On 20 November we celebrated the feast of Christ the King. Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 46, Jeremiah 23:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43.
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian Year when we celebrate Christ the King. Though kings are rare in modern societies, I think we are all familiar with what a king is like. When the people of Israel decided they no longer wanted God to lead them but to have a human king, God warned them what a king would be like. He would recruit their men into the army. Others would work on his land and make weapons for his campaigns. Their women would work in the kitchens. The king would help himself to the best vineyards, fields and olive groves. Of what the people had left, he would charge them taxes on their crops and livestock. The king would help himself to anything that they had and they would be servants to him. Until modern times, and certainly in the time of Jesus, that was the expectation of a king. Rich, powerful, oppressive, demanding, one who was to be served, who had the power to put his subjects to death if he so wished.
When we read the Old Testament, we find many bad kings who mistreated their people and abused their power. God was well aware of the issue. He spoke through Jeremiah of the way his people had been let down by those given the duty to care for them. God had a plan to redress the balance. Jeremiah wrote about the time when a righteous Branch would be raised up for David. David, the greatest king Israel had known, a man after God’s own heart, would have a successor who would be wise and just and righteous. There was no reason, however, to assume that this king would be anything but powerful and rich in order to be able to conquer the Romans. Surely that was indeed ruling justly from Israel’s point of view.
Is there any wonder that when Jesus came he was not recognised as the long-awaited King? He didn’t fit the picture; he had to be an imposter, a trouble maker, or a deluded madman. The best thing to do was to get rid of him before he did too much damage. And so the passage from Luke’s gospel tells of the ‘firstborn of all creation’ hanging on a cross, enduring the most terrible of deaths.
Jesus certainly didn’t have all the trappings of a king. He had travelled around the country with only what he wore. He had no home, no possessions and cautioned his disciples to resist the temptation to make provision for themselves. Jesus’ clothes were shared out among the soldiers who crucified him and he hung naked on the cross, owning absolutely nothing as his life came to an end. Here was no materially rich king.
The people around Jesus taunted him. The soldiers and one of the thieves challenged Jesus to save himself, to prove his power. If he really was who he said he was, he could come off the cross, no problem at all. But Jesus had faced and conquered the temptation to prove himself by tricks during his time in the wilderness before he began his ministry. As far as those looking on were concerned, Jesus had no power; he was vulnerable, exposed, subject to the will of the Jewish leaders and the Roman soldiers.
Jesus didn’t act like a king either. A king’s word was law. Kings could have someone executed for anything that annoyed them. Yet here, as he was crucified, Jesus offered forgiveness not retribution to those who wanted him dead.
How was it possible to see in Jesus the righteous Branch of David, the promised king? Jesus had none of the riches associated with kingship. He was just an itinerant rabbi, dependent on the goodness of others to provide him with food and shelter. Jesus exercised none of the power of kingship. He had no army, just a crowd of peasants and women who followed him. He taught and practised forgiveness, not punishment.
Only the eyes of faith could see beyond the external facts and know who Jesus really was. The second thief hanging on the cross beside Jesus had that ability. He recognised in the battered, naked, pain-wracked dying man, who hung under a sign saying ‘King of the Jews’ but didn’t seem to fit the role, that here indeed was Christ the King. Though apparently destitute, he was rich in mercy and love. While not commanding an army, his power rested in love and forgiveness for those around him. The thief was aware that Jesus had a kingdom and in humility, not hiding the fact that he had done wrong in his life for which he deserved to die, he asked to be remembered by Jesus when he took up his position in that kingdom. Earthly kings had the power to spare someone’s life. Jesus, in dying as he did, conquered death completely. This allowed him to make that wonderful promise to the thief: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
There is a phrase in one of the collects which refers to Jesus being ‘enthroned on the cross’. It’s quite a startling metaphor, I think. At first glance the cross has absolutely nothing in common with a throne. However, if we look deeper we can see that truly Jesus was enthroned on the cross. Jesus promised when speaking about the means of his death: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” As subjects and foreign dignitaries would come to the throne of a king and bow low before him, so generations of people have come to the foot of the cross, that strange throne, and bowed before Jesus. As they have acknowledged him as king of their lives, Christ the King has made them citizens of his kingdom.
As citizens we are called to live according to the ways of that kingdom, ways that echo the character of the King, Jesus Christ. Love, mercy and forgiveness have been offered to us. We go out to offer the same to those whom we meet in our homes, our work, our leisure – and our churches, which need those qualities as much as anywhere else!
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor