Jeremiah 23:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43
The Feast of Christ the King is a relatively recent introduction to the Christian calendar. It was introduced by Pope Pius XI in 1925, in response to growing secular ultra-nationalism.
Truth be told the First World War had wreaked havoc with the church. After an experience like Armageddon there was no second coming and poor leadership by the church during the war had fuelled antichurch sentiment. On top of this the conditions of the poor had encouraged the seeds of fascism. It is a bit of a stretch to say this was how the Israelites were feeling when they clamoured the prophets to ask God to give them a king to lead them. But, like the Hebrews in the desert making a golden calf to worship, humanity has always had a weakness for gods they can see. So the institution of the Feast of Christ the King was meant to remind people what true kingship is about as modelled by Christ. It is not about personal power but service.
We have been fortunate to have had a wonderful example of Christian service in our late Queen. OK the British constitution has not allowed our sovereigns political power but Queen Elizabeth used her position to demonstrate her determination to follow the example of Christ as much as she was able.
And there is another big difference about the kind of sovereignty we know about. When Queen Elizabeth died no one was in doubt about who would succeed her. But having a clear line of succession is relatively recent. Fans of Simon Schama and David Starky will know that in the past deciding who would succeed to the throne could be a rather murky business. Very often it was decided by a physical battle and an argument between those with power to gain or lose depending on who took the throne. And so it was in Biblical times and in the days of the Roman empire. The line of succession was never obvious and often overthrown.
Then, to acclaim someone as a king was a bit like throwing a hat into a ring; it was to invite dispute and often violence. So when Pilate asked Jesus if he was ‘king of the Jews’ he was inviting conflict. And Jesus refuses to say whether he is making such a claim or not. Jesus refuses to be power-hungry.
But Pilate does not give up. Over the crucifix he puts up the words ‘This is the king of the Jews’. Was Pilate seeing a truth no-one else could see? Or was he deliberately being provocative? Was he saying the cross is the only throne the king of Jews can have and so you Jews, look at the kind of king you have?
This would have been a brutal message to the Jews in particular. Because a king, a messiah, had a particular responsibility. It was a king’s job to rescue people. And nailing such a claimant to a cross was about as clear a way a Roman governor might have of telling a rebellious mob: if you think you have a saviour, well think again!
And this message came over loud and clear to the mob. That is why the gospel today is full of jeering. The Jewish leaders jeer Jesus, the soldiers jeer Jesus and finally one of the criminals on the cross jeers Jesus. Each time the jeer is the same. It is a king’s job to rescue people but this one cannot even rescue himself.
And it is not just the mob in the past who voiced their huge disappointment and scorn, because the voice of dissenters is still loud and clear today. The classic objection to faith is the one which is about not being able to believe in a God who allows suffering. And it is not just unbelievers who say this, - which one of us has not at some time said the same in our hearts? Which one of us has not said: ‘Why, God, did you let that child suffer so much? Why did you let that innocent, good woman die so young?’ In short, why God, are you so impotent.
We all long for the power that will rescue and save. This is why the Superman myth is so potent. In the comic books Superman uses his X ray vision to spot the person in trouble, he uses his anti-gravity powers to fly to the one in peril and carries them away in his super strong arms to safety. When one is desperate and trying to hang onto one’s sanity it is Superman we want. In such circumstances it does not help, in fact it feels cruel, to say to someone who is desperate that this kind of power is not God’s way.
So what is that other way? But there was another criminal crucified with Jesus. He too was in agony but he saw things differently. To this criminal Jesus beside him on the cross is seen as the innocent man who will go to any lengths to be alongside others in their darkest hour. This other criminal sees a Jesus who does not judge. In Jesus he sees a love far stronger than anything he has ever known.
This is how Jesus has been experienced by others all his life. He met Zacchaeus and asked to share a meal with him in front of a crowd. He received water from a Samaritan woman at a well. He went out to meet lepers who should have kept away from him. And on the cross he shows that same seeking out to be with those who would expect to be ignored and scorned. But only one of the criminals understands this. The other is like the religious leaders, too wound up in his own self-justification that he cannot be open to the love that is on offer.
There is a wonderful prayer which goes ‘he opened wide his arms for us on the cross’. I don’t know how many times I had heard this prayer before, but one day I heard the words like a eureka moment. It was as if I had never understood them before. Suddenly I could see that if one took away the cross there was Jesus with out-stretched arms - like an embrace.
The second criminal felt that depth of love and it gave him hope. So with that hope, he asks words which have become another great prayer: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Note, he does not ask to be in the kingdom, just remembered.
But Jesus then goes on to promise him so much more: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
Now at this point many theologians tell us that the second criminal was confessing and by confessing was repenting and believing; and so Jesus’ words are an act of absolution, a way of saying that, now forgiven, this sinner can enter the kingdom of heaven. i.e repentance, forgiveness and then reward.
But actually that is not the order of events. It actually goes - love shown, love received and having been received then the spontaneous response is confession – and a confession that is not even looking for forgiveness just glorying in being in the presence of incredibly powerful love.
There are many different kinds of power. There is military power, muscle power, political, economic, moral, charismatic and psychological power.
But the power here is none of these. This power is like that which parents feel in the presence of a newborn baby. In the presence of a baby parents are touched at a much deeper, moral place. They find themselves being careful about what they say and do. Around a baby they try not to have bitter arguments, they try to be better, more loving persons not because they have to but because they want to. In the presence of a baby we can see ourselves at our best and, interestingly, at our most vulnerable.
The criminal on the cross discovered this better part of himself with a dying man on a cross – and it changed him. He was given a taste of the kingdom of heaven and he hungered for more.
Rev Elisabeth Morse