Friends, it is the last week before everything becomes Christmas everywhere. This Thursday we’ll gather around family and friends to eat turkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing and whatever other Thanksgiving delights you enjoy, and Friday it’ll be lights and holly and carols until December 25. Which, really, is a little exciting for me, because we get to celebrate our first Christmas season with Hazel! We get to put up lights on the house, and decorate the tree, and do all the things that make the season exciting and wonderful.
So with all that to look forward to, what is up with this text? Today is Christ the King Sunday, where we finish off the church year by honoring Jesus as king, and we read about Jesus on the cross. Honestly, there are a lot of other texts I think would be appropriate for naming Jesus as King. The Wise Men bringing gifts from far away. The transfiguration. The triumphal procession into Jerusalem on a donkey maybe. Something more…kingly. But instead, we get this Good Friday text just as we’re about to enter Advent.
But it is just Jesus’ way to do something unexpected. Where we expect triumphalism and victory and glory, Jesus gives us humiliation, defeat, and shame. Jesus on the cross as the image of what his kingship looks like doesn’t really line up with what we might expect. But we’ve also gotten used to two thousand years of hearing this story that we know the cross is where Jesus’ glory is found. We know that God’s character would be to crown Jesus as king on a cross intended to defeat him.
Although…maybe we should look at this cross idea again. After all, the cross is so common in our day-to-day that it has really lost its meaning. It’s not really shocking to us to see Jesus on the cross and hear it proclaimed that this is the King of Israel. We’re used to the idea that God overcomes the world not through violence but through self-sacrifice. The Cross has become a symbol of God’s love. And it’s done that so intensely that I think we’ve forgotten that the cross was how the Romans executed people.
I think we sometimes forget, in talking about how Jesus saved us on the cross, that Jesus was executed. Like, he got the death penalty, in what at the time was a perfectly legal way. His execution was no different from the 45 people in this country that have been executed since 2018.
But Jesus is different from those 45 people our country has put to death. They were guilty of their crimes, like the two criminals beside Jesus. Jesus was innocent. The one criminal said so. He didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t break any laws that would warrant the death penalty. But…was he? Didn’t he? Rome may have been unjust to put people to death for sedition, but legally Jesus did commit that crime. He really did speak of a kingdom, and encouraged his followers to give their whole loyalty to that kingdom rather than Rome. Jesus wasn’t violent about it, but he was just as guilty of breaking the law as Gandhi or MLK.
On the stained glass over there you can see the image of Jesus on the cross, and over his head is a plaque that reads “Jesus Nazoraeum, Rex Judaeorum,” “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” That was the crime he committed. He was a king. His kingdom may not have been of this world, and it may have been a nonviolent kingdom, and it may have been a kingdom that didn’t have borders or armies or ambassadors, but it was a kingdom. And it was a kingdom that threatened Rome’s absolute control. So because Jesus was calling on people to give their loyalty to God’s kingdom, rather than to Rome, he was found guilty, and executed.
I think remembering that’s why he was executed reminds us that Jesus really is King. Now, we don’t really have a good box to put that into as Americans—we live in a democratic republic, and the last king we had was George III. Our ideas of “kings” come from either fantasy novels and movies or caricatures of absolute rulers from times long ago. It’s why it’s easier to spiritualize Jesus’ kingship to make sense of it. He becomes king up in the heavens, and the wonderfully weaving text from Colossians describes that kind of heavenly kingship so beautifully. Before all things, holding all things together, Jesus’ heavenly kingship puts him far above any earthly ruler or authority.
But…it also puts him so far above them that his kingship might not make much of a difference on the ground if we’re not careful.
And so we come back to the cross. The cross reminds us that Jesus’ kingdom is very much in the world, even if it’s not of it. It means that if Jesus is king, then there must be a kingdom, and a kingdom that threatened the power and supremacy of Rome enough to get him killed. It means that Jesus’ kingdom has a very real impact on how we, citizens of that kingdom, act here on earth.
It’s a kingdom that shows up in the “sedition” of Scott Warren, who was arrested for giving water to immigrants in the Arizona desert—because this kingdom does not recognize nationality or borders as an obstacle to acting with compassion.
It’s a kingdom that shows up in the “crimes” of the White Helmets, who have been labelled a “terrorist organization” by the government of Turkey for providing aid and healthcare to enemy combatants—because this kingdom provides mercy to all, regardless if they are enemy or friend.
It’s a kingdom that shows up in the “public disruption” of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock—because this kingdom understands the sacred calling to steward creation.
This kingdom has a very real impact on the world, and the way it calls us away from the ways of Empire is the reason the Empire seeks to kill it. The Empire cannot stand any loyalty except to itself, and loyalty to King Jesus is a threat to that absolute power. If we reject the notion that some lives are more important than others based on their nationality, it threatens to undo the Empire. If we reject the idea that mercy and compassion must extend only to those helpful to ourselves, it undermines the Empire’s control. When we reject the Empire’s claims on our lives, the Empire does not let go willingly.
But that is where the ways of Jesus’ kingdom and the ways of the Empire are most obviously shown in the cross. When the Empire is threatened, it lashes out with violence to keep control. It uses force to keep people in line. But in Jesus, we see that even violence is met with forgiveness—“forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We see that Jesus, who had the entirety of the heavenly armies at his command, used this absolute and overwhelming power at his disposal to let himself be vulnerable instead.
Because that is the shape of this kingdom. It is a kingdom built on the idea that mercy and compassion are for everyone, no matter what. It’s a kingdom that calls us to seek the fullness of human dignity in everyone. It’s a kingdom that responds to violence with forgiveness, that meets mockery with promises of hope, and that overcomes death with life. When our king goes to the cross to show us what this kingdom is like, it’s a reminder that not even the Empire’s powers of death can overcome what God is determined to bring to earth.
So serve the vulnerable. Love the outcast. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Heal the sick. Give voice to the silenced. Bring justice to the oppressed. And do not be intimidated by the Empire, because Jesus is king, now and to the end of all ages.
Thanks be to God. Amen.