Christ Our Crucified King

Christ the “King.”

The “kingdom” of God.

I wonder if we’re too used to these words, “king” and “kingdom.” They don’t unnerve us quite the way they should. They should be deeply unsettling.

After all, “kings” are absolute rulers. Each one is a single chain in a dynasty of absolute rulers. They rule over a “kingdom,” a geographical area inhabited by their subjects. The language of “king” and “kingdom” evokes power and privilege: servants at their beck and call, armies under their command, courtiers seeking their favour, their word the law of the land.

And kings have not had a good track record through history, especially not in ancient history. Their kingdoms have, by and large, been oppressive and unjust for all but those at the very top of the social pyramid, those closest to the king. Kingdoms are hierarchies of the strictest order, patriarchies of the strongest kind.

With ancient kings and kingdoms we’re a million miles away from Queen Elizabeth II, a million light-years from a representative democracy like Canada.

And it was into this jarring world of “kings” and “kingdoms” that Jesus came—and turned things on their head. Because Jesus was no ordinary king, and his kingdom no ordinary kingdom.

No king would be born in a barn, attended by the local riff-raff. But Jesus was.

No king would grow up in near-poverty, in a no-name village on the way to nowhere. But Jesus did.

No king would be heralded by a camel-hide-wearing, insect-eating, power-denouncing prophet. But Jesus was.

No king would choose both political insiders and political revolutionaries as his dinner guests, sharing bread and cup with them at his table. But Jesus did.

No king would heal sick peasants for free, or cure the daughter of foreign woman, or the servant of an enemy soldier. But Jesus did.

No king would promise their kingdom to the poor and oppressed and warn off the wealthy and powerful. But Jesus did.

A king would ride into the capital on a warhorse, armor gleaming and armies marching—not on a lowly donkey followed by religious pilgrims, like Jesus did.

A king would demand an audience with the powers-that-be and exact vengeance for his shameful suffering—not stand bloodied before them in dignified silence, exposing their injustice for all to see, like Jesus did.

Velazquez - Christ CrucifiedA king would be enthroned on a grand dais in pomp and ceremony—not lifted up on an executioner’s cross in darkness and storm, like Jesus was.

Jesus was no ordinary king, and his kingdom no ordinary kingdom.

We’ve seen this already in our previous text from Luke’s Gospel—God’s Messiah, the King of the Jews, dying on a Roman cross, making promises of paradise to a condemned criminal. But we also see it in the opening chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

Here Paul talks about God’s kingdom this way:

God’s kingdom is the “kingdom of his beloved Son.” That sounds like ancient patriarchy—men holding all the cards in the game of life. But Paul’s point is to use these words to recall Jesus’ baptism—“You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” Which means Paul’s point is to use these words to bring to mind all those ancient promises about Israel’s Messiah—Jesus is the true “Son of God,” the “Messiah,” the one who will bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

God’s kingdom is a “kingdom of light.” It is here on earth—make no mistake about it. But it’s not about a geographical location. God’s kingdom is “not of this world”: it is from beyond this world of darkness and death. But it is coming “on earth just as it already is in heaven”: God’s kingdom brings heaven to earth.

Wherever the light touches—this is where God reigns. Wherever oppressive evil is banished—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever life blooms in the midst of inevitable death—this is God, reigning from his throne.

Wherever God’s will is done—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever daily bread is provided for all—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever sins are forgiven, both “us” and “them”—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever people are delivered from the time of trial, wherever people are protected from evil—there God is, reigning as king.

All this and more is what Paul means when he says that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

God’s kingdom is also a “kingdom for all creation.” All things, Paul repeats, all things have been created in Jesus and through Jesus and for Jesus. All things are sustained in Jesus, held together in him. All things, all things are reconciled to God through Jesus. All things: visible and invisible, both on earth and in the heavens. All things.

And so God’s kingdom is a “kingdom of reconciliation.” Paul’s words here don’t just mean, “There’s no more fighting.” When Paul speaks here of Christ “reconciling” and “making peace,” he speaks of restoring something broken back to a harmonious whole. All is justice. All is life. All is peace. Shalom.

And so this reconciling work of God overturns the human hierarchies of this world, whether based on gender or race or wealth or status. There’s a reason why the New Testament says that we will “reign with Christ”—the fulfillment of God’s kingdom is a communal reign, all of us gathered together around Jesus, fulfilling the promise of being created in God’s image. And this communal reign has already started: “in Christ,” Paul says, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”

Remember, Jesus is no ordinary king, and his kingdom no ordinary kingdom.

Excerpted from my sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on November 20, 2016, for Christ the King Sunday. Image: Velázquez, “Christ Crucified.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

An Anabaptist Does Advent

Advent wreathI don’t recall talking about Advent in the church in which I grew up, an Anabaptist church with a conservative evangelical bent. Certainly we didn’t mention Lent. And those other church days, with names like “Epiphany” and “Trinity Sunday” and “Feast of Christ the King”? Those weren’t even in my universe.

We celebrated the five “evangelical feasts,” as I later came to know them: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. And Ascension was optional. Well, so was Pentecost, though believers often got baptized then. What really mattered was the Christmas Eve Sunday school service with Christmas carols and candy bags, some sort of sombre Good Friday remembrance, and lots of joyful singing and sweet bread on Easter Sunday.

Anabaptists have been suspicious of the church calendar throughout most of our history. It’s in the same line as church creeds and seven sacraments, going back to the early Anabaptist conviction that “if it’s not in the Bible we shouldn’t do it.” Advent and Lent, let alone the likes of the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, are not mentioned in Scripture, at least not directly. So they’re suspect.

Over the past twenty years or so, in fits and starts, I have gradually come round to observing the church year. At least in a general way—Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, Lent through Easter, the Ascension through Pentecost, and that wonderfully titled chunk of “Ordinary Time” culminating in Christ the King Sunday. And I’m not alone. Over that same twenty years or so, Mennonite churches have been moving more and more to the rhythms of the church year. (It’s about the only rhythm some of us move to. Mennonite joke.)

Why is this? I’d suggest there are some good, thoroughly Anabaptist reasons for observing Advent and Lent and all these seasons of the Christian church. Let me give two.

First, Anabaptists believe Jesus is central to all we do; observing the church calendar focuses us on the story of Jesus.

Every December in Advent we start by entering into ancient Israel’s deep longing for God to act, yearning for God’s kingdom to come. At Christmas, at the world’s darkest hour, we hear the angels and shepherds and Mary and Simeon and more: God has acted, the Messiah has come, Jesus is born! At Epiphany we watch as Jesus is revealed to the world at his birth and baptism (eastern and western churches differ on this, but in the west these bump together in the first couple weeks of January). Over the next several weeks, through winter’s chill, the days get longer and the light shines brighter as we see Jesus’ life and hear his teachings.

Then Lent arrives in February or March, just as winter’s death attempts its final assault, and we meditate on Jesus’ road to the cross, through Palm Sunday’s celebration of the humble Messiah, to Maundy Thursday’s participation in the Last Supper, to Good Friday’s holy grief and Holy Saturday’s dark vigil. But life conquers death, spring casts off winter’s cloak, and Easter Sunday dawns with joyful celebration: Jesus is risen!

Forty days later, Ascension Day: Jesus returns to the Father. Ten days later, Pentecost: the Spirit of Jesus comes among us as spring hits its stride, and the Church steps out in following Jesus to the ends of the earth. And then we’re in ordinary time, nearly lulled to sleep through summer’s warmth and autumn’s bounty, prodding ourselves awake to watch and wait for the return of Jesus and the fullness of God’s kingdom at Christ the King Sunday, at the end of November.

And then it begins again.

I love this. Every year, year after year, our very sense of time is shaped around the birth and baptism, life and teachings, suffering and death, resurrection and return of Christ. In every season of the year, Sunday after resurrection Sunday, the story of Jesus is superimposed upon us, and we’re invited, with a healthy dose of holy imagination, to enter into the story of Jesus—and for it to enter us.

Anabaptists also believe Jesus calls us to live in community with his followers; observing the church calendar underscores a sense of community with all Jesus’ followers.

Sure, the Anabaptist emphasis in this has been on the local congregation, and rightly so. The capital-C, universal Church is meaningless apart from the local, small-c church. Each and every flesh-and-blood gathering of Jesus-followers is the touchstone of God’s sanctifying presence in the world, the ears and mouth and hands and feet of Christ’s body in the world, an outpost of God’s kingdom of peace and justice and joy in the world. The bottom line: we need each other, and we need each other in the daily grind of real life, hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder.

But Anabaptists have recognized the need for wider connection with God’s people. We Mennonites have created regional and national bodies to coordinate ministry efforts and encourage one another—even international bodies such as the Mennonite World Conference. In recent years we have even participated in broader ecumenical conversations, such as those with Roman Catholics and Lutherans.

It turns out that just as the universal Church is meaningless apart from the local church, so is the local church meaningless apart from the universal Church, historic and global. And we’ve discovered that the strong sense of community we cherish as Anabaptists in our local congregations can be nurtured and celebrated in ever-widening circles. As any good Mennonite can tell you, you can always fit more around the table; there’s always enough food to share.

And one of the ways we can expand the table and experience community with the wider Church is by following the rhythms of the church calendar. As we walk through Advent, yearning for God to come among us, we do so alongside most of the Church around the world.

So I invite you to join us this Advent, either physically with us at Morden Mennonite or spiritually with us in your own congregation. Join us, and all God’s people, in entering the all-compelling, life-giving story of Jesus.

After all, if an Anabaptist can observe Advent, you can too.

Note: Since this was first posted I’ve become aware how northern hemisphere-centric some of this perspective is. Christians in the southern hemisphere: take from this what is helpful, and feel free to ignore the rest! Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.