives us birth.
What we do know is that we die. What we do know is that our futures are always uncertain. We know we are afraid; death rips us from our small ark of love and casts us into immeasurable depths. The knowledge we have from the narrow sphere of our scientific endeavours, warns us that we are destroying our ability to live, yet we seem powerless to act. When we allow ourselves to consider all these things, the words of Luke in the Psalm for this week are true: we are "those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death"
How then do we live?
We endure. We hope. We are patient. We faith; that is, we trust. (Colossians 1) This is the space in which we are given to live. It is here that we find mercy and that things hold together, and it is here that we rail at our existence or endure darkness, when they do not hold together. This is our place. There is no other place anyone can be. No amount of money or privilege or any other human power can remove us from this place. It is here that we will embrace the light which enables us to see glory and God, and it is here that we will resist it.
It is here that we trust that "He is the image of the invisible God." Use the word faith, or believe, if you will; trust, faith, belief: all three words have the same essence. They describe the place of those who are created, who cannot know of themselves, who cannot be in and by themselves, who need mercy and forgiveness, who need to be guided into the way of peace. Perhaps trust (τὴν πίστιν ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ — the faith of you (pl) in Christ Jesus) at its deepest, means to accept what we are given and who we find ourselves to be.
This is where Luke begins, in Chapter 1, and in the reading set for the Psalm. Not in a world where people burst into impromptu songs when pregnancy is announced and when children are born, but with carefully chosen and constructed words from the tradition to introduce the Gospel. Luke is no journalist's report. It is not biography. The "orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us" is an account of our trust, our faith, that Jesus Christ is Lord; that he is, in the language of the time, Christ the King. It is an interpretation of what we have seen in the darkness. It is hope for our future, for the guiding of our feet out of darkness into the way of peace. (1:79) But most of all, it is trust and challenge. The preacher in the service I attended yesterday asked us, "What do you long for?" This week, he might ask, "In whom do you trust?" Luke's answer: Jesus.
Then, in the Gospel text for this week, Luke shows us what it is that we trust about Jesus. What is it about this Jesus that saves us? And here we meet the challenge.
Central to this text are three challenges to Jesus, and to us, in the presence of the watching people. He is on display. What will we see?
"He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah [ὁ χριστὸς] of God, his chosen one!"
So scoffed the leaders of the people. Luke uses for scoffed the word of the Greek translation of Psalm 22:8 - All who see me mock at me... Note that the versification is slightly different between the LXX and the English translations of the Hebrew text.)
"‘If you are the King of the Judeans, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Judeans.’"
This is the ridicule of the soldiers, who give the lie to the "pax" of the Roman Empire, the soldiers who are the cutting edge of its essential violence, and who mock this King by offering him cheap wine.
"One of the criminals (cf Isa 53:12) who were hanged there kept deriding [perhaps even blaspheming, for the Greek is ἐβλασφήμει – eblasphēmei -] him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? [ὁ χριστός ] Save yourself and us!"
All three texts challenge the proclamations of the early chapters of Luke that Jesus is the 'horn of salvation,' (1:69) and the beloved and chosen one (3:32, 9:35). They take the questions of the diabolos— if you are the son of God— (4:3, 9) and add: of course, you are not the son of God. This is plain, for we are killing you. You are powerless. We have won. The Christ-Messiah is denied, and in this those who kill him believe they are righteous, (dikaios cf 23:47) and even innocent of his death; that they regard him as the blasphemer of this story, is implicit in the confession and counter statement of the centurion that he was innocent, which is to say, righteous. (Note: Are you not… is another way of saying, If you are…)
Luke's answer to them all, is this:
‘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, [Yahweh saves] remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Mark D Davis says
This criminal asks to be remembered when he and Jesus had completed their journeys toward death, in contrast to the other criminal who wanted Jesus to save them from death.
The three challenges, all about salvation, mean he is "crucified precisely as 'Saviour,'" which is to be "deprived of his last earthly claims... and his human dignity." (Fitzmyer pp1501-02) The irony of the situation, the revelation of the crucifixion is that "If he is, in a larger sense, to save others, he cannot save himself." (Craddock Luke p274) Instead, he saves the repentant criminal.
And if we are to follow him like "Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus," (Luke 23: 26) then we can only be saved from death by being prepared to go through it with him. Otherwise he is no king at all, and we do not trust. It is at this point that the Gospel leaves us no place to turn. To trust is to accept dying, not to postpone it. It is to accept that if our death seems untimely, unjust, unwarranted... that he is the only answer we have to how and why and what for. Trust is all we have.
And on those days when the powers that be pull the cross from us and send us on our way as they sacrifice someone else, we will not know why. We can only trust that he is King. That he is the one in whom the fullness of God dwells, in whom "all things hold together," and through whom we are reconciled to all things and finally know anything.
We can only trust.
But as always, what we trust— the story and the person we follow, is interpreted by us. We impose upon it, as much as we may long for it to enlighten us. Christ the King is a dangerous title and a risky statement of faith. To paraphrase my colleague on Sunday, not only do the words of our worship betray our theology, they form us. When we sing
In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm...
it forms us. It shapes our expectations. It directs and sharpens our perceptions. It strengthens us.
So what is happening then when we sing this?
In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied. (Keith Getty & Stuart Townend)
This not only reflects our imposition upon the Christ that he must be an "image of [an] invisible God" who, after all is said, is simply a larger version of ourselves and our own kings, beings full of wrath. It also forms us as wrathful beings. It works to perpetuate our violence and the shedding of blood. It inures us to violence, for in this song, god is violent, dress it as we might, and it is this we god are worshipping.
To say the fullness of God is shown in a King does more than assign a gender to the image of God, which is bad enough given how masculine imagery and power has subverted the church and marginalised women. Kingship is also, at the least, about the imposition of human power. Kings sit at the top of Empires. Is another Empire all that God offers us? I share Mark D Davis' reservations about celebrating a "Sunday of Christ the King." He says
I have read the history of the genesis of this celebration day and I know that one hope is to re-interpret the term ‘king’ in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But, I am not sure how capable we are of ridding our minds of what the symbol of “king” means....
I worry that it comes across as yet another attempt to establish power, to put on Jesus the desire to rule rather than to serve
and the language of the Encyclical (above) shows how easily this might be done. Like him, I am not "comfortable with this title for Jesus or for the Sunday before Advent."
Human power, and human rule, is designed to escape death, to put off the day for as long as possible. It achieves this by making sacrifices. Human power sacrifices other people, animals, and earth itself, for the temporary lengthening of our own lives. The reason our politicians in Australia are in denial about climate change is not because they think it is not happening, not really. They may say that to excuse themselves. They may even believe they believe it. But underneath there is something else: if I admit to climate change, I admit that I am going to die. I'd rather have someone else die. And in our time, of course, the pressure is even higher, for the evidence is mounting that we may all die. I hear people implore our politicians, "Do you not care for your grandchildren." At base, if we are all facing death, then the answer from many of us is, "No. Not if I can live longer... even a little longer." The movie cliché where the person who is threatened with death— who knows they will be killed anyway, whatever they do, gives up the required information— the reason this cliché works dramatically is because it is real: we know we will do anything to postpone death.
Jesus refuses to postpone death, for it has no power over him.
And Jesus refuses wrath and revenge. He does not call for Elijah, that vengeful prophet, to come and save him. (cf Mark 15:35-36) Nor does he call legions of angels. (Matthew 26:53) When he returns, his greeting is ‘Peace be with you’ (Luke 24:36, John 20:19,20,26) not "as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” (Luke 19:27)
We see the issues here very clearly when they happen somewhere else. We understand that the sacred is violent when the culture is not our own. So we are properly horrified when we read that in 1987
An 18-year-old woman, Roop Kanwar, whose husband had died suddenly, was burned alive on his funeral pyre... in front of a large crowd. After her death, she was hailed as a Sati Mata, which translates as “pure mother,” even though she was childless, and a shrine was set up on the site of her immolation. A social worker who visited the village a few days later found most of the inhabitants insisting that Roop Kanwar’s death was “a voluntary act of heroic courage” which had turned her into a goddess and given her the power to answer their prayers. The man was unconvinced, especially when a very different version of the story began to emerge, in which Roop Kanwar had been buried under a heavy load of firewood to prevent her escape. According to the poorer inhabitants of the village, many of whom did not dare speak openly for fear of offending the dead woman’s well-to-do father-in-law, she had screamed and begged for help as the flames consumed her. (Joan Smith's review of Sati, Dowry Death and Female Infanticide in Modern India by Mala Sen quoted by Paul Nuechterlein)
We know this is wrong— horrific, yet we sing of the wrath of God being satisfied
The wrath of God was satisfied...
Bought with the precious blood of Christ...
We claim to live in this death— "Here in the death of Christ I live," blind to the grotesquerie which acknowledges that God has forbidden the sacrifice of children (Deut 12:31, Deut 18:9-12) and condemns it (2 Kings 16:3, Psalm 106:38, Jeremiah 19:4-5) and in which we base our only hope upon a God who has done just that: sacrificed his only son. We fail to see that sati, the sacrifice of widows, and that child sacrifice, and that St Anslem's atonement, which is child sacrifice, are all part of the same thing: the violent sacred. Like many many Christians, I had no awareness that this was not the, and the only, what and how of our salvation. I'd have worshipped him for his voluntary acceptance of God's need for vengeance, and been moved by the gratuitous violence of Gibson's Passion of Christ, blind to the fact that he went to his death because we demanded it, not God; blind that I was singing for more sacrifice.
Anselm’s interpretation of the death of Jesus essentially reads scripture through the lens of mythology, thus restoring the violent gods of ancient battle myths. Anselm’s rendering of the death of Jesus masks the violent mimetic scapegoating of humans. Anselm’s reading of Jesus’ death is at the root of why so many Americans [and Australians] who call themselves Christian cannot see their complicity in the power of violence at work within themselves, their churches, and their culture: they see that payment for their sin has been made instead of seeing violent mimetic rivalry at work and turning from sin to new life in Jesus Christ.
These words come from David Froemming's Salvation Story and are quoted by Paul Nuechterlein. In the same place, but not quoted by Nurchterlein, Froemming goes on to suggest another lens
According to James Alison, what is taking place in a mimetic reading* of the death of Jesus is that now God is worshipped, not through the exclusion of the victim or over and against a victim, but rather from the perspective of the victim
to form a new society which does not need victims or exclusions in order for its sense of identity to be built up.
In other words, in Jesus' death we have been shown how the sacred victimises and kills. We are shown Jesus as the innocent victim, just as innocent at Roop Kanwar, and we are shown ourselves pretending that this is sacred; that is, according to the plan of God.
This is not because everyone is suddenly good, or nice. Rather it is because the victim is given us: God has provided for sacrifice. So, membership of this new Israel involves a new way of relating to the victim. It involves the unlearning of all those patterns of behavior which depend on, or tend to produce, victims. Simultaneously, it involves learning how to relate to, side with, stand up for those who are cast out, excluded and so on. It involves living for others in such a way that those doing so are always prepared to run the risk of expulsion and exclusion themselves rather than basing their security on expelling and excluding others. This is bearing witness to the truth which comes from the victim.
The victim shows us the truth of how we live. Froemming concludes the quotation with one of Alison's characteristic asides:
The Greek word for witness is the word which gives us our word ‘martyr’. (He is quoting Knowing Jesus, pp116, and I understand that the passages I have quoted from my Kindle edition are around page 90-95 in the printed book.)
What we are called to witness to is holiness, a wholeness which is other than us, and not formed in the violence of the sacred: Paul writes to the holy ones in Colossians 1:2. We are called to witness to a new way of thinking and of being, and to rehearse and be formed by, a new language, for "God in Jesus is a completely different kind of king than the other human kings we have come to know in history." ( This is Paul Nuechterlein summarising words of NT Wright.)
Into the hymn above, my colleague and I have inserted some new words
In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The love of God was realised.
All our sin on Him we laid—
Here in the death of Christ we live.
This is a part of the ongoing remaking of us. Indeed it is a part of our creation, a process which is shown to us as the scriptures themselves grow in their understanding of God and expose our violence to us.
Davis called it 'Christ the Crucified' Sunday. How will you name and worship him? What will be your trust?
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!
* A mimetic reading of a text is a reading aware of the scapegoat mechanism and aware of mimetic desire; that is, desire driven by imitation of another.
Worth the read
Obviously this post leans heavily upon an understanding of mimetic theology. Paul Nuechterlein's post for the week is full of leads into this area. What brought this theology alive for me was a book he quotes from: Saved from Sacrifice by Mark S Heim. This clear and concise book rescued me from the dead end of penal substitutionary atonement. It's available as an eBook.
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