The Way of the Cross Is the Way of Life and Peace
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections: 1 Sam 8:4-20; Dan 7:13-14; Rev 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
No doubt the world has seen enough of kings, and still we find them fascinating. And why not? They will be with us for as long as we read Shakespeare, re-tell the history of King Arthur, and pray the prayer of our Lord, even when they no longer divide the territory of the world among warring factions and along shifting boundaries. Scripture records in the 8th chapter of the First Book of Samuel why Israel demanded a king: the people had been ruled by judges, but the sons of Samuel “didn’t follow in his footsteps. They tried to turn a profit, they accepted bribes, and they perverted justice.” So the elders wanted “a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” This idea seemed very bad to Samuel, but the Lord said, “Comply with the people’s request,” because they are rejecting me, as they have always done, “but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.”
So Samuel told them: “He will take your sons, and will use them for his chariots and his cavalry and as runners for his chariot. He will use them as his commanders of troops of one thousand and troops of fifty, or to do his plowing and his harvesting, or to make his weapons or parts for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, or bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his servants. He will give one-tenth of your grain and your vineyards to his officials and servants. He will take your male and female servants, along with the best of your cattle and donkeys, and make them do his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and then you yourselves will become his slaves!” But the people insisted, “No! There must be a king over us so we can be like all the other nations.” And Samuel complied with the people’s request, and he gave them a king to rule over them.
This explains why, when Pilate questioned Jesus, and asked “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.” Kings on earth are never legitimate, and the divine right of monarchs was always falsehood. God’s created order was not intended to serve the fancies and whims of the the few whose arbitrary authority demeans the lives of the many who are its pawns and slaves. Throughout all history, people have been perversely compelled to escape God’s freedom by subjecting themselves to other human beings. Only in the divinely centered realm of the imagination can we see the king with no clothes, and begin to comprehend the sovereignty of the Suffering Servant. This is what George Matheson does in his Hymn “Make Me a Captive, Lord”:
“My will is not my own till thou hast made it thine;
if it would reach a monarch’s throne, it must its crown resign.
It only stands unbent amidst the clashing strife,
when on thy bosom it has leant, and found in thee its life”
The last Sunday of the liturgical year is dedicated to the glory of the triumphant God: the Way of the Cross; the Way of Life and Peace. The image, Christ the King, fraught with irony, yet finds a place in the symbolic language of God’s revelation. We understand its contrast between divine rule and human rule. In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus tell Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” His kingdom is not one that soldiers fight to protect; his kingdom “proceeds from another source.” The memory of King Herod, who had died just four years before Jesus was born, was still fresh in the minds of the people and the rulers; at his death, Judea was close to anarchy. Josephus said, “Any one might maker himself king by putting himself at the head of a band of rebels whom he fell in with.”[i] When Pilate says, “You are a king, then,” Jesus says, “King is your word.” Jesus says, “If you want to use the word King, know that I am King of truth: I was born and came into this world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
In the church cycle of feast days, Ascension celebrates the leave-taking of the Resurrected Son from this world and his enthronement in heaven; Christ the King celebrates the supremacy of truth. The fitting image of Christ for this feast is the Pantocrator: Yawweh Sebaoth, ruler over all. In contrast to the “meat and drink” kingdoms of this world, the Kingdom of God is known for “righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rm 14: 17). Likewise, the “power” of Jesus Christ is not the power to conscript and tax; divine power is “the power to give eternal life, to liberate from evil, to defeat the dominion of death. It is the power of Love that draws good from evil, melts the hardened heart, brings peace amid the harshest conflict and kindles hope in the thickest darkness.”[ii]
People did not crown Jesus and they cannot depose him; in the Book of Daniel, we are given this picture of the reliable stability of faith:
“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Dan 7:13-14)
In the grand conception of divine history, it is the will of the Ancient of Days “to restore all things in Christ:…All creation is to be redeemed and restored to its original perfection so that once again the Creator can look at all that has been remade, the whole universe, and as in the beginning (Gen 1:31) declare it “very good.”[iii] In this process, human wills are conformed to the divine will. Paradoxically, our submission to God via transformation is perfect freedom, “none other than the way of life and peace.” “If we put love for our neighbour into practice in accordance with the Gospel message, we make room for God’s dominion and his Kingdom is actualized among us. If, instead, each one thinks only of his or her own interests, the world can only go to ruin.”[iv]
Anticipating Advent, we look both forward and backwards; we look forward to the Second Coming and backwards to the child’s birth, and in both we see the Passion and the Resurrection. Looking forward to the Second Coming, we pray in the daily office for Advent this antiphon for Psalm 110: Christ our King will come to us, the Lamb of God foretold by John.” And in John’s Revelation, we hear, “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.” The triumph of Jesus resides in our remembrance of his Passion. Zechariah urges us to “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). Once more we are confronted by the image of Christ the King that overthrows all expectations. Paul says, “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered” (Heb 2:10-11).
The language of the Second Coming echoes that of Advent in at least three contexts: literal, historical fulfillment; symbolic, imaginative promise; and interior, faith encounter. Karl Barth writes,
“Unfulfilled and fulfilled promise are related to each other, as are dawn and sunrise. Both are promise and in fact the same promise. If anywhere at all, then it is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation. But faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. It is fulfilled faith because it lays hold on the fulfilled promise.”[v]
“In strict analogy with the incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ, what takes place in man by the revelation of God is this: his humanity is not impaired, but in the Word of God heard and believed by him he finds the Lord, indeed in the strict and proper sense he finds the subject of his humanity...”[vi]
Grace and peace proceed from Christ: he is the “faithful witness” of the truth from God; the martyr who is “firstborn from the dead,” and sovereign ruler of the powers bound to earth.
Christ’s vindication and exaltation encourage the church. His redemptive work points to the fullness of the age to come: wherever the commandment to love is kept – and the wisdom of love continues to be taught – Christ reigns; wherever the church and “All thy works … praise thy Name in earth and sky and sea,”[vii] Christ reigns; wherever joy has overcome lethargy, Christ reigns; wherever there is goodness and mercy, Christ reigns; wherever a table is set for the stranger, Christ reigns; wherever courts are just and governments are honest, Christ reigns; wherever violence and destruction have ended, Christ reigns; wherever exploitation and oppression have been banished and the vulnerable protected, Christ reigns; wherever the poor and impotent and empty are given hope, Christ reigns; wherever peace is present and fear is absent, Christ reigns; for there the days are glorious and all of life anticipates the consummation of its fullness, when “every eye will see him.”
The perfect society is illusory – like a dream; we are plagued by sin and attachment to self. The church stands between the two worlds of heaven and earth, for Christ “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (1:5-6). Only when heaven and earth pass away, as the new heaven and earth is born, will perfection be real. Christ the King is the festival of ends – the Second Coming – and beginnings – the coming of the Child. It boggles the mind that these two events happen simultaneously and at different times – one in the past and one in the future – and both – in eternity – at once, which is the present, here and now. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev 1:8). Amen.
[i] Antiiquities 17:285, quoted in F.F.Bruce, The Gospel of John, 353
[ii] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (2009)
[iii] Philip H Pfatteicher, Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, 298
[iv] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (2008)
[v] Karl Barth, Christmas (1959), quoted by Justin Holcomb, “What Is Advent?”, http://justinholcomb.com/2012/11/30/what-is-advent/?utm_source=hootsuite
[vi] Barth, Church Dogmaticas, Vol I.2, 374
[vii] Reginald Heber, Methodist Hymnal, 64