The Sunday of Christ the King
Gospel: Luke 23:33-43
32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ 34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing.35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 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.’
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding 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, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Years ago my Mum read the whole Passion Narrative to her class of year five kids, few of whom had any church connection. They heard the whole story in one sitting, and were shocked. "Mrs. Prior, why did they do that to him? He hadn't done anything wrong!"
Fresh to the story, they could feel its horror and pain; horror and pain we too easily forget in our familiarity. In that familiarity we also risk losing other aspects of the story.
There is a heavy irony, so unsubtle that it would be seen as clumsy and overdone in a modern novel. The king is being executed on a cross. He is not killed in a glorious battle to the death, or overthrown in a putsch. He is executed, shamefully. This is the King? The sign on the cross is taunt, sneer, and humiliation.
All the powers that be taunt him; "Save yourself!" Their taunt is completely in opposition to what he has been teaching. "The one who saves his life will lose it.” Everything is being turned upside down here. All the expectations of the world, all the conventions of politics and power, and all our human hopes for success and glory, are stood on their heads. In fact, so much is reversed that the irony goes from unsubtle and overdone, to profound. The whole gospel is written within this story. God's power is the utter reverse of our expectations and desire.
‘The king’ is a gendered expression. The issue is bigger than that, although the dominant model has also been mainly a male one. Asserting Christ the king as an image of ethereal splendour with all the trappings of ancient royalty, in word or in song (plenty of possibilities here!), reinforces standard images of greatness as might and domination. Asserting Christ the king as a counter image, of a life poured out in compassion in life and even in the midst of the cruelty and corruption which keeps the poor poor, is a subversive declaration. It is a way of locating what matters most - and in the end: God.
When I was a teenager, our royal palace was the dugout cellar of the old flour mill. The earthen walls were lined not with rich brocade, but rough hessian. And down there each week, we Aussie teens went to choir practice. The only youth group in town was based around a singing group. We went round the country singing Christian songs! (I alert my American readers that this is secular Australia.) And we learned friendship and compassion.
Was a little piece of the kingdom of God brewing underground in the old Laura flour mill? Everything was upside down. Tough and self reliant farm kids came to this group. A group of them would disappear into some of the wildest scrub in the state for a week’s bushwalking every holidays. Yet many of them were outsiders; at least half the school hockey team were in a church singing group! This was in the days when only football had status. Footballers would beat up hockey players like they beat up the kids who sing in Glee.
The Christ to this little group was the high school chemistry teacher. He was our friend, then our teacher. We knew him by his first name. For some of us he was a life line, giving way beyond what was expected of a teacher. He consoled and counselled. He provided transport to Adelaide. He tolerated us holding him down while we blew up his letter box with a homemade bomb! He was our Christ, our mentor, leader, friend and confidante. Given by God.
Is this too much to say? Brian Stoffregen quotes Robot Capon at length. Despite our Australian secularity, his American reflections are also accurate for us.
However, Jesus is not the kind of Savior we want. Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox presents a wonderful picture of our typical American Messiah -- and it doesn't look much like Jesus on the cross...
...almost nobody resists the temptation to jazz up the humanity of Christ. The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman: "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It's Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way." If that isn't popular christology, I'll eat my hat. Jesus -- gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than‑human insides -- bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven. It's got it all -- including, just so you shouldn't miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane.
You think that's funny? Don't laugh. The human race is, was and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. We don't want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: He claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It's not that we weren't looking for the Messiah; it's just that he wasn't what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying." [pp. 90-91; this book has been reprinted, along with two other books under the title The Romance of the Word: One Man's Love Affair with Theology]
“The human race is, was and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah,” he says. We are especially unwilling to accept a deeply human messiah. Yet this is what we are given. We prefer the calm unearthly Christ who commits his spirit into the hands of God, to the desolate, human Jesus crying out in the abandonment of Mark. We have forgotten our childlike horror, which came from seeing a human being, and does not cloak and deny this with a barely suffering God-man. Only this human person, as human as the local chemistry teacher, can be our Christ. He alone is the pioneer of our faith, tempted in everything as we are, but remaining true to the call of God. It is this which is truly King. All the other royalty and pomp is masquerade and sham.
Our call to serve the King, follow the Christ, and be like Jesus is a call to this grounded, vulnerable humanity, which is truly glorious.
Andrew Prior Nov 16 2010
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!
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