Sunday, November 25, 2007

Holding Together

Holding Together

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Jeremiah 23:1-6 — Luke 23:32-43
November 25, 2007

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying,

“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

Driving along the road, I have occasionally seen those crude signs, we all probably have, that simply declare, “Jesus is Lord.” “Lord” is really just another word for royalty, another way of saying that this simple peasant Jesus whom we come to worship is also his Majesty, Lord Jesus. The typical roadside location of such a sign is disingenuous in its own way. It rarely appears atop a tall building, or on large, well-lighted highway billboards or on Times Square. It is a type of sign pretty much confined to the small sort of cardboard-on-a-stake poster that can be pounded into the ground among the weeds along the roadside, or slathered in crude whitewash on the side of a building or a bridge abutment. Hardly the stuff of Madison Avenue ads for liquor or cars, and made all the more ridiculous for its low self-esteem as advertising goes.

I don’t know why, but as I drove from Seattle to Salem a few months back, I noticed a restaurant along the way with its name, Whimpie’s, emblazoned on a sign out front, and underneath the name a signboard displayed a series of three words. But the effect was in seeing them all together, the disjunction, when you read, “Whimpie’s: strong, proud, united.”

“Whimpy” and “strong, proud and united.” Those are things that are hard to hold together in the same frame.

Think on kings for a moment. Think on Pharaohs, on Ramses I, on Emperor Julius Caesar, on King Louis XIV, on King George III, on Henry VIII, on Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand, on Catherine the Great, Czar Nicholas I, and the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, on Alexander the Great and the Emperor Napoleon. All that glitters may not be gold, but when we think of royalty, we think of unfettered power and gilded glory.

Then take another moment to think on a different cast of characters. Think on Corey Hamilton, Roy Pippin, Chris Newton, Kenneth Parr, Clifford Kimmel, Lonnie Johnson, John Hightower. These names, by the sound of them, could be a list of corporate CEOs, or outstanding athletes, or scholarship winners. But they are not. Few of us would have recognized that as a roster of a few of the 42 people executed by the end of September in the USA, 26 of them in Texas.

How little the one list has to do with the other, a role call of history’s well-known and celebrated alongside a roll-call of the despised and forgotten. A Sunday set aside to honor Christ the king sends me into this sort of reflection on incongruities and unlikelihoods.

What does it mean to worship a king who rules from atop a cross, a sovereign whose realm is substantiated by his own execution, whose courtiers are no more than two others who share the same crucified fate? John’s account of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion has it that Pilate directed the sign to be made to place over Jesus’ head, declaring him to be “king of the Jews.” All the gospels agree there was some such sign on the cross. It’s difficult to tell who would have been mocked more by this, the pathetic figure dying on the cross, or the Jews themselves, a people so enfeebled politically that their king might as well have been an executed criminal. Their hopes for empire were as good as dead, as much as the figure before them on the cross was only hours from from drawing his last breath.

There is so much to know about the theology of the cross of Christ, and also there is a great deal to be explored about the image of kingship in both Old and New Testaments, but this day on the church’s calendar brings together both cross and crown in a way that makes it difficult to ignore either one, and yet they seem so impossible to hold together in the same thought. A crucified king. A crowned enemy of the state. An executed monarch who reigns.

Sending a king who rules through his own death and resurrection, God makes an important statement to the world about power, who has it and to what ends and by what means it is exercised. This is the foundational stuff of our faith. Clearly, if the crucified Jesus is a king, he rules over some other kind of kingdom than the sort to which we are most accustomed. If the world is ever to understand Jesus as king, it cannot do so without also holding up, together with his royal image, the image of the crucified one. He is crowned, but with thorns. He is enthroned, but on a cross. He gazes down on his subjects, but from the very instrument of his execution. The crucified king. He is both, always.

A close friend of mine said of the executed Messiah, “He never lost sight of who he was.” Meantime, we have such difficulty holding together these two aspects of Jesus, the crucified Messiah. It is the crux of his royalty: power and powerlessness wrapped up in one person.

It is Jesus, the supreme authority who questions authority. Scripture suggests that while we should obey those in authority, we also ought not take them too seriously. One student of these things reminded his readers that Jesus told his followers to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but he never spelled out exactly what belonged to Caesar (Matthew 22:21). Paul said we should obey political authorities because their authority derives from God (Romans 13:1-6). But neither Jesus nor Paul hesitated to act on their faith in ways that were bound to draw the displeasure of the authorities.1

William Wilberforce is a name too little known in contemporary times, yet his work of almost two centuries ago changed the world forever. In the mid 18th century, he was a young, wealthy, wild, carefree English aristocrat. Then he found himself at a Wesleyan revival meeting where he set all that aside and decided to exercise his faith by entering ... politics. That’s right, politics. When he felt the call of God, this wealthy young man felt it drawing him into the world of government. He was elected to Parliament and for 40 years he was England’s leading crusader against slavery. In 1787, when he began his crusade, European slave ships carried 100,000 newly captured slaves to the Americas each year. England led the way, carrying half of this number. The British economy had prospered and, some would say, grown dependent on this trade. There were those, like our own Thomas Jefferson, who lamented the “peculiar institution,” but who never lifted a finger to stop it. Jefferson died without freeing his slaves, and Washington freed his only upon his death.

Wilberforce knew this trade was a sin against God. He and his allies prayed three hours a day over the many obstacles in their way. Though his opponents insisted that abolition of the slave trade would ruin the British economy, he insisted that righteousness is more important than money. After 20 years, the British abolished the slave trade in 1807. In 1833, the very year Wilberforce died, the Parliament abolished slavery altogether, the culmination of the work of a lifetime, of a person now largely forgotten, but with implications that continue to stretch from his time to our own. Eventually, over time, the rest of the world followed his example so that today slavery is an almost universally despised institution, though it most certainly still exists in several forms in the modern world.

William Wilberforce was able to accomplish this because he believed in the crucified King, that Jesus is Lord of politics as well as of our hearts.

The words Jesus spoke from his cross of death are the most startling incongruity of all. Looking to his side, where one of the thieves crucified with him had asked simply to be remembered in his kingdom — “What kingdom?” the bystanders must have wanted to ask of this pathetic man whose near-death delirium was clearly causing hallucinations — to him Jesus responded, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” One writer said the guards themselves might “have felt something like embarrassment and turned away from the sheer lunacy of the scene.”2 Yet today it is Christ we remember as king, not Herod, not Caesar, not Napoleon.

Jesus, the suffering one, Christ the king. How do we hold together these two seemingly contradictory thoughts? Paul wrote to the Colossians, “.. in him all things hold together.”3 The fact is, we don’t have to hold anything together. It is Christ who holds the world together, it is in his own person that crucifixion and majesty reside. We cannot alter it either through better understanding of it or worse. It is so because it is who he is.

Christ the King Sunday always turns up on the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, a week before we begin to consider Jesus’ advent, his birth and then his ministry in the world. It is an important reminder as we think about entering the season of the Bethlehem baby that he would come one day to rule, not from a throne, but from a cross.

What do we give to such a king who suffers for our sakes? How do we honor him? We can offer him something only when we offer someone else something, a cup of cold water to “one of the least,” perhaps; a life committed to leaving the world better for Christ’s sake, as did William Wilberforce; a commitment to maintaining a state and country in which the freedom of all places obligations on the liberty of each.

All hail Jesus, the crucified King who reigns forever!
1 William Mahedy and Janet Bernardi, A Generation Alone: Xers Making a Place in the World, InterVarsity Press.
2 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark, Seabury Press, 1969, p. 63.
3 Colossians 1:17.