Christ the King, November 20, 2016, Gretchen Rehberg
“He is the image of the invisible God”
and where do we see him this morning, this feast of Christ the King,
on the cross.
This day we name and worship Christ as our King, our only King, the ruler above all other rulers, the one to whom we give our ultimate allegiance. And this King is on the cross.
This image should end for all time our earthly understanding of what it means to be a king – the image of King as one who is always the most powerful, the wealthiest, the one who orders and all obey. This image should be held up at all times in front of any who dare be in positions of authority or public trust. “Do you want to rule? – Then look at the cross and see the picture of the ultimate ruler. Can you do this; can you give your life for the people? This is what it means to rule.”
Two thousand years ago a group of Jews made the claim that their Rabbi was actually the Son of God, that he was born of a virgin, had been put to death by the Romans but had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of God. Now the western world at this time was ruled by the Roman Empire, this giant military super power, from England to India the might and power of the Roman army controlled the lands, the power and rule of the Emperor was absolute. And one of the major religions of the day was the cult of Mithras. The followers of Mithras believed that he had been born of a virgin, that he was a mediator between the gods and humans, that he ascended to heaven. Another religion of this time centered around the god Attis, his followers believed he had been born of a virgin, and each spring the followers of the god Attis gathered together to celebrate his resurrection. A bit earlier in time, as Rome was becoming an Empire, when Julius Caesar died a great comet was seen in the sky and people said that this was Julius, ascending to the heavens to sit at the right hand of the gods. His nephew Octavian who will come down in history as Caesar Augustus claimed that he was the son of God, sent by the gods to earth to bring about universal peace and prosperity. One of his slogans was that there was no other name under heaven by which people could be saved other than Caesar. Caesar inaugurated a 12 day celebration of his birth called “the advent of Caesar” and people would greet others in the streets by saying “Caesar is Lord.”
So two thousand years ago when those first followers of Jesus said that he had been born of a virgin, and was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven – those were not unusual claims, most people would have yawned and said “so what, another god claim just like the others.”
But the first followers of Jesus didn’t just say that Jesus was raised from the dead, they preached Christ crucified, and said that Christ crucified is about learning a whole new way of life, abundant glorious life that would bring about a better world. And this understanding of Jesus would put them into direct conflict with the Roman Empire, for of course Caesar believed he was bringing about a better world, bring this about through his power, through his armies, through his wealth.
What was truly different was the distinction between “Jesus is Lord” and “Caesar is Lord.” But it was not simply the distinction between the words Jesus and Caesar, it was not simply ‘well you all think that fellow is god and we think this one is’ – no the difference was in how the followers of Jesus and the followers of Caesar understood what that word meant, and how they were to live therefore as followers. For Caesar understood that it was by power of force, by the might of arms and the rule of a strong arm that empires were born and peace was kept. Jesus on the other hand taught his followers to take care of the poor, the sick, the outcast, to love their enemies, pray for those who persecute them, and to offer no violence to others.
When those first followers of Jesus said “Jesus is Lord” they were also saying in clear terms “Caesar is not.” Those first Christians believed very passionately that the world was not made better through military power and political coercion. The Gospel they were living had nothing to do with using political force to make people live according to your laws. For them the message of Jesus was about serving the world, especially those on the underside – the poor and outcast and neglected. For them it was all about serving, not ruling. And so they took the language of the empire propaganda and used it to say that their way, the way of Jesus, was totally opposed to the way of Rome. The way of Jesus was for them a whole way of life, a way of caring and sharing and loving.
The first Christians were a public witness by how they lived to this message of Jesus, and in their lives and witness others were brought to question the ways before them. Who do you believe – Caesar, who believes a new world is made by force, by political coercion and the might of his armies, or Jesus, who invites you to help make a new world by loving acts of compassion and generosity. Caesar, who killed Jesus, or God, who raised him from the dead – whose kingdom do you find more compelling. The Gospel is an invitation to a whole new way of life. Those early followers of Jesus gathered in loving, compassionate, generous, peace-loving communities where they believed Jesus was truly present. In those communities where the hungry were fed and the lonely loved and the poor honored, the question to all around was obvious ‘who truly is lord – Jesus or Caesar – who is making a better world.’ It was a living display of a whole new world God is bringing about here and now.
Fast forward in time and we find ourselves in the 21st century, and the world is a dark and scary place full of people making total claim over others people’s lives. It is a place of political and military might and rulers imposing their will on others. It is a time when the light of the Gospel seems to many to be dim. Into this time the Church once again cries out “Jesus is Lord.”
Our Gospel this morning finds Jesus on the cross; it is the very image which reminds us that Empire and Christianity are not compatible. For how can we be engaged in building empire when the one we follow is on the cross? How can we appropriate power and authority and rule when our leader is one who serves? Instead we look at the cross, and are called back to our knees. We learn again that the one who rules is the one who serves, that those who would be first must be last, that power is make perfect in weakness and we only find our freedom in service to others. It is where the hungry are fed, the lonely are loved and the poor honored that Jesus is truly Lord. It is where love and compassion and mercy and forgiveness and generosity are evident that Jesus is truly Lord. It is where people see the hands of Jesus at work in the service of his followers that Jesus is truly Lord.
I was once asked by an enthusiastic young evangelist whether he had been saved, and whether I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord. I was not brave enough answer what I should have said, which is “Why do you ask me such a thing? I could tell you anything. Here are the names of my banker, my grocer, and my neighbors. Ask them if Jesus is my Lord.
I wish I would have been brave enough, but I wasn’t at that time. When we are brave enough, then Jesus will truly be Lord.