The Glory of the Cross

The world held its breath as a boy stood in front of a tank in Tianamin Square – an image of peaceful confrontation that can never be erased.  Whatever the immediate outcome, that image animates, provokes and provides a template by which Chinese history will be judged into the future.

Martin Luther King in Washington declaring “I have a dream”.  Saint Francis of Assisi stripping off in protest in the Cathedral.  Nelson Mandela warmly shaking hands with the jailers on his release from Robben Island.

There are many other images that will always confront the human imagination.  Creating these images is the work of a prophet.   They are images of power exercised by the apparently defeated, images of a liberated human spirit confronting huge, apparently immovable systems. They are images that have confronted and changed human history.  Prophets are those men and women who search after truth, and speak that truth whatever the cost.

Here is another image, a humble man who entered his home city on a donkey surrounded by a crowd at a religious festival.  Who is arrested by the occupying forces, and condemned by the religious leaders of his day.  And who now stands before Pilate, and yet refuses to disclose the power which is at his finger tips.

On this Festival of Christ the King we return to one of the final episodes in the life of Jesus, as we find it reflected upon by the writers of the Gospel of John.  We do not know if the dialogue which we have just heard read for us from the Gospel of John was actually remembered by the Early Church or imagined by them much later.  But (whichever is the case) the scene is designed to confront us with Jesus’ seeming fearlessness at the hands of human leaders, as he proclaims a Kingdom which is not from this world, but which will effect this world totally and fully.

John’s Gospel gives us three especial glimpses in the final moments of Jesus’ life of what this Kingdom will be like.

Firstly, (and we did not hear about it today, but we will be familiar with the story) Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey.  He comes to fulfil the prophecies of the past which say that a Messiah will enter through a particular gate in the city to bring about change.  But Jesus’ entry is not as his followers had expected.  His arrival does not signal the start of a violent rebellion, because Jesus has come to show that his Kingdom will not be found in the places where strength and might are to be found.  That is why he has continually taught his disciples that it is those on the margins, those in need, and those who love peace who will find themselves in his Kingdom, and not those who are the rulers of the present age.  The Kingdom of God will be a Kingdom for the powerless, and not the powerful, when the order of things is turned around.

Secondly, there is the scene with which we are confronted today.  Jesus – proclaimed by some as the King, and named a King by others as a form of mockery – meets with the earthly rule of that place, Pontius Pilate, in his headquarters.  Pilate gives him the opportunity to save himself by clarifying his position and his loyalty to the occupying Roman Empire.  But Jesus signals instead that the Kingdom of God is a place where truth is proclaimed, and to which those who desire truth will be attracted.

And then thirdly, there is the most powerful and baffling scene of all to come.  As Jesus hangs on the cross.  These first two scenes – of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the encounter with Pontius Pilate, only make sense in John’s Gospel when we are forced to come face to face with Jesus on the cross.

It was Mel Gibson’s film of the last moments of Jesus’ life, which really brought home to me for the first time the sheer agony of Jesus’ experience, and the violence that the cross symbolises.  For those who stood around and watched it would have seemed like Jesus’ ministry had ended in agonizing and embarrassing failure.  We can suspect that the disciples felt this too, given that the resurrected Jesus meets them huddled away in an upper room living in fear and not knowing what the future would hold for them.

For the writers of John’s Gospel, the drama of the cross has a different meaning altogether.  It is on the cross – in the vulnerability and pain of his final moments, that Jesus reveals to us most fully what it means to live life in communion with God.  It is after all, the utter self-sacrifice of Jesus which opens the key to humanity’s salvation.  So for the writers of John’s Gospel the cross is for Jesus, what a throne is for a normal king.  It is the place where his power and glory and most fully revealed, even though those who watched on at that time, (not knowing the end of the story) could not see this for themselves.

That is why images of Christ as King throughout the history of the Church have always placed him upon the cross.   We do not find images or depictions of Jesus on a throne, because his throne is the cross – that is where his glory is ultimately revealed.  The significance of this for us, is that that is where his Kingdom is defined.  If we are looking for a Kingdom of power and might, we have come to the wrong man – for we find in Jesus a Kingdom which is built of loving sacrifice and service to others.

The Feast of Christ the King (which we celebrate today) is a relatively new celebration in the life of the Church.  Unlike some of festivals which date back to pre-Christian times, the Feast of Christ the King was inaugurated in the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius XI in 1925.  It is fair to say that it took some time for us as Anglicans to catch the vision for it, and then to add it to our own calendar of religious feasts and festivities.

It is worth remembering what was going on in European history in the 1920s which influenced the Pope’s decision to proclaim this festival.  In the 1920s in Europe there were three significant movements developing all of which caught the attention of, and brought concern to the Pope.

The first was the rise of Stalin in Russia; the second (much closer to home for him) was the rise to power of Mussolini in Italy, who had come to prominence after the First World War.  And that concerned the Pope greatly, because gradually under Mussolini, the laws and regulations in Italy were becoming stricter and tighter, to the point that Mussolini’s true nature as a dictator was becoming clear.  At the same time as these two great movements were emerging in Russia and Italy, further over in Germany, the Nazi movement – a political and military movement – was also coming to prominence.

It is often conveniently forgotten by those of us who are committed to the life of the Church, that Hitler began many of his speeches with words from the Bible.  He often held an old black tattered Bible in his hand when he spoke at rallies.  His language was overtly religious, it appealed to the National Church in Germany which supported him, and it appealed as well to ordinary Germans who saw him as the one who had been called by God to lead their nation out of its post-war troubles.  Hitler spoke as one who had the whole weight of history on his shoulders and who was about to bring about monumental change for good.  And yet we know how devastating his leadership proved to be.

So for Pope Pius in the 1920s there was an overarching concern that the leaders who were coming to prominence in Europe, regardless of their rhetoric, were not providing healthy models of Christian leadership as found in the life of Christ.  They were movements which were essentially fuelled by fear and not by love.

Pope Pius – looking at the leaders of his day – knew that he needed a more powerful image to help the Church from being sucked in to their rhetoric.  He looked no further than the image of Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe.  The one who’s kingship was greater than any earthly leader, and who’s reign was more majestic than any earthly power.

The Feast of Christ the King was created by the Roman Catholic Church in 1925 and (after some time) was accepted by other traditions as well, including the Anglican Church, which is why it is in our calendar.  It is in this Festival that the words of that well-known Graham Kendrick hymn become most fully alive:  “This is our God, the Servant King.  He calls us now to follow him.  To live our lives as a daily offering, of worship to the Servant King.”

We celebrate today (rather nervously suspect) our place in a Kingdom in which crowns of gold are put aside in favour of the bare wood of a blood stained cross.

The Kingship of Christ challenges how we perceive every Kingdom in this world, every power and authority on earth (and especially how we use our own power and influence) and it orientates us back to the heart of the life of Jesus.

Now, this is a significant Sunday for us.  The next time we see Barbara and Peter and Wendy in Church on a Sunday they will have been ordained to the priesthood – the priesthood of this King Jesus.  This week they will be heading off on retreat with the Bishop, and they will return to us as people who have been set aside to point us to Jesus and his Kingdom in a new way.

They will be visible signs for us (for good or for bad) of the Kingdom of God in Murrurundi.   They will help us to find the presence of God in the sacraments, they will be set apart as people who will model for us what it means to stand at the edge and speak the truth, and not be the people in the centre in the place of honour.  And they will represent God to the people who live around us.  They will do this in a new way for us, because they have not come to us from somewhere else, but have been raised up from within us, to represent us in a special way.

They will have power and authority on behalf of the Church which they have never had before.  And they will need to be careful to live as priests of Christ the King, whose Kingdom is one of service, rather than as priests of another model.  We will need to be careful too to honour their ministry amongst us, in such a way that we understand them to be our servants not our kings and masters.

What is true for them of course, is actually true for all of us in a slightly different way.  Each one of us is a sign of the Kingdom of God – and that sign will be most clearly seen through our loving service to others.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, whose throne is his cross, whose jewels are the nails, and whose crown is made of harsh thrones.  At this Eucharist we re-commit ourselves, with all of our natural anguish and reservations, to follow in his example as we live out the promises of his Kingdom.