The grace of being “one of them”

SERMON 

Feast of Christ the King 

St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly 

Sunday 24 November 

Jeremiah 23.1-6 

Song of Zechariah 

Colossians 1.11-20 

Luke 23.33-43 

The grace of being “one of them” ©Sue Grimmett 

Why, just as we are about to step into that season of preparation and hopeful  expectation of God coming wrapped in the form of a vulnerable baby do we find  ourselves at the foot of the cross?  

And why when such a scene of suffering is placed before us, do we have a  seemingly incongruent title of today’s feast day as “Christ the King”? Surely for  such a feast day the readings could have better been drawn from the triumphal  entry into Jerusalem where Jesus was proclaimed king by the crowds…or maybe  some lines from Revelation which speak of the glory to come?  

Instead we have scoffing, sour wine and the stark suffering of the condemned.  

But here I think is the genius of this reading- just as we are about to start the  new liturgical year, looking to the fresh promise of God coming to us, we have before us the narrative that reveals most clearly the nature of who this God is,  and the Divine relationship between truth, love and power.  

The idea of power cannot be avoided when you celebrate Christ the King. It pays  to remember the origins of this feast day. Pope Pius XI instituted The Feast of  Christ the King in 1925-after the horrors of the First World War where  nationalism had unleashed so much violence. It was a climate of increasing  secularism and individualism, where fascism was on the ascendant and the  church was being persuaded by new ideologies and dominant personalities. Mussolini had been dictator in Italy for three years, Stalin was coming to power  in Russia, and Hitler’s popularity in Germany was just beginning to take hold. This day is a feast of resistance against the demagogues of this world that would  seize power and wield it with violence. Rather than one who would rule by  exploiting fear and weakness, in Jesus is found a king who embodies weakness  but transforms it through love into the greatest power of all.

So before we begin to look to the promise of the coming king, we are reminded  to choose clearly what kind of ruler we serve. 

Of course many today would say they do not serve anyone. We help our friends,  we love our families, we live up to our responsibilities as an employee but historical and cultural pressures since then have encouraged us to see ourselves  as ultimately subject to no one- but ourselves. Who else, after all, can you trust,  when you are working on the project of yourself? Post-modern thought has set  us free from some oppressive structures that limited human potential, but it has  also ruptured boundaries and left many floundering for any foundation of truth.  We have rightly turned our backs on leaders who have become corrupt or  interested only in political gain. Such leaders have caused a crisis in confidence  in leaders and power in general, and have even tainted the Christian language  of Christ as King. In this context, being subject only to yourself may sound  liberating. However, without a compass point of truth and a meaning beyond  ourselves we can find that we peel away the layers and find within us that there  is nothing to stand on, nothing to live for, nothing to die for. We find ourselves  not living into our truest, most unique self, but rather looking a lot like everyone  else. The one thing you can always say about original sin, is that it’s not original!  Jesus, who lives in and through a surrendered relationship, subject to the  Father, is able to live and die in perfect freedom and love. And that is a move of  true power.  

There were crowds at the foot of the cross that terrible day who all looked a lot  like one another. In their lostness, they join together in the cries of “Crucify  him!”, gather around the dice and argue over his clothing, spit and mock and  scoff. We can recognise this as the mob mentality, finding in Jesus an easy  scapegoat for their own darkness and acting not out of freedom but out of  hatred and fear. Perhaps one of the reasons for the current global crisis in  leadership is that we have not acknowledged the existence of evil and that  complacency has dulled our thirst to seek that which is good and to raise up  leaders who would give their lives in service of this truth.  

And here we find ourselves circling again around the question of Pilate, “What is  truth?” What is this truth unto which we are being asked to give our lives? What  is the truth we can find in a society today that seems not to believe in any  absolute truth? I think we have the answer when we can gaze upon the cross  and proclaim Jesus as King. There at the cross we see Jesus not just as a willing victim, surrendered to the will of the Father, but a forgiving victim. The reading  from Colossians points to the truth when it tells us that God has “rescued us  from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved  Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” The powers of  darkness lay across all those on that terrible Friday who were carried along by  the angry mob and acting with cruelty and violence against one who had done  them no wrong. At this point Jesus cries, “Father forgive them, for they do not  know what they are doing.” In that one sentence Jesus robs Satan of the power  to accuse and condemn them, restoring their inherent identity as sons and  daughters of God.  

But when Jesus says “them” who are they?  

Surely he could not mean Pilate, who seemed to have an instinct of justice, but  didn’t follow through. Surely he could not mean those religious people who  abused their power and enjoyed the prestige of their position, but plotted to kill  him? Surely he could not mean heartless soldiers who nailed him to the cross,  bartering for his clothes while he suffered in agony. Surely he could not mean  those who spat and mocked, going along with the crowd in their jeering and  animal hostility.  

How wide is the mercy of God? 

Father forgive them- they don’t know what they are doing.  

Here, finally is the good in Good Friday, and here is the kind of power which  overthrows the darkness and sets the captives free. If Jesus can say “Father  forgive them” to all of “them” who did not know what they were doing, he also  says it about us, who so often do not know what we are doing. We are one of  them and one with them. God’s mercy is wide enough to gather up all of us….indeed at the heart of Christianity is a recognition that there is no longer  “us and them”. There is only “us”.  

God’s grace is sufficient even when we are caught up and complicit in systems  of violence and oppression, when we are not sure what to believe, when we are  lost and frightened and betray our own best selves.  

How much do we ever, really know what we are doing?

In the last century Freud and Jung made clear the power the unconscious can  have over our lives. Whereas the problem with original sin is that it is so very  unoriginal, the problem with the unconscious is that it is unconscious! We need  to get over this idea of sin as naughty behaviour. It is rather the desperately  unoriginal human condition where we are all imprisoned by our same  competing desires as we try to live subject only to our self, however good our  intentions.  

By the forgiveness of sins, we are citizens of a new commonwealth, one that has  defeated the violence, scapegoating and judgement of the world which robs us  of our inherent and unique identity as beloved children of God. This is the  power of Jesus, the suffering, servant king, who, as our post-communion prayer  has read these past months, “gives us grace and opens the gate of glory”. 

It is worth noting, finally, that King Jesus did not seem to require a suitable  show of repentance before calling on God to forgive. Jesus petitions the Father  for forgiveness ‘for a people who are hopelessly entangled in a great conspiracy  of evil’1. This is central to the good news St Paul proclaims, “While we were still  sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Such grace is the outpouring of God’s  love in solidarity with us in all our sufferings and confusions. Such love is the  only power in the world that can rescue us from the slavery of our own desires  and liberate us to be uniquely ourselves, graced and beloved, loving and  forgiving one another as free citizens of the commonwealth of Christ. And then  in gratitude and joy we can sing with all the saints and angels “And he shall  reign for ever and ever. Amen.” 

1 Edward A. McLeod Jnr, in Feasting on the Gospels– Luke, Vol 2. Cynthia A Jarvis and Elizabeth Johnson, eds, Westminster John  Knox Press, Kindle edn.

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