Saint James Fordham • Proper 29c • Tobias Haller BSG
The soldier mocked him... saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”
What does a king look like? We all carry pictures in our heads evoked by words, images that pop up when we hear a word like king. Many people, I’m sure, probably picture a figure like Henry VIII. Though if you’ve seen any of the TV dramas about Henry recently, you might have a very different image in mind. In an effort to promote a younger viewership, they’ve got actors playing Henry who look more like Brad Pitt than Charles Laughton — Henry as a hunk instead of a slab! But perhaps you are familiar with the famous portrait of Henry as a stately monarch standing defiantly arms akimbo vested in splendid and colorful robes.
On the other hand, kings are often more comical figures, subject to ridicule and caricature especially in our democracy. So perhaps instead you might picture one of those comical cartoon kings, the little chubby guys with goatees and tiny crowns perched on their heads, your average Dr. Seuss kind of king. Whatever image first leaps to mind when you hear the word king, I think I can guarantee that it will almost never be the image of a condemned criminal about to be executed.
We expect kings to be seated on thrones, not electric chairs. We expect kings to exercise their power in the freedom of their monarchy, not to be fastened down in the incapacity of bondage and death.
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Yet this is the central paradox of Christianity, the embarrassing scandal that made it and makes it so hard for some people to understand: that our king — and more than a king, the Son of God incarnate, Jesus Christ — that our king died on a cross, executed for insurrection against the Emperor, nailed up and hung out to die in naked agony on a rocky little hill outside the walls of a provincial city in an outpost of the Empire.
This was and is hard to understand. For some it was and is impossible. It was, as Saint Paul told the Corinthians, a scandal to Jews and a folly to Greeks — in short, to the whole world a notion that was absurd and tragic — the very idea that the one through whom all things were created should be so powerless! And that is because in most minds — then as now — kingship was and is associated with showing your power, especially power over others. To be a king is not just to be powerful, but to display that power through control, to have in your hand the power of life and death over others and to use it, to be able to shout out, “Off with his head,” or “I dub thee, Sir Wilfrid.”
At the very least, to be a king means to have complete power of self-determination: no one can judge or forbid the king anything. The King is the boss! As I said before, many people picture someone like Henry the VIII when they hear the word “king” — and Henry certainly was powerful and willful. He enjoyed exercising his power and his will, and nobody, pope, queen, chancellor or archbishop, better get in his way! Henry once wrote a little song about himself, and so we have his own testimony on this matter: “Grudge who will, but none deny; so God be pleased, thus live will I!” Or, to put it in more contemporary language, “Nobody crosses the king.”
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That is why it is so very hard for so many to see the kingship of Christ. Here is a king who is crossed. It is the cross that confounds our notions of kingship. Here on the cross is a man seemingly completely bereft of self-determination, literally nailed down so that he cannot move, stifled and in pain so he can hardly breathe. For those who see control and self-determination as the sign of kingship, it is the powerlessness and immobility of the crucified Christ that render him incomprehensible.
Many don’t understand him now, as they didn’t understand him then. And this is why the voices rang out through our Gospel today, echoing three times. “Save yourself!” cried the religious leaders, the soldiers, and even the criminal at Jesus’ side, three points of view representing the whole world, civilized and uncivilized.
The religious leaders, even while they acknowledged Jesus’ power to heal and save others, called upon him to prove himself Messiah by saving himself. They echoed the doubting words from the very start of his ministry, when the leaders of his hometown challenged him to do for them the same sort of miracles he’d done elsewhere. How ironic that religious leaders should show such a lack of faith!
Those who say, “Prove it and then we will believe!” fail to grasp that the kingdom of God is built upon faith, not evidence. The kingdom of God is based on love, not proof; freedom, not compulsion. The kingdom of God is not about force, but invitation — it is not make believe: no one is made to believe. But all are given the gracious opportunity to come to the banquet; to taste and see, and seeing, then believe. And so those who looked for proofs could not recognize the king when he came to them full of faith in his Father, full of love for them, came not to lord it over them but to set them free. Instead of being lifted up by its astounding and shocking glory, the religious leaders stumbled over the scandal of the cross.
The soldiers mocked Jesus, and said to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” These are the worldly wise. They don’t know from religion, but they do know from authority. They know Caesar; they know what kings look like and what kings can do. The soldiers who mocked Jesus as he hung on the cross knew what it meant to have power, to be able to issue orders, and take command. And they knew that this poor, naked, pitiful figure was no more like a king than either of the helpless criminals crucified to his left and his right. And so to these Gentiles the cross was simply foolishness, an absurdity to be laughed at, a sick joke at the expense of a madman who thought he was a king.
And so the civilized world, Jewish and Gentile, rejected the cross and the one who hung upon it, rejected its scandal and its folly.
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And what of the uncivilized world? They have a voice in this drama as well, in the person of the thieves, men who have rejected civilized behavior in return for satisfying their own needs and desires over and against those of society, who have chosen themselves ahead of others, breaking the golden rule of the social fabric.
So it is that finally, one of the criminals, himself condemned to death and hanging on a cross, challenged Jesus to save himself — and him — if he was the Messiah. The irony is that this criminal had it partly right. Jesus was there to save him, to save him and all who had erred and strayed, to save even those who nailed him to the cross, to save the entire world, for that is just how much his Father loved that fallen world, loved it so much that he gave his only Son — not to condemn the world, but that all might be saved. Jesus was there to save them all, but he could only do so by not saving himself.
It was in this act, in his not saving himself that his true kingship was revealed. It was his self-determined self-sacrifice that crowned his divine kingship. The only perfect individual ever born, the Son of God, the firstborn of all creation, for whom and in whom all things were created, made the one possible perfect act of self-determined self-sacrifice — not in showing his power over others, but in revealing his power, his power to choose for others. Only the offering of his perfect self in perfect sacrifice upon the cross could restore the royalty that once belonged to all humankind, made after the likeness of God’s Son, the express image of the invisible God. Only the act of a true king acting in true humility could bring peace to a world gone out of all control, through the misuse of the power to choose, God’s gift to his human children, spent in seeking to control others rather than in loving them.
Humankind had abused the royal power to choose, and robbed itself of its own majesty by choosing selfishly instead of for the sake of others. But one man, one perfect man, showed us there was another way. This, my brothers and sisters, is the royalty of Jesus: that he chose not himself but others, chose completely and utterly to give himself — for all of us. In Christ, and him crucified, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Even if he was unrecognized by those who stood mocking in his presence, taunting him to save himself while he was busy saving them, his kingship is nonetheless real.
It is not the kingship of power, but the kingship of sacrifice, the kingship of the hero who saves someone else at the cost of his own life. Such heroism will be embarrassing or scandalous to those who wouldn’t think of dirtying their hands to help another; such heroism will be foolish to those who see power and control as the only marks of a person’s worth; such heroism will be outrageous to anyone who thinks only of himself at the expense of others.
But such is the heroic kingship of Jesus Christ, the heroism that chooses freely to give up its freedom so that others might be free. This is the kingship of Christ our King, through whom — in this one great act of self-determined self-sacrifice, laying down his life for all of us — God was pleased, as Saint Paul said, to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Do you want to know what a real king looks like? You need look no further to see all might, majesty, power and dominion, than to that cross, that Christ, that King.+