Luke 23.33-43 & Colossians 1.11-20
What springs to mind when Kings are mentioned? Possibly it’s medieval kings with elaborate garments, crowns and thrones enjoying banquets. These people had real power and privilege often maintained by ruling with an ‘iron fist’, making unpopular decisions and passing all this on by birth right to people who may be entirely unsuitable for the job.
It hard to imagine anyone higher than a king, the word instantly implies absolute supremacy. After all it wouldn’t have been the same if they had called Elvis the President of rock ‘n’ roll would it? When a football team wins the European Championship we often see the headline ‘Kings of Europe’ if it was Prime Ministers of Europe we’d need to check again to see if we were really reading the sports pages.
Our lectionary labels this Sunday as ‘Christ the King’. We could have been reflecting on the time the Magi got King Herod worried when they asked ‘where is the child who has been born king of the Jews, or when Jesus was in the wilderness and refused an offer to have all worldly kingdoms if he would worship the devil. Perhaps the easiest image to conjure is that of Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds laid cloaks and branches in his path ‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey…’
These earlier events have already taught Jesus followers that this is no normal king but someone who has come to show them what real kingship is about. So it follows that on the day set aside to recognise the kingship of Jesus we find ourselves at the cross.
We heard in Luke’s gospel how one of the criminals being crucified alongside Jesus adds his voice to the abuse, ridicule and mockery aimed at him but you sense a mood change which would surely have shocked those looking on as the other criminal calls out ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’.
The criminal has heard Christ say ‘father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’. He sees that this is a king who doesn’t blame the ordinary people carrying out the orders of the powerful, the carpenters and the soldiers. Even in agony on the cross he can’t stop caring for others.
The criminal recognises in Christ a power that sets people free and a truth that doesn’t need to make compromises, surely this is the sort of kingdom we would all like to make our eternal home.
Those who mocked Jesus might have felt affirmed if he had replied in a way that confirmed their view of all that was happening. The opportunity to admit final defeat was there and some of his followers would even have expected to hear him reply to the call of ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’, along the lines of:-
· Kingdom what kingdom, do I look like a king to you, can’t you see that I’m finished mate?
· Sorry who said that, I’ll have to have my crown adjusted as these thorns are so tight the blood runs through my eyes?
· Surely you aren’t taking seriously the inscription stating ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ are you? That’s just Pilate having a laugh, antagonising the Jewish leaders as he scoffed at the idea of me challenging the kingship of Caesar.
· Who was the last king you saw that hung around with outcasts, sinners and the oppressed?
· Didn’t you see that soldier offering me sour wine from a rag on a stick If I was a true king wouldn’t I have a royal cup bearer?
Instead we know that Jesus took this last earthly opportunity to remind us that God never stops reaching out in love to us, keen to welcome us into his kingdom.
Despite the obvious fact that this man had done much wrong he receives Jesus personal assurance that he will join him in Paradise making it clear that it’s never too late to turn to Christ and that nothing we do can separate us from God’s love.
The Colossians recognise God’s rule in everything and understand that they are set free by it. It goes beyond the language of kingship recognising God’s power in creation itself, power that transcends heaven and earth the visible and invisible. Free to live lives that understand who is ultimately in charge despite all they see around them.
God’s kingdom isn’t just our hope after death but we are invited to recognise its challenge to our understanding of human power.
Its worth us thinking about the things we do which fail to recognise Gods kingdom, the things that would make God small.
As we begin to understand the type of kingship we see in Jesus it helps us recognise a clear mis-match with much of what we value. Many of us will have come across the term ‘empire builder’ in the workplace the type of person always looking to increase the size of their team, their budgets, the size of their office until it is clear to everyone else how very important they must be. We need to think hard about why we are doing things and if they seem right to pursue them with a degree of humility.
There is a great deal of difference between those that accept responsibility and service and those that seek self-importance and power, between those who want to rule over others and those who want to live in community with them.
We know that there is a great deal wrong with our world but we also need to be people who can recognise God’s kingdom when we see it in each other. We get a glimpse each time we see kindness and forgiveness in action that seeks no reward, even more so when it is for those we don’t know, find hard to help or even like. Surely these are glimpses of paradise?
In doing these things we are not keeping God’s kingdom to ourselves but allowing others to experience it and share in it.
We recently had a future king recognise the source of all power as his son George was baptised into our church. The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spoke of how we are all related through baptism, all part of the same family regardless of ethnicity or class. He was keen to point out that this is not something only for a future king but available to us all offering a gentle reminder that titles are meaningless to God.
We each play a part in building Gods kingdom every time we refuse to turn our back on people in need, every time we exercise our capacity for forgiveness, every time we have the courage to stand up against what we know to be wrong and every time we try to put God’s desires above our own. We could think of it as bringing the cross and all it stands for into our world.
It sounds logical but it’s easy to get worn down and distracted from our good intentions we run into difficulty, disappointment and even danger for some. It’s therefore important that we support and encourage each other remembering that we are not alone in this. We, together, are the body of Christ and we have the potential to breathe new life into all we see around us.
Christ as a baby, Christ resisting temptation and Christ being adored as he rides into Jerusalem all offer palatable aspects of his kingship. Christ on the cross must be as raw a vision of God’s kingship as we can bear yet it is here that the paradise Jesus talks of becomes a reality for each one of us.
God as man and all the vulnerability that implies is the pinnacle of his kingship and the greatest ever demonstration of love, on the cross there is an eternal fusing of God to us which is hard to articulate. I find some words from Ted Hughes poem ‘The Crow’ helpful:-
‘So man cried, but with God’s voice. And God bled, but with man’s blood.’
24th November 2013