November 2012

The Crib and Cross ©

The Scandal of True Power

I confess that I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the fact that the Church places the feast of Christ the King right after a series of apocalyptic readings that focus our attention on the end of time. I believe that this regal view of Christ’s kingship could encourage triumphal thinking about the church and about being a member of the church.

Despite the incarnation, this image of Christ on a throne with a crown and scepter tends to once again separate God, and by extension, deny the messiness and complexity of daily, national and even church life.

Taken as a whole, the Gospel challenges that separation. It brings us back to the hard reality of life. Jesus faces unjust condemnation. And the insignia on top of the cross will declare for all to see that Jesus is a king–is, not will be the king of something.

In fact, Jesus says to Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world.” He doesn’t say that my kingdom is not of this time. He says that he is king of another realm, which is not tied to time. It is the realm of eternal truth and infinite love. Pilate judges Jesus according to the rules of another realm—a realm of deceit and jealousy; a world of fear and falseness.

If you think carefully about this Gospel reading, it’s no wonder that people have always had trouble with Christianity. Christianity is scandalous. To cause scandal is to shock or disappoint. Then, it caused a scandal that God took on human form in Jesus. It caused a scandal that this Jewish teacher would breach the rules that Moses had so carefully passed on to the people of Israel.

It caused a scandal that the saviour of the world would die the shameful death of crucifixion. And it caused a scandal that the king of kings would be a poor, homeless man without power or wealth. It was a scandal for any right-thinking individual that the long promised messiah would not play by the rules.

Jesus broke lots of informal rules; he broke some formal ones too. This was scandalous to the mind of self-righteous people who acted as though that they had the monopoly on virtue. He also caused confusion among civil authorities. The religious and political authorities didn’t know what to make of this man whose statements and actions did not conform to any existing framework, unless you paid attention—as he did—to the spirit of the law.

His truth was a hugely inconvenient one because it disturbed powerful people, people in charge of the status quo. So who could have thought that this man, the one whose torn body hung bleeding on a cross outside the gates of the city, who could have called him a king? That would have been a scandal.

The incarnation made no sense. One of the first theologians of the church wrote a treatise against heretics that refused to accept what is for us a fundamental doctrine, namely that Jesus is both human and divine. To many people at that time, this was blasphemy.

One of the leading theologians of the last century wrote a book called The Scandal of the Incarnation precisely on the understanding of how shocking such a claim would be. Yet, we know that this is precisely who Jesus was, and is. It would be scandalous to us to refuse the teaching that the son of God took human form. To accept it then seemed just as scandalous to the religious elite.

Leadership in the form of one who would wash the feet of his disciples made no sense. Leaders then were warrior kings, conqueror, liberators, muscular characters who pulverized their adversaries and led their nations to great glory.

It was scandalous to even imagine that the messiah would be born in poverty and live in a way that didn’t distinguish him from prostitutes, tax collectors and blind beggars, and die naked, disgraced, alone, save for the faithful presence of a handful of people that no one cared about. Only much later would we grasp the wisdom of servant leadership, of humility and love as being key to effective leadership?

Holiness makes no sense by the rules of this realm. Failure by Jesus to resist arrest made no sense. How could someone sent by God turn the other cheek to those who had oppressed his people? How could a king when facing the brutality of occupiers and domineering leaders tell Peter to put away his sword?

How could a king stand defenceless before Pilate who had the power to release Jesus? Crowning a king with thorns made no sense to the people who might have otherwise followed him. How could the saviour of the world betray their hopes?

How could he leave them so alone and vulnerable against the immanent dangers of this world? To those in the thousands who had followed Jesus during the first years of his public ministry, Jesus proved to be an apparent disappointment. To their way of thinking, he had deceived them.

Would we have thought any differently? Would we not have rejected this blasphemer as the Pharisees did? Would we not have been maddened by his failure to change the social order as Judas was? Would we not have despaired because of his ignominious death as the disciples from Emmaus did? Would we not have doubted his resurrection as Thomas did?

None of this makes sense by human standards. The life of Jesus can only be understood through the eyes of faith. His life was a scandal because of how we judge people and events, even today—especially today. Would we vote today for a man who cared more about the poor than his own life? Would we associate with someone who made no effort to be politically correct or save his reputation from being trashed by elites? Or someone who advised us to sell everything that we have and to follow him, or her? If we did, our families and friends would be scandalized, would they not? They would think us irresponsible, and possibly in need of medication.

Another theologian in the 13th century, who laid the foundation for this feast of Christ the King, speculated that the arrival of Jesus in the world cameprecisely when humanity both needed it and was best able to accept him. Some did, but for the overwhelming majority of people, the darkness did not recognize him. Is it any different today?

Even in its heyday, I wonder if Christianity would have welcomed Jesus had he appeared in person. Today, this morning, would we follow this king, resurrected indeed but still bearing wounds, still calling us to a lifestyle that most would regard as scandalous?

The kingship of Jesus was not recognised then. It would neither likely be recognized today, despite 2000 years of Christianity, because it is expressed quietly. It comes, not from above, but from underneath to lift us to the Father. Humanity is stubborn: we too often recognize only what we want to see.

The kingship of Jesus is a kingship of moral leadership, not imposed dominance. Its power comes from the eternal truth of love. At the end of time, we will come to see this truth as the Alpha and the Omega of life: the beginning and end of everything. True life, life that is eternal, is love. That is the essence of the divine in human nature: our capacity to love. That’s the truth of everything that Jesus did and said.

This authority, based in eternal truth, is indeed not of this world, as Jesus instructed to Pilate. It is of God the Father, uttered by Jesus, and dwelling in our hearts though his Holy Spirit. It is the confident voice of a king.

I’m thankful that the Word of God comforts us in the darkness that occasionally colors our lives. But I’m also grateful that it shakes me up when I’m feeling complacent. I need that from time to time. I need to be reminded that what is important is not always evident or easy. I need God’s irresistible force, his Holy Spirit, to pry me loose from complacency in order to find true joy in my authentic and higher self as painful as that growth may be at times.

I need to be reminded of the limits of my mind and the signs of God’s love in my heart. Most of all, I need to have God remind me that love is not a mushy feeling and that truth is not a vague theory.

Christ’s throne may be a rough-hewn one. His crown may not be something we’d like to wear. As I gaze upon a crucifix, I’m reminded that truth is king, and love rules. But unlike the powerful of this realm, from this place of truth and love, Christ sees across all time and all parts of the universe, and he sees into the human heart. He sees the beauty of your deepest yearning, and he sees the pain of messy lives.

Make no mistake about it: Christ is king. In his realm, you will find true safety and the happiness of love.