November 24, 2013, Pentecost 27 – The King on the Cross
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I think we could make a good argument for saying that the Episcopal Church is the best for beautiful worship. Just look around you – like every Episcopal Church I have ever seen, our little building is lovely, the windows, and the wood, and the hangings and the candles and the vestments. We love our excellent and classy music, and the prayers of the prayer book are theologically rich but also they are just wonderful prose, beautifully written. And that is all entirely appropriate when we come to worship the God who created heaven and earth, the God who is entirely good and loving, perfectly just and holy, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-merciful. No worship could be too beautiful to be worthy of such a God.
And today of all days we want to praise God in every good and perfect and beautiful way that we can, because today is the last Sunday in the Church year, the Feast of Christ the King. Today we honor our Lord Jesus Christ who is King over all Kings on earth and who is enthroned in heaven at the right hand of the Most High God. And for that reason, the gospel reading for today might not seem like the most obvious choice. The image of Christ the King from the gospel of Luke today is Christ in radiant glory; it is the very human Jesus in his last hours on earth: arrested, disgraced, rejected; beaten and mocked; nailed to the cross between two guilty criminals with this sign over his head to drive home his complete humiliation – “This is the King of the Jews” – which was Pontius Pilate’s ironic motto of derision for this pathetic failure of a Messiah and his equally pathetic nation, whose only King was Caesar.
If we have trouble recognizing our glorious King in this image, we’re not alone. The crowds that had followed Jesus, those he had healed and taught and fed, looked on him and felt only dismay and disappointment. He was supposed to be the one to rescue them from the tyranny of the Romans and reestablish David’s kingdom and usher in a new golden age. Clearly, all their hopes were false after all, and the multitudes looked at Jesus with the bitterness of those whose last hope had collapsed.
The ruling authorities were satisfied that Jesus had been discredited once and for all in the sight of all the people, so that it was finally safe for them to openly mock him. “IF you are the Christ of God, his Chosen One, the Hope of Israel,” they called out, “Let’s see what you can do. Go ahead, save yourself IF you can.” And the soldiers, who had already stripped him and tortured him, offered him sour wine in mock kindness and echoed the taunts of the Jewish rulers, “Yeah, IF you are the King of the Jews, do it, save yourself!” And even one of the criminals, taking his last breaths on earth, despised him, and cried out derisively, “You’re the Christ, right – go ahead, save yourself, and save us while you’re at it!”
God himself had come to the moment of absolute weakness. Laying down his strength and his authority, abandoned by friends and followers and family, under the sentence of certain death, he was the King but his subjects could not recognize him. They expected something or someone much different: glorious, powerful, victorious. The crucified Jesus was merely an offense to them. It was as John wrote: “the true light had come into the world, but his own didn’t know him.” Jesus knew that, and he prayed for them even as they were rejecting him, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”
The people of God had no idea that that moment, when the world mocked and the rulers and authorities jeered, and the followers of Jesus fled in fear and dismay, that was the moment of victory for our King. But Isaiah had written this about the Messiah 8 centuries earlier: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his striped we are healed.”
Just when the world had done its worst, when it had brought every power of evil to crush him, Jesus Christ stood in the gap between heaven and earth: being both truly man and truly God, he humbled himself even to the point of death, so that mankind would never again be enslaved by it. By submitting himself willingly and freely to death he destroyed its power forever. Jesus was like the most ingenious general ever, using the enemy’s own most lethal weapon to utterly destroy him. And being both completely man and completely God – Paul says that in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell – and then in humility, by entering fully and completely into the suffering of human life, he restored peace between man and God so that we would once again be in loving communion with the Father as we were created to be.
On the cross, Jesus, Paul writes, reconciled all things in heaven and earth to himself, He made peace by the blood of his cross. That’s why at the moment of his death the veil in the Temple that enclosed the Most Holy Place where God’s Presence dwelt was torn from top to bottom, because our long separation from the Father was at an end – not just in some symbolic way, but absolutely and truly. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, in that moment we were delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of the Son. And that moment of victory was the Cross.
But here’s the thing – it isn’t only the Jews of long ago that have a hard time recognizing the victory of the cross. The way of the cross is so antithetical to everything this world holds to be true and sensible that we don’t always recognize the ways of our King any better than they did. The life of discipleship – life as the people who profess faith in Jesus Christ – is defined as taking up our cross day by day and following him. And that means that we are called to walk in his footsteps, choosing to serve when we would much prefer to have power, choosing to humble ourselves when we would just love to bask in a little glory, choosing sacrifice when we would much rather indulge ourselves a little more, choosing to trust when everything in us cries out to give up in despair. There’s nothing glamorous about discipleship – life in the footsteps of our King has no form or beauty or majesty to compete with the glitz and seduction of the world. Except for this one thing – it is real Life.
Only the second criminal recognized Jesus for who he was; he saw that Jesus suffered all things having done nothing wrong. And seeing his purity rather than his failure, that man somehow knew in his heart that Jesus was the true King, as impossible as that must have seemed in the moment, and in that faith he turned to Jesus and asked him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus answered him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The crowds had shouted, “IF you are the Christ…” Jesus was – he is – the Christ, and the first person to receive salvation through the work of the cross was that faithful man, who recognized the King on the cross. Peace with God – “getting saved” – doesn’t happen through religion or rules or penance or offerings – it comes through recognizing the King on the cross: recognizing him beyond the blood and beyond the pain and beyond the total impossibility of the situation. And the abundant life the King offers – not just life in the hereafter, but abundant life now, today, as he told the criminal on the cross – is a life of joy and peace beyond all that the world throws at us. When we recognize the King, the power of the world’s perspective is torn from top to bottom like the veil in the Temple, and we find ourselves living now and tomorrow and forever in the Most Holy and powerful Place of God’s grace and love.
The challenge for us is to keep our eyes on our King. If we focus only on our disappointments and fears and failures – and every life is full of these things – we begin to question our faith in him. IF Jesus is the Son of God, IF he is the King, why don’t I have a job? why is my child sick? why do I keep on making the same mistakes over and over and over? We become like Peter, who actually walked out on the waves of the sea toward Jesus, but sank when he took his eyes off of Jesus and let himself be terrified by the wind and the waves. It is a real challenge for us I think, as we take up our cross day by day not to be offended by the way of the cross, which makes no sense if we measure it by the standards of the world, but which is the way of joy and life and peace when we see it in the light of the kingdom, which has its own logic and its own beauty.
In C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy the main character encounters one of the heavenly beings, called Oyarsa. And when he looks at this being, suddenly he feels that his whole world is off balance – he is plunged into a new perspective, an entirely different orientation so that everything around him seems to be off-kilter and unstable. The kingdom of God is like that, a new perspective, a different way of seeing, like a whole different geometry. Instead of the terror of the immediate which pretends to have so much power, we see the world around us with eyes of grace and hope, like the faithful man who recognized the King even on the cross.
Keep your eyes on Jesus, who has done no wrong, who gave himself into the hands of his own people as they cried out for his blood purely and simply out of love for them, out of love for us. What the people did not see, what they did not yet understand, is that it was only the blood of Christ that could bring the healing and the restoration they so much needed and longed for. Our prayer each day should be that we might be able to see as clearly as the faithful criminal, who recognized our King even as he hung on the cross.
I want to close with the collect for Morning Prayer for Fridays. Please pray with me:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.