Christ the King
The Reverend Dr Michael Chandler
25 November 2001 - sermon preached at Canterbury Cathedral
'When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals (Luke 23/33) .. And the people stood by watching... ' (v 35)
If you and I were expected to watch a crucifixion, we would be distressed and horrified even though we are entirely accustomed to violence on TV and in newspapers. The agonised shrieks of the condemned men would give way to moans and both sounds would be mixed with the distress of friends and relatives, and with the noise of the world going about its business. There would be the blood, the mess, the smell of sweat and fear and worse.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the suffering, but not difficult to overdo the description in a sermon. So, let your own mind play upon the spectacle, like 'the people [who] stood by watching'. And then remember the identity of the man in the centre, with the criminals, 'one on his right and one on his left' (Luke 23.33). Remember him in the context of what was to be written about him a few decades later. We heard one such passage a few minutes ago; here it is again: - 'He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and earth were created, things visible and invisible, ... all things were created through him and for him. He himself is before all things' (Colossians 1:15-17).
It is one of the massive ironies of the Christian story that we have become entirely accustomed to both the realities that I have tried to describe. We read descriptions of Jesus' crucifixion without realising the horror. We read about Jesus' divinity without being disturbed by relating the two.
In reality, the crucifixion in its own right, like any atrocity, is a scandal. It is also a very real stumbling block, because of the true identity of the victim . - This is not to say that other brutal deaths are not shocking; of course they are. But with Jesus we see brutality meted out to the one person whom we believe to be divine. The victim of that particular atrocity was the man whom later generations have learned to call their Lord; the Prince of Peace, the ultimate example of the Good Shepherd called by God the Father to care for the human flock of every generation. The crucifixion of Jesus was the ultimate humiliation of human innocence because of his divinity. Without the recognition of that basic and underlying fact, the death of Jesus is merely one among a huge number of murders of good men - and there is no shortage of that crime, even in our own day.
We cannot explain God and his work. The thought processes of divinity are, by definition, forever beyond our perception. Any attempts to explain God and his work throws us back on to comparisons with human experience. The very best that we can ever muster is to say that God is 'like' ... whatever. And those comparisons must always be inadequate. We see and experience the reality of God in our lives; creation, love, forgiveness, and so on, but when it comes to explaining that reality, our words falter and our language becomes inadequate because our thoughts are not his thoughts.
What we do know, though, is that his love and mercy are unconquerable and that they are so very much more profound than even our greatest human 'achievements' or aspirations (if we may so speak) even in those highest areas of human thought and activity.
All this is fairly obvious, and so is the Christian belief that the 'unknowability' of God becomes clear to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In him, the human and the divine are found together in perfect harmony.
In Jesus there is - mysteriously - the one and only meeting and mixing of the human and the divine. So it was that at the crucifixion those who called out, 'If you are the Messiah .. if you are the King of the Jews ..' those people spoke more truly than they knew. Motivated by hostility, nevertheless, they spoke of the divine mystery that (in our different way, twenty-one centuries later) we want to understand. As I have already said, it must forever remain beyond our understanding, but (even so) we can recognise it for what it is. The cross is the supreme demonstration of God's love. There could be no higher or greater demonstration. God himself, in Jesus the Son, gave himself up to that horrible death. That is the one vital thing that makes what happened so utterly significant in human history. The entire 'episode' of Jesus, the incarnation as we are taught to call it, is the point at which the life of God meets with the life of you and me.
With bitter irony, Jesus' executioner put up the notice over the cross, 'The King of the Jews' (Luke 23/37), and he was right - although only partly so. More perceptively he should have put, 'Lord of all the world'. What he could not know, the man who wrote that notice, was that events had not come to their end. Everyone thought that they had. After all, the leader of what we might call the 'Jesus Movement' was dead, lifeless, hanging on a cross. He had been put to death by a form of public execution that the Romans had invented, 'and the people stood by watching'. It had not been a Jewish punishment; so even Jesus' manner of dying had strangely international connotations. If the sign had indeed said, 'the Lord of all the World', that might have been a hint; yet, even then, no one would have guessed how accurate that phrase really was.
You and I know what happened next. The buried body of Jesus had, within the next three days, become the risen body of Jesus. By a divine act which is every bit as mysterious as God's other activities, Jesus Christ rose from the dead and this - to turn back to our second reading - enable us 'to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has rescued us from the powers of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son' (Colossians 1:12-13).
This brings me back to where I began. No one could have known the implications of that particular execution - except, it seems, that one of the criminals had begun to guess! Those who stood and watched may have seen dozens of crucifixions and may have had their senses dulled to the horror - as ours are these days to the TV pictures of far away wars.
Even if that were not so, even if they were as acutely aware of the awfulness as we watching, would be -even then they could not have known what was to come. It is the contrast between the reality of the immediate events - crucifixions, pain, despair - and the true reality of the full story which, even today, seems to make faith difficult for many people. And yet, that is the way it is. Out of the darkness and grim brutality of the crucifixion, shines the love of God. It is St. John's gospel that handles the idea of Jesus reigning from the cross, and it is the true idea, for Jesus our Lord does reign as Saviour, Redeemer and Christ the King. In doing so, he reveals the love and mercy which is at the heart of God, but it is love and mercy shrouded in mystery beyond human comprehension: the love, mercy and mystery of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
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