The Crucified King
Sermon date 11/22/2015
My last church ventured into the modern age with the establishment of a website. The person in charge chose to work with a template for churches. It turned out that the template was geared, primarily, toward Roman Catholic Churches. The top of each page featured a crucifix – Jesus on the cross.
Now, there was a member who made it a habit to look for any way that we might “sin” by being “Roman Catholic” in our approach to faith. Why she didn’t see that having a clergy woman as pastor set us apart – I don’t know. But, she constantly delivered zingers on her way out the door. She fumed one Sunday, as she left, over the fact that the morning bulletin had said “homily” rather than sermon. “What’s the difference?” I naively asked. “Homilies are what priests give,” she retorted. “We’re Presbyterian!” I couldn’t even begin to think of a response. It wasn’t until later that it dawned on me. Our preaching course in seminary was called “homiletics!”
So, another Sunday morning, she came out with her angry critique. “Why do we have crucifixes on our website?” she demanded to know. “Well,” I said, “they came with the website and we haven’t figured out how to change them.” I didn’t think it was a big deal. But, apparently it was. “We don’t have crucifixes!” she yelled at me. “We have the empty cross!”
I think she was quoting a statement that was prominent in Presbyterian Churches in an earlier age – when Protestants and Roman Catholics had little use for each other. In fact, I seem to remember hearing that statement in my childhood. “We have the empty cross because we stress the resurrected Christ!”
We stress the resurrected Christ. So, the cross is empty. There is no sign of Jesus’ pain and suffering. Easter is stressed. Good Friday is missing. We honor, we remember, we proclaim the glorious resurrected Christ without wounds. We want the King, garbed in beautiful robes, adorned with a glorious crown. “All hail, the power of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall; bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all!” says one hymn. “Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne; hark, how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own! Awake, my soul, and sing of him who died for thee, and hail him as thy matchless King through all eternity,” says another.
It’s tempting to think of Christianity in triumphant terms. And maybe Western history bears that out, to an extent. The Western world was shaped by the spread of Christianity. Most Western nations have Christian roots. So, we hear people proclaiming that “the United States is a Christian nation!” “Christians” – primarily white, male, upper-class, Protestants have and had most of the power, both economic and political, in the country. That’s been the case since its founding. There is lots of talk about the need to protect that status – to keep us safe – from whatever the perceived threats are. Those vary from day to day, week to week, year to year.
“Jesus died for me.” Have you heard that statement? “Jesus died for me.” It is in some ways central to the Christian faith. “He died to take away my sin.” “He died in my place.” I wonder if, at times, that leads to a faith that says to Christians that, somehow, we are exempt from having to face the world’s messiness because Jesus has done that for us. So, we can live as the “triumphant ones,” the “winners.” I heard a pastor say, once, that he refused to let his congregation sing any hymns with a minor key (sort of mournful hymns) because Christians were the people of the resurrection. “We should only celebrate,” he said. As a way of expressing our status as winners, we will do everything in our power to protect it. We will make sure that Christianity continues to have a place of power and position in the world. We will keep our Christian crowns on.
The only crown Jesus wore during his earthly journey was the crown of thorns. It was a crown used to ridicule him – and, perhaps, to cause him physical pain. He resisted every attempt to name him king or ruler according to the traditions of his day. The crown of thorns is a reminder that he chose God’s way over all earthly ways. He chose to adhere to the ways of love and service even when it meant that he had to sacrifice privilege, safety, self-preservation – his own life.
We need to remember that Jesus asked his disciples if they were able to drink the cup that he would drink. We have to remember that he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” He wasn’t speaking about just putting up with the problems that come our way. He was speaking of a way of living that puts God’s values above all else.
It’s always tempting to look for wiggle room. Sometimes we declare that Jesus wasn’t living in the world we inhabit – so he would do things differently. He wouldn’t expect us to follow the path that he followed. Theological gymnastics give permission for all sorts of behaviors that are far removed from the way that Jesus lived. In the 1960s, Joseph Fletcher wrote a book titled Situation Ethics. In it he postulated that different situations meant love could be expressed in ways that might, at first glance, seem to be the antithesis of loving action. I remember that he spoke of the bombing of Hiroshima as an act of love –because it shortened the war.
Somehow, time gives us a clearer view. We might be somewhat forgiving of the action, knowing that there was complexity, knowing that there was great fear, knowing the cost of war. But, when we hear the stories, the heartbreak inflicted on the families of Hiroshima, can we call the dropping of the bomb an act of love?
I am greatly disturbed by public declarations made in the name of Christianity that seek self-preservation. It bothers me when congregations speak of the need to take care of themselves first. Then, someday, they say, they might be involved in mission and ministry that reaches beyond their doors.
It disturbs me when self-preservation, justified by Christianity, becomes part of the public discourse. And it is all around us!
But, thanks be to God, there are other voices. I am heartened that there is a growing outcry from many Christian circles – diverse Christian circles saying that we are called to minister to the refugees in our world. We’re called to minister, perhaps recognizing that there is always a risk in that ministry (although, the risk is extremely minimal!) The Biblical story is full of refugees. The Hebrews were refugees seeking a new land after fleeing Egypt. They were refugees carried off to Babylon in a time of war. We are told that Jesus’ own family was a refugee family who fled Herod’s wrath and sought safety in Egypt until the threat had passed.
Nowhere does the Biblical story tell God’s people to seek their own safety, security, well-being first, and then offer whatever might be leftover to those in need.
When our image of Jesus is that of the triumphant king, we forget the wounded God who hung on the cross. We forget the one who was willing to give up even his own life in order to bear witness to the ways, the values – the love of God.
It is a counter-cultural value that the Crucified God presents us. I have to admit, I’m not sure I could ever follow Jesus to the cross. I remember Peter who declared he would follow Jesus even unto death – but fled when the danger was too real, too close. Even knowing that God says the cross is not the last word, fear so often rules. But, doing theological gymnastics, proclaiming that we live in the real world and can’t afford to think, to live, to act as Jesus did, we are in danger of missing the good news of God proclaimed not through earthly power, but through the one who hung on the cross. The good news is that God is revealed through faithfulness to God’s ways. God is revealed through commitment that seeks to serve, no matter the cost.
Jesus trusted God. Jesus entrusted his life to God’s love and concern. The resurrection proclaims to us that we may have that same trust. We are God’s beloved children. So, we may follow God’s ways when everything in the world tells us that we are to look after ourselves first.
I have pictures on my computer, some of which I had gathered for particular worship services. When my computer went into standby, a few of those came up. I was reminded of modern leaders who did not seek to serve themselves first, but to point to and work for a world that more closely reflects the ways of God. I have a picture of Mother Teresa who dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor. Another was Gandhi. He didn’t call himself a Christian, but he chose the ways of Jesus as a model for his servant leadership. He was assassinated. Martin Luther King was highly influenced by Jesus and Jesus as interpreted by Gandhi as he sought to encourage our nation to embrace a new justice. We know that he paid for that service with his life. These three died, but their works, their examples, live on.
Frederick Buechner wrote that Jesus, somehow, emerged from death as a winner. “What emerged from his death was a kind of way, of truth, of life, without which the last two thousand years of human history would be even more unthinkable than they are…The symbol of Christianity is an instrument of death. It suggests, at the very least, hope.”
Christ reigns. Not just in the glory of God’s realm – but in the messiness of life as we know it. Because Christ reigns, we can live confident in the ways of God – even when those ways call us to face that which gives us great fear. Amen.