Feast of Christ the King
St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Sunday 24 November
Song of Zechariah
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.