Here's my sermon from this morning!
“This is the King of the Jews.” “This is the King of the Jews,” says our Gospel reading today. “This is the King of the Jews” - those are the words written above Jesus' head as he died on the cross. This is the King of the Jews.
For us, living in 21st century America, we take some pride, I think, in not having a king, not being ruled by a monarch. After all, we fought for our independence from the British crown some 200 years ago. So we don't have a king, or a queen, and we like it that way. At the same time, perhaps our political system distances us somewhat from the meaning of our festival today: Christ the King Sunday. We know, of course, what a king is, but we don't have to think about kings very often in our daily lives. We may not always have a good sense of what a king looks like.
If you've been following the news, you have probably heard that Prince William of England has announced his engagement to his girlfriend Kate Middleton. You've probably seen all the pictures of them together, and all the members of the royal family who are weighing in on the match. So we've had a reminder, we king-less Americans, of what monarchy means. We've had a chance to look at the probable future King of England, to be reminded of what a king is like: the power, the wealth, the life in the public eye.
And then we have our Gospel reading this morning. On the festival celebrating Christ as King, we read about Jesus being crucified, brutally tortured and mocked. “This is the King of the Jews!” the Romans sarcastically declare. To call this convicted and dying man a king is the greatest possible contradiction. The Roman soldiers are not making a statement of faith – they are making a cruel joke. Likewise with the religious leaders who call Jesus “Messiah,” meaning the chosen one of God. They have condemned this man, convicted him, and executed him. Now they mock him with titles of power, reveling in the obvious contradiction between the crucified Jesus and the meaning of “Messiah” and “King.”
I hope you are shocked by the starkness of the contradiction here, between “Christ the King” and Jesus dying on the cross. It is shocking. It is a misuse of the title “King,” someone who rules and has power over others, to apply it to a convicted and dying criminal. Yet we celebrate this festival of Christ the King. We lift up the cross as the central image of our faith. Perhaps we forget sometimes that the cross was an instrument of torture and death, the means by which the Romans kept their many territories in line. We worship here in the shadow of this cross. Imagine if Jesus had been born in a different time – we could be looking at an artist's representation of a guillotine, or an electric chair. How dare we celebrate and glorify death and violence in this way? How can we possibly call Jesus “King”?
Certainly, you will remind me that this is not the end of the story. After all, we know what happens next: Jesus is taken down from the cross, his body is laid in the tomb, and within three days he has risen again. But we do not get to hear the Easter story on this festival. You will not come back a week from now to celebrate the empty tomb. No, Christ the King Sunday leaves us here, at the cross. It is the end of our church year and the end of the story – next week, we start the story over again with Advent, waiting for Christ to be born. So we end with the cross, with the mocking and the cruelty, with death.
It is not enough to skip to Easter, to the resurrection. We cannot look to the risen and glorified Christ to find justification for calling him “King.” You see, if we focus only on Easter, the cross becomes meaningless. If we focus on Easter, then we cannot answer the question, “Why did Jesus have to die, and why die in this way?” We cannot explain the cross by glossing over it, by gilding it with the glory of the resurrection.
No, you see, we have to wrestle with the cross, we have to let the cross reveal its own meaning. We can't skip over this just to get to the “happy ending.” If we want to understand Christ, and if we want to know what it means for this man to be our King, then we have to let the cross speak.
So what does the cross mean? What is the significance of hanging this image in our worship spaces and wearing it around our necks? There are three important pieces of this death of Jesus, three rejections: a rejection by religious authority, a condemnation by civil authority, and an abandonment by God. Bear with me for a moment as I say a few words about each of these three.
First, Jesus was rejected by the religious authority: as we know, it is the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Priests, who want to have Jesus killed. They are threatened by his popularity and by his message. As far as they are concerned, he is a heretic — after all, he claims to be the Son of God! And remember, before we pass judgment on these religious leaders, that we are like them. If you meet a man on the street who tells you he’s the Son of God and that God is coming, do you immediately drop everything and follow him? No. You probably assume he is mentally ill and you cross to the other side of the street. For these religious leaders, Jesus was not just a madman, he was a blasphemer. For this reason, they sought Jesus’ death.
Second, Jesus was condemned by the civil authority — the Roman Empire, specifically through the authority of Pontius Pilate. That is why Jesus was killed on the cross at all: for the Jewish community, the usual sentence of death was carried out by stoning. However, the Jewish leaders and the crowds demand crucifixion, a death that the Romans handed down on political rebels. And Jesus’ claims about the coming reign of God certainly were threatening to the Roman Empire. There were others who claimed to be the Messiah and who led violent rebellions against Rome — Jesus might have been seen as one of these. So he had to die.
Lastly, and this is the most difficult to understand, Jesus was abandoned by God. When we read in some of the Gospels that Jesus cries out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” we should take these words seriously. Even though Jesus was the Son of God, in the moment of his death, he felt abandoned even by God. When we talk about the birth of Jesus, we often say that Jesus gave up the power and mightiness of God to be born as a helpless child. How much more so is Jesus removed from God in this moment of his death? After all, as ridiculous as it is for a king to die this way, it is far more ridiculous — even impossible — for a god to die. It is one of the great paradoxes of our faith: Christ is fully human and fully divine, yet Christ dies abandoned by God.
So in the cross, we see that Jesus dies rejected by religion, by the state, and even by God. You may be wondering why this matters. Yes, it’s an interesting fact of Scriptural analysis; yes, it reminds us of how horrible Jesus’ death was; but what does it have to do with us? What does it have to do with our faith in Jesus or with our lives today?
Those questions are absolutely vital. We Christians, who follow Jesus, who wear the cross as jewelry and use it to decorate our homes — we must ask what the cross has to do with us. As I said before, we can’t just skip to the happy ending of Easter, as important as the resurrection is for our faith. We have to understand the cross, the significance of the cross in our lives.
We are followers of Jesus, and Jesus told his followers again and again to “take up your cross and follow me.” The cross is not only the means of Jesus’ death, it’s also the model of discipleship for those who follow him. So for us today, also, we have to look to the cross to understand how to be disciples of Jesus. What does it mean to take up our own cross?
Certainly, it does not mean that all followers of Jesus will die by crucifixion like he did. “Taking up our cross” is not a literal instruction — and crucifixion has fallen out of style in the last two millennia. But how does the cross have meaning for us, even today?
We must look back at that triple rejection I mentioned earlier. Jesus died rejected by religion, the state, and God. His rejection was not accidental; he was not a victim of circumstance. Rather, Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem, chose to anger the authorities, chose to die on the cross. And he chose this death to be united with all those who are rejected by religion, the state, and God. Jesus took on those rejections to stand in solidarity with the rejected. Jesus died abandoned, so that the abandoned might feel hope.
So it is for those who follow Jesus. We are called to “take up our cross,” to accept rejection because it puts us in solidarity with those who are already rejected by the “authorities” of the world. That is not an easy prospect; discipleship should make us pause. Don’t let anyone tell you that following Jesus will make you rich, powerful, and successful. To follow Jesus means accepting the harsh reality of the cross. To declare Jesus our King means giving up the ideals of earthly kings — the power, the money, the glory. To celebrate “Christ the King” this morning means we have to turn all our expectations on their heads, because this King is a King on the cross. This is the King of the Jews. This is our King.
Reflecting on the cross of Christ is difficult. Not only does it require some sophisticated theological thinking, but it is a painful subject to contemplate. It’s more pleasant to remember the resurrection, the joy and glory that come with Easter. Yet it is the cross — not the empty tomb — that is the center of our faith. On Christ the King Sunday, we remember the death of Jesus. On this day, we reflect on what it means for Christ to die on the cross, rejected by the powers of his world and by God. As we make our faith claim — saying, “This is our King!” — we must acknowledge the implications it has for our own lives. To name Christ our King, to live in the Kingdom of God, means that we will take up our own crosses. To follow Jesus means following him into rejection and lowliness. But it also means that we follow a king who knows what it means to be rejected and abandoned. It means we are part of a kingdom which cares for the lowly. And so, when we name Christ our King, we proclaim good news for the world. Amen.