First Lutheran Church
CHRIST THE KING
Text: John 18:33-37
THE PARADOX OF CHRIST THE KING
This is the last Sunday of the Church Year. It is called Christ the King Sunday. On this day we find Jesus facing a trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. In fairy tales, a king sits on a throne, a king lives in a castle, usually located on a hill (a safe place), surrounded by a moat for the utmost protection for the king and his family. Because of the often pre-conceived notions of what a king is, we need to be reminded that Jesus, both in His life and in His death, redefined what it means to be a “king.”
In fairy tales, and in history, Kings are powerful, not powerless. Kings defeat their enemies by force, not by love, particularly, not by sacrificial love or suffering love. Kings are not crucified. Christ the King is a paradox. Pop culture religion doesn’t understand paradox. Pop culture religion still lives the fairy tale, where the King uses power, uses force, to subdue or to defeat the enemy. This is still happening today. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia used his power to kill an American Journalist who criticized him. This Crown Prince will one day be the King of Saudi Arabia. The issue of Jesus’ kingship is already raised in chapter 6 of this same Gospel. After Jesus satisfies the bellies of the 5000, they try to seize Him and force Him to be king; but Jesus slips away. His authority as king originates not from this world, but from God, and His kingdom has to do with the reign of love, not political expediency aimed at personal grandeur and greatness. Christ models a very different kingship than we might expect—a king whom we find on a cross rather than on a throne. Yet, it seems that many people, including many Christians, still prefer Jesus to be an all-powerful King sitting on a throne in control of everything that happens and exercising power to destroy His perceived enemies.
Jesus knows that we always tend to attach ourselves, or perhaps even enslave ourselves, to cynical rulers for whom power and coercion are synonyms, so long as they satisfy our bellies and require no sacrifice from us! Jesus knows that later in the story the people of God will cry out, with the most devastating irony: “We have no King but Caesar!”
The religious leaders wanted to get rid of Jesus, but either could not officially find Him guilty, or feared the crowd reactions if they did. For whatever the reason, they decided not to sentence Him to death for blasphemy—teaching false religious doctrine. Instead they sent Him across town to the secular authority, Pontius Pilate, and informed him that Jesus was guilty of treason—that is, trying to overthrow Roman rule. Pilate, like many people today, doesn’t really oppose Jesus, but finally only ignores or marginalizes Him.
Pilate has only one legitimate concern, and that is whether Jesus poses a threat to Rome. If Jesus is assuming the role of king, that is treason—punishable by death. However, “Pilate is skeptical and disbelieving. “This man a king?” You must be kidding! …One glance at his prisoner is enough for the governor to discern that it is absurd to see Jesus as a real King.
However, to be absolutely certain that he has nothing whatsoever to fear from Jesus, Pilate attempts to get at this issue of treason: “Are you” he asks, “the King of the Jews?” If Jesus answers, “Yes,” He would be guilty of treason. The Romans decided who was to be king, not Jewish Religious Leaders. The irony is that Jesus is, indeed, a king, but one who poses no threat to Rome. Readers of this Gospel, privy to the rest of the story, know this. Some of us want to interrupt and say, “Yes, He is a King, but not as the religious leaders are portraying Him!” Jesus answers Pilate’s question by saying, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
“Aha,” Pilate jumps at the comment. “So you are a king?” Essentially, Jesus says, “If that is what you want to believe. If that is what you want to hear. Think of me as a king if you must!” Of course, Pilate now had what he wanted. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, Pilate had these words inscribed above it, “This is the King of the Jews.”
The word king is itself a problem. It smells of everything that keeps so many of our post-Christian friends away from the church: pre-Enlightenment mustiness, patriarchy, triumphalism. In literature, irony is the discrepancy between the reality of a situation and the words used to describe the situation. Pilate certainly thought he had an eye for irony. Above the cross he had inscribed the words, “This is the King of the Jews.” What a huge joke! The One who proclaimed the gracious rule of God, who had coolly “reflected” Pilate’s question about royalty, had been dressed out in royal garments, mock-worshiped, and finally nailed to a cross beneath the explanation, “This is the King of the Jews.” In Pilate’s eyes the joke revolved around the discrepancy between the regal bearing of Jesus and the dismal reality of His impending crucifixion. Real Kings are not powerless! Real kings are not crucified. This is the paradox of Christ the King.
Throughout history the church is always tempted to seek worldly authority—to ally itself with worldly power. However, the church does best when emulating Jesus as the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay His head (Matthew 8:20) and who brought sight to the blind, helped the lame walk, cleansed lepers, made the deaf hear, raised the dead, and brought good news to the poor (Matthew 11:5). Just as Jesus’ power was in the cross, so the church’s most effective witness is in service and sacrifice to people in need—and not in political connections, spectacular productions, or great architecture.
Jesus came to show us a new kind of king. In New Testament times, the religious leaders and their followers knew what kind of king they wanted. They wanted an old kind of king. They wanted another Solomon or David. They wanted a king who would lead them, sword in hand. They wanted a king who would cut down their enemies. They wanted a king who would march home with prisoners in tow. They wanted a king who would live in a palace—a king who enjoyed the better things in life. They wanted their king to give them the better things in life. That meant no more Roman soldiers on their soil. It meant no more Roman taxes from their pocketbooks. They wanted to make Israel great again! They wanted the same things from their king that many people often want from our president—Success, Victory, Prosperity, Authority, and Power. Oh yes, power, overwhelming power to do whatever he/or she wants to do!
But Jesus came to show us a new kind of kingship. His was not the power of a sword, but the power of love. He came to rule, not from a throne, but from a cross. He came riding, not on a great horse, but on a donkey. He came, not catering to the powerful, but healing the sick. He chose His inner circle, not from the super wealthy, but from fishing boats.
Jesus came to show us a new kind of king, but it’s easy to see that King Jesus was doomed to fail. Compassion is no match for a sharp steel edge. You can never make an army out of the lame, the blind, and the sick. Softness just encourages bullies. And, indeed, Jesus did fail. Within hours, He was being whipped and driven through the streets to His cross. The crowds mocked Him, and the soldiers finally killed Him. They hung a sign over His cross that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” but it was a joke. His whole life was a joke! Born in a stable among goats and crucified between two thieves! A poor start in life led to a poor end of life! We would be foolish indeed to follow such a foolish king!
But follow we do! Foolish disciples have followed this foolish Christ for two thousand plus years, and there seems to be no end of it. Foolish disciples follow Christ today. This morning, millions of people are breaking bread and drinking wine to become one again with the One who brought us the foolishness of the cross. This morning, millions of people will be receiving the true body and blood of Christ; millions of people will be receiving, through faith, forgiveness, life and salvation. The one who died lives again, in the flesh, in us, in the hearts of everyone living in relationship with Jesus, which is what faith is! Living in relationship with Jesus!
He is still called a King, but His Kingship is paradoxical. It seems to be a contradiction. This is part of the offense. Pop culture does not accept the offense. Pop culture Christianity still insists on focusing on the Almighty Power of Jesus the King.
However, the criminal, the thief, hanging on the cross next to Jesus seems to get it right! He seems to know that Jesus saves others only by refusing to save Himself. He seems to know that the mockery of Christ is unjust. He seems to know that things are not what they are said to be.
In some measure, his prayer puts it all right. However, what he does not see is that the crucified One has already entered into His Kingly Power, that the fullness of Jesus’ royalty is revealed in a promise that is made from the midst of suffering to one in desperate need hanging beside Him. The suffering and the promise—that is what makes Him King. This is the paradox of Christ the King.
The reversal of all our expectations occurs in the crucifixion of the king. By means of crucifixion Jesus exercises His Kingly Power. Did we really hear that? By means of the crucifixion Jesus exercises His Kingly Power. My atheist friends see the crucifixion as a clear sign of weakness. And right they are! Rather than exercising His Almighty Power to save Himself, He exercises sacrificial love for the sake of the world. When compared with coercive power, love always appears as weakness. And yet, and here is the irony, sacrificial love is ultimately the most powerful force in the universe. In the Book of Revelation, the Lamb, the Sacrificial Lamb, wins! Jesus exercises His Kingly Power by means of crucifixion. Here is the real irony. What was so obviously a huge joke—is true. But there is more. Out of this dismal ending God will produce a new beginning. Friday’s lullaby of death will become Easter’s trumpet solo. Friday’s fool will become Sunday’s Victor. In words laden with ironical double significance, the disappointed travelers on the Emmaus Road will tell the stranger, “But we had hoped that He was the One to redeem Israel.” We require the resurrection in order to see the vastness of this reversal and the hugeness of this joke, and to be reconciled to God and one another.
The Kingship of Jesus is still a problem. A majority of Christians in our culture still see Jesus Christ as King in the same sense that Pilate and others understood the meaning of Kingship. Many still see Jesus primarily in terms of Almighty and Controlling Power. We still haven’t fully grasped the true nature of the Kingship of Jesus Christ, i.e., how Christ can be both a triumphant King and the Crucified One at the same time. This is why it is difficult for us to fully grasp the significance of the crucifixion and what it means for the mission of the Church today!
Isaiah’s prophecy was that the Messiah would be a Suffering Servant. Jesus saw Himself as a Suffering Servant, as the One who identifies Himself with us in every conceivable way. As He said to His disciples, “I came not to be served, but to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many.” This is certainly not the way a King would act. This is certainly not what one would expect from a King! Jesus gives up His controlling power in order to love us. His power is subordinate to His love.
According to the biblical view, in creating us, and entering into relationship with us, God becomes vulnerable. The act of creation and redemption is an act of free self-limitation by God. God freely accepts limitation in order to love. If God completely controls everything that happens down to the smallest detail, then God would be responsible for evil. The great Love Chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 makes it very clear, “love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way…” Love does not control and manipulate. The point is simply that God’s power is always subordinate to God’s Love! If this is not the case, then God does not love! Coercive Power always manipulates and controls and insists on its own way! This is not the kind of love God reveals in Jesus Christ.
The God revealed in Jesus Christ really does share our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, our sufferings, our sorrows, our loneliness, our frustration, our despair. Many Christians have difficulty with that kind of Jesus. Even some Christian communities have extreme difficulty with that kind of Jesus. And yet, that is the Jesus of the Bible.
Jesus said to Pilate, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” The truth to which Jesus testifies is the truth of the cross. For two thousand years, it has seemed folly that a man would become king by dying on a cross. The Apostle Paul called it the foolishness of the cross. Jesus called it the truth.
As we end this Church Year, let us sing the words of this penitent thief. Oh yes, let us sing them! After I sing it through once, Please join me and we will sing it again, and again, and again.
“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)