Tomorrow’s Sermon: Reigning From The Cross (A Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King)
You may be wondering why we’ve had a reading about the crucifixion one week
before Advent. Isn’t it the wrong end of the Jesus story? But we read this
today, because the Last Sunday Before Advent is the Feast of Christ the King.
But that may get you wondering, too. Christ the King –
wouldn’t you expect something about the Resurrection for that, when he has
conquered death? Or perhaps the Ascension, when he goes to the Father’s right
hand, where he reigns until every enemy is under his feet? Or maybe we should
go back to the beginning of his public ministry, when he proclaimed,
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:15)
The crucifixion doesn’t look much like the part of the story
from which we should affirm that Christ is King.
Yet it is, because Jesus is subversive. He subverts all the
popular ideas of what God values, not least of kingship. So much so, that one writer suggested we shouldn’t speak
so much about the kingdom of God as the revolution
of God. In fact, to deny that we see Jesus as King at the Cross is to
join the chorus of scoffing religious leaders, soldiers and the first criminal we
find in the account. All of them taunt him to save himself. None would expect a
king to die like this. He would either fight back, or fall on his sword if the
situation were hopeless. Jesus does neither. Violence and self-preservation are
not on his agenda, let alone violence to maintain self-preservation. There is
something of immediate contemporary relevance here.
For Christians, though, Jesus is the Revolutionary King at
the Cross. And we see his revolutionary kingship in contrast to those three groups
of scoffers: the leaders, the soldiers and the first criminal. In each of them,
we see an aspect of his kingship.
1. The Religious
You might naïvely have expected the religious leaders to have compassion for
the Messiah, but no. To them, he wasn’t the Messiah, and so we hear their
scoffing in verse 35:
‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’
To me, it sounds like cynicism. And what is cynicism but
failed idealism? Jesus hadn’t met their ideals, and their response was
vindictive. You only have to think of the way we treat people in the public eye
today when they don’t deliver what we expect of them to see a comparison.
(Although the trouble there, sometimes, is the inflated hopes they promise us
at the outset. We shouldn’t be fooled.)
Where were the disappointed hopes of the religious leaders?
In expecting a Messiah to lead an uprising – and a successful one, at that –
against the occupying forces of Rome. The Messiah would deliver his people, and
deliver them in a specific way. Of course, we know that Jesus did deliver his people
in a very different way, a way that pointed to the fact that ‘all have sinned’
(Romans 3:23), not just our enemies.
I think it boils down to the idea that the religious leaders
wanted to co-opt Jesus for ‘us’ against ‘them’. His duty, in their eyes, was to
fulfil ‘our’ agenda and make life good for ‘us’. It was another failure to see
the rôle of God’s people as being a light to the nations, a city set on a hill.
But Jesus had not come simply to bless his own people and
give them what they wanted. He had come to bless, but he had come to do so in
order that the people of God might be a blessing to others. For Jesus, kingship
is about blessing: not simply blessing his own inner circle, but scandalously
making God’s blessing available to all who will receive it from him.
So, if we are the willing subjects of King Jesus, we have a
challenge here: do we see ourselves as agents for blessing the world, or are we
simply caught up with our own preservation? It was Archbishop
William Temple who said,
The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of
those who are not its members.
One can’t help thinking of the words of Jesus when he warned
that his fate as Messiah would be suffering, betrayal and death, and when he
told his would-be followers they needed to take up the cross and follow him:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those
who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
I have believed for a long time that these words are as
applicable to the church as they are to the individual. It is our calling to
give ourselves away and thus find life. It is particularly our calling to focus
more on blessing others than simply having a good time together. The question
is, how are we exemplifying that blessing beyond our boundaries?
2. The Soldiers
The soldiers stand for the Roman Empire. It’s not difficult to see the
differences between Rome and Jesus. Both promised kingdoms of peace, but the
peace was very different. The peace of the Roman Empire – the pax Romana – was an enforced peace. Do as
we say, and you won’t get hurt. We’ll let you keep a lot of your local customs
and religion, just so long as you don’t stir up trouble, you are loyal to the
emperor and offer a pinch of incense to him in a temple to acknowledge his
divinity. Stay within these boundaries, and you’ll have the protection of Rome.
Stray and we’ll crush you mercilessly.
There have been times when to our shame the Christian Church
has behaved like that. While we are rightly horrified when we hear today of
forced conversions to religions such as Islam in certain countries today, we
have to admit that our past is far from perfect.
But the way of Jesus is not the way of Rome, and it is not
the way of forced conversion. Jesus reigns as King in a far greater way than
the Roman emperor ever did. His reign stretches not merely across the known
world, but across the whole creation. But this reign attracts people by love,
not compelling them by force of violent threats. No wonder, then, that Paul
once said, ‘the love of Christ urges us on’ (2 Corinthians 5:14).
Now what does that mean for us? Presumably, we found our way
into Christ’s kingdom via his love. One way or another, slowly or quickly,
quietly or dramatically, what brought us to kneel before him was his revelation
of God’s love, supremely shown at the Cross. And if we found his kingdom
through his love, then it is reasonable to suppose that others will, too.
So it’s a simple matter of showing Christian love in word
and deed to people, underpinned with prayer. That’s why Debbie and I don’t usually
rush back from the school and pre-school run each morning. I’ve mentioned
before that we’ve taken time to build friendships with people who may know no
other Christians than us. It means that we’ve been able to offer support to
someone with a chaotic lifestyle. It means we’ve listened to a bereaved
grandmother. We told her she was in our prayers, and we meant it. We pray that
simple opportunities to express love for people will be a witness. We pray that
the time will come when we shall be able to share about the love that motivates
Put in those terms, it’s not too difficult, is it? All we
need to do is create the time, be available to people, and make sure we back up
our actions with prayer. In this way, any Christian can demonstrate the love
that is at the heart of Christ’s kingdom and prayerfully seek openings to
introduce people to Christ, who reigns in love on the Cross.
3. The Criminals
What a contrast there is between the two criminals hanging on either side of
Jesus. One speaks just like the religious leaders and soldiers:
‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ (Verse 39)
But the other could not be more different. He knows that the
two of them have been rightly convicted in a court of law, unlike Jesus. He then
makes his famous appeal, and Jesus gives his unforgettable reply:
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your
kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in
Paradise.’ (Verses 42-43)
Jesus never disputes the true guilt of the two men crucified
with him. But his reign is not of the ‘hang them and flog them’ variety. As such,
it is further distinguished from both Roman justice and popular sentiment.
Jesus reigns as a merciful king.
Therefore, if we live under the reign of King Jesus who
reigns from the Cross, we shall also be people who are characterised by mercy. We
do not excuse wrongdoing. We do not explain away sin. We face up to the reality
and seriousness of it. But we do so, offering compassion at the same time.
Whenever I think about this, one particular song comes to
mind. Written by Bill
Withers, a man best known for songs such as ‘Lean On Me’, ‘Ain’t No
Sunshine’, ‘Just The Two Of Us’ and ‘Lovely Day’, is another entitled ‘Grandma’s
Hands’. In the first verse, Grandma is clapping and playing her tambourine in
church every Sunday. In the third verse, she is defending her grandson to his
mother (her daughter) so that she does not punish him harshly for dropping an
apple core. But it is the second verse that I especially remember:
Soothed a local unwed mother
Used to ache sometimes and swell
Used to lift her face and tell her,
“Baby, Grandma understands
That you really love that man
Put yourself in Jesus’ hands”
Unwed mothers were more of a scandal in 1971 when Withers
wrote that song than they are today, but the point stands. Grandma, as a
Christian, encounters someone who is not living by Christian values. It’s that
compassion that we are also called to extend. It is by keeping to our
convictions without being harsh and judgmental, but showing mercy purely on
basis of need, rather than what we might feel someone deserves, that will witness
to the Jesus who opened Paradise to a repentant criminal.
But note also that we do not wait until we see signs of
repentance before we offer compassion. It is by being merciful, even to the
undeserving, that the Holy Spirit has an opportunity to make clear the love of
God in Christ. Many people have heard enough condemnation from Christians. Several
would not darken the doors of a church building, because they would only expect
Besides, did we find Christ because we deserved his love?
No, not one of us did. We extend the same mercy to others that Christ offered
So – in contrast to many religious leaders of his day, Jesus on the Cross
reigns over a kingdom that is not merely for the benefit of its citizens, but
for those who do not recognise it. His is a reign of blessing. In contrast to the reign of the Roman emperor, Christ
crucified reigns not by force and fear but by love. And in contrast to popular notions of justice for criminals
and sinners, the reign of Jesus is characterised by mercy for those who least deserve it.
Therefore, if we worship Christ the King, this will be how
we gladly let the Holy Spirit lead us. Blessing, love and mercy will
characterise our dealings with those yet to know the love of God in Christ. And
furthermore, because Christ’s kingdom is to benefit those yet to acknowledge
his reign, these will trump any residual notions of church as religious club or
holy huddle. Let us be ready to bless, to love and to show mercy.
According to Wikipedia, it is hard to pin down the source of this famous