Sermon - Christ the King - Year C
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Jesus, remember me

Two criminals were crucified with Jesus. One said to him,

The leaders of the people, the soldiers and the other criminal had been taunting him about being a king: This idea of Jesus being a king seemed to amuse the soldiers. They and King Herod had made fun of him: After his trial: Yet was it all jest? Was there yet a serious thought that he might indeed have been a king? That was after all the charge against him as far as the Roman Governor was concerned: It was a point of some difficulty for Pilate. He gave in to the crowd and sent Jesus to his death to satisfy them, rather than have to cope with a possible riot, although he believed Jesus was not really guilty of insurrection; but he needed a legal basis for the death sentence and it was sufficient that Jesus be called the king of the Jews. They were a subject people, who might rebel against Rome if they were given a chance. So he wrote the sign to be placed over Jesus on the cross as a warning to any hot heads who might imagine that the weight of Roman authority could be removed.

What Pilate wrote as the reason for his condemnation of Jesus was a point of contention between Pilate and chief priests:

Bureaucrats have their reasons, sometimes, for telling the truth!

Was he really a king?

During the trial it was a real question. Pilate asked him directly, Are you the King of the Jews? [Mark 15:2-5] ... It is you who say it [or The words are yours; or It is as you say]

Have you no reply at all ... to Pilate's amazement Jesus made no further reply.

According to John 18:33-38 Jesus gave some explanation, trying to grapple with the inability of a secular ruler to understand a kind of rule that was different from his: "Are you the king of the Jews? .... What have you done? ..." He relied, "Mine is not a kingdom of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my men would fight ..." That gave Pilate what he was looking for:

The Jewish authorities however knew a little more than Pilate about different kinds of kings. They knew that many expected a special kind of king to come as one anointed, marked out and blessed as the holy one of God, called the Messiah (the Christ). It was not something that they fully understood, but they knew he would be more than a military ruler. They had some idea of what it would mean for him to come from God, although not with the glorious power that Paul saw in Jesus after his resurrection and ascension. The image of the cosmic Christ as Lord of the whole of creation, as we were thinking of him last week, following Paul, contained more than had yet been revealed to them. As in the epistle for today: The idea that the Creator of the universe would reach out to his human creatures in human form was a much bigger idea of the Messiah than the Jewish rulers could be expected to have. But they would still have known of prophecies that gave strong and dramatic images.

The Messiah as suffering servant

To understand how confusing it must have been we need to see in the terms of their limited understanding, that Jesus appeared to be giving mixed messages. He was a humble man, but he spoke with authority. He gave commands and even the evil spirits obeyed him, yet looking back after they saw how he died the disciples were able to see in him the figure of the suffering servant of Isaiah chapter 53:

He willingly gave his life and shared the fate of wrong doers. He took the place of many sinners and prayed that they might be forgiven. That suffering servant image of Christ was the basis of the teaching about who Jesus was that we find in one of the earliest examples of conversion and baptism -- Philip and the Ethiopian, Acts 8:26-38.

The humiliation of the suffering servant described in Isaiah some hundreds of years before Jesus was born was clearly seen by the faithful in the way that Jesus was humiliated through flogging and mockery before and during his crucifixion, while ignorant men jeered at him for his kingship.

The Messiah as Son of Man

Jesus called himself the Son of Man and we easily relate this to his humility and to the way he identified himself with the common people. Indeed, one way of translating this title "son of man" is to say that he simply called himself a human being, and that is the term used in a recent translation of the prophecy in the book of Daniel which links that very ordinary human character with a figure of great power:

I gazed into the vision of the night
And I saw, coming on the clouds of heaven,
One like a son of man.
He came to the one of great age [or the Ancient of Days]
and was led into his presence.
On him was conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship, and men of all people, nations and languages became his servants.
His sovereignty is an eternal sovereignty
which shall never pass away,
nor will his empire ever be destroyed. [Dan. 7:13,14 Jerusalem Bible]

That is the way it is expressed in the Jerusalem Bible, which is similar to many others in using the title "Son of Man" but perhaps a little more poetic at this point. The New Revised Standard Version, which is the current standard used in theological education, has instead of "Son of Man", "one like a human being". So the prophet saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven ... and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

When Jesus called himself the Son of Man or a Human Being he must have known this prophecy. He intended people to understand him as "the Son of Man" not only his humanity but in his kingship as described in the vision of Daniel. This Son of Man was also a king with dominion over all peoples, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

How much did the Jewish rulers understand of this human suffering king when they asked him if he was the Messiah?

According to Luke it was a little different: So he admitted to being a king, of a sort perhaps, but what kind of king?

The call for a personal response

The soldiers who mocked and the criminal who scorned him had a limited understanding, as did the Roman official. The leading Jews were closer to it, but could not believe that he was the one. It was a cause of great controversy among them over the coming years: and after they saw what happened when he was killed some believed what Peter said to them on the day of Pentecost: This Jesus whom you killed was the Lord's Messiah. [Acts 2:22-36.]

Can we blame them for getting it wrong? After all, the question of who he was has puzzled and challenged all sorts of people in all ages of history and still challenges people throughout the world today. It is the deepest question for humanity. Not only is it a question about the man Jesus. It is also a question about the nature of God. If Jesus is who the apostles said he was, then God is more than the great ruler high above the earth, he is one who is prepared to limit his exercise of power in humility as he reaches out to humanity in love, caring for them and desiring them to know him, and assuming all their limitations, taking their burdens upon himself, so that people could be set free to love him and live in a conscious relationship with God that would last for ever. If Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Mediator, the Word made flesh, then what God has to say to the world invites a personal response from all whom he challenges in this name of Jesus. It is always a personal question and it is so still for us today. What we think of him, whether this human being was and is Christ the King who has the right to claim allegiance of all humanity, that is the compelling question. It is both public and personal. It is a question of how we will be related to him - for ourselves and for the world. How do you answer that question, personally?

The one dying with him who rebuked the other criminal for his derision knew that much: that it was a personal matter for him to be related to this king and his kingdom:

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