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.

(Re-)Imagining Worship

It’s interesting that the New Testament never gives a detailed description of exactly what went on when the first Jesus-followers gathered together to worship. There’s no divinely inspired “order of service.”

The closing worship service at Mennonite Arts Weekend 2016, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Cara Hummel. Sure, we get some glimpses of early Christian worship here and there: some snippets in the book of Acts, some clues in the New Testament letters. But nowhere in the New Testament do we get a really detailed description of what a “worship service” looked like for the first Christians.

Probably it was different in every place.

Jewish Christians in Jerusalem likely modeled their worship meetings after the synagogue service they were familiar with: Scripture readings, a sermon, singing psalms, prayers. Gentile Christians in Corinth may have modeled their gatherings after religious banquets or society meetings: religious rites, speeches, a shared meal.

The “worship services” in churches planted by Paul in Turkey or Greece probably looked very different from the regular meetings in churches planted by Thomas in India or Philip in Africa—different languages, different music, different food and dress, and, of course, different kinds of people.

In fact, the Bible provides quite a diverse list of the sorts of things that God’s people did when they got together to worship, from the ancestors of Israel all the way through to the earliest Christians:

  • telling stories, reciting poetry, chanting psalms;
  • loud cymbals, drums, and horns; soft harps and lyres; no instruments at all;
  • responsive reading, antiphonal singing, dramatic re-enactments, visual art;
  • kneeling, standing, clapping, dancing, eating, drinking;
  • confessing sins, receiving forgiveness, blessing one another;
  • hearing Scripture, teaching the faith, affirming the faith, proclaiming good news, encouraging one another;
  • praying, praising, thanking, silence.

And then there’s the diverse worship history of the church. Beautiful sacred spaces, from large cathedrals to small parish churches. Stained glass, exquisite art, imposing sculpture. Gorgeous cantatas, plainsong chants, simple hymns, well-known carols.

In our own Mennonite tradition, there has been everything from simple unison singing to full-throated four-part harmony, from plain furnishings to elaborate quilting, from the basic hymns-prayers-Scripture-sermon format to intricate services incorporating ancient liturgies from other traditions.

And beyond our Mennonite tradition, beyond the Western history of the church, there’s a whole world of worship out there from across the globe, from every language and culture and tribe and nation.

We can tend to think that there’s only ever been one way the church has worshiped, or that there’s an obvious “best way” to worship God when we gather together, but clearly that’s not the case. It’s never been the case.

And, in fact, it’s not really healthy for us to get stuck in a rut in our worship, always and only doing everything the same way. There’s a reason the Psalms exhort us multiple times to “sing to the Lord a new song.” It’s because a willingness to try new ways of worshiping is like a willingness to explore new ways of thinking about God or to work out new ways of following Jesus—it is evidence of an authentic faith, a faith that is vibrant and growing and very much alive.

All this is what I mean when I say we need to develop a “liturgical imagination.” We need, to use Paul’s words in Colossians, always to remain grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, letting the “word of Christ” dwell among us richly in our teaching and preaching, our singing and music, every “word and deed” of our collective worship. But we need to continually re-imagine what this all looks like.

And we have no shortage of resources to work with. We have the examples of worship throughout the biblical writings. We have models of worship throughout the church’s history and from around the world. And we have rich resources among us a congregation, creative gifts in preaching, teaching, storytelling, poetry, music, visual art, tactile art, culinary art, drama, dance, and so much more.

I wonder: how might God’s Spirit prompt us to “sing a new song” in our worship together, to try out new “words and deeds,” fresh ways of worshiping God?

But “developing a liturgical imagination” is more than just the people up in the front leading us in trying out some new things. Each one of us needs to use our imagination in participating in worship.

When we walk into the sanctuary every Sunday morning we all need to be ready to use our God-given imagination, using our imagination to enter into whole new worlds of worship.

Using our imagination to enter the world of the songwriter when we sing their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the biblical author when we read their words. Using our imagination to enter into the world of the worship leader or preacher when we hear their words.

Using our imagination to enter into the presence of God here on earth as it is in heaven.

And in this way, as we teach and sing the gospel of Jesus Christ to each other before God, letting the “word of Christ dwell among us richly,” we can come to believe with ever-increasing faith that we are God’s “holy and beloved” children, “chosen by God” to be more and more like Jesus.

Adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite Church on October 23, 2016, part of a sermon series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.