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Sunday 20th Nov 2016; Christ the King
Song of Zechariah;
There are many ways Jesus is viewed in society today. But within the church, I’ve encountered mainly two. On the one hand, Jesus is quite simply God – just with a human body. The second person of the Trinity. Fully divine and all powerful. Let’s call this ‘Jesus one’.
On the other hand, there are those who are more likely to look behind the big claims made for Jesus, and look instead at the narrative of his life – the gospels. And what they find there is a man – perhaps some kind of political idealist. An impressive and charismatic man, and a man whose example is inspiring. But ultimately just a mere human being like us. We’ll call this ‘Jesus two’.
Which Jesus do you prefer? ‘Jesus one’ or ‘Jesus two’?
It might depend partly on what sort of person you are, and what you feel your biggest needs are. Practical, no-nonsense types, and those who are looking to Jesus to get to heaven, tend to go for ‘Jesus one’. It feels more orthodox and safe.
Those attracted to mystery; who are comfortable for their theology to feel a little edgy; who want someone who can empathise with their sufferings and inspire bold action in the world might feel they connect more with ‘Jesus two’.
What I want you to notice today in our New Testament and Gospel readings, is that Jesus one and Jesus two are both present.
Let’s start with the New Testament reading, from the book of Colossians, which tells us that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’. This is a stunning claim – that God, whom we might think of as invisible, and therefore unknowable and beyond our grasp, has a visible image. Something through which he can be known. And that image is Jesus. And that all things were created by Jesus, and for Jesus. And that his rule and power are therefore clear and unmistakable. For he is divine.
He is the firstborn of all creation – not that he had a beginning, but in the sense that a firstborn in that culture had a pre-eminent position of significance and authority.
If you’ve read some Dan Brown novels, you might think that the early Christians just saw Jesus as a man, but the church foisted the idea of ‘Jesus as God’ on everyone else through some nasty political power plays in the 4th century.
But notice. Although this passage is found in our Bibles after the gospels, it was actually written before them. It’s among the earliest New Testament literature we have. And what it shows is that from the very beginning, the church understood the Jesus they worshipped was more than a man. He was the very image of the invisible God.
Then we go to our gospel reading. Here we see a very human Jesus, who is facing the event that, in a sense, defines who we humans are, and shows that we are anything but divine. He’s experiencing a death. Not just any death, but a cruel, unjust, and brutal death, in the presence of criminals, and surrounded by his enemies who are delighted by his pain.
And yet in this dark moment we see those inspirational qualities of uncompromising love, even to his enemies, that has continued to inspire many people who can’t quite swallow the claim that he is God.
As we dwell on this second image of Jesus—stripped of any power, and so pathetically human—it’s important to remember that despite this very human death, there are clear claims throughout the gospels of his authority and power. And eventually the church began to proclaim far and wide that Jesus is Lord, and therefore all must bow before him.
But they weren’t just proudly announcing that their religious views were superior. They were preaching that the Lord of all was the suffering one – the one who subjected himself to his fellow humans, and even his enemies; the one who gave up the trappings of his divine status and subjected himself to humiliation and death.
The Jesus who is worshipped as God, is not a different Jesus from the suffering and dying Jesus. There is no ‘Jesus one’ and ‘Jesus two’. There is only one Jesus. The one who was scourged, and beaten, and crucified and who took our pain and rebellion into his own body, but who was ultimately revealed as God.
It’s when we hold these two images of Jesus together –the perfectly ruling and divine Lord, and perfectly suffering human – that we begin to understand what it means to say he is both human and God.
Taken together, what these passages say to us together is that we don’t have to choose between a divine Jesus and a human Jesus. Indeed, to separate these out is to make the very mistake the creeds are trying to counter.
The creeds of the early church weren’t just attempts to silence free thinkers. Yes, their formation was a difficult and sometimes disagreeable business. But at its heart it was the agonised attempt to express in words, something which isn’t easy to express: that in this human life of Jesus we have BOTH the heights of God, and the depths of humanity.
And so the Nicene Creed we will soon say together describes Jesus as ‘God from God, light from God, true God from true God … of one being with the Father.’ Yet at the same time, it declares that he ‘was incarnate…. and became (not partly but) truly human.’
If we only think about one half of the picture, we might think that the Kingly, divine rule of Jesus is something to fear. That his rule is like the other versions of authority we see all around us.
Or on the other hand, that as much he inspires us, he doesn’t carry real authority. That he’s there to encourage us, but that obeying him is purely optional.
So this ‘Christ the King’ Sunday, let’s be clear what his Kingship involves. Jesus’ rule is absolute and unconditional. His authority is absolute. He commands, he doesn’t suggest.
And the primary command of all – implied in his whole ministry, and preached with vigour by his first followers– was that we acknowledge him as Lord. That is, surrender, unconditionally, to his rule.
And that would be a terrifying thought, if it wasn’t held alongside this other side of him.
That what ‘submitting to his rule’ means, is receiving the gift of his sufferings, endured for us, and thereby entering into his Kingdom, which is defined not by naked power, but by sacrificial love.
For every other form of rule corrupts and abuses. Even religious professionals, I’m sorry to say, have a long and terrible track record on this front, and not just in contemporary times. Way back in our Old Testament reading, we heard of shepherds who do not attend to the flock, but scatter it.
But we also heard the promise of a new shepherd – one whose rule would be entirely different. Not self-serving, but for the good of his sheep.
Jesus doesn’t say, ‘bow before me as Lord so that I may rule you’, but ‘bow before me as Lord so that I may serve you. So that my sufferings will be for you. And your sufferings can be taken up by me.’
The great challenge of the church is to receive, and then proclaim, the full Jesus, not a half Jesus. To see that in him any rift between humanity and divinity has ended. That restoration and healing and forgiveness of our sins has been achieved. That new life and a new Kingdom, with a new way of living, has been opened up for us.
To finish, we go back to our gospel reading. Did you notice the criminal dying next to Jesus? What does he ask of him?
Remember me when you come into your kingdom.
There is the acknowledgment of Jesus’ authority. Jesus has a Kingdom. He is a King. And yet this same Jesus is hanging on a cross dying. A strange sort of King.
But it’s because he is this strange sort of King—both divine and human; both immortal and dying—that he can speak the words that could not have been spoken confidently by anyone else.
‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’
Words that show authority even over death, and words that contain the promise of life, that his death secures.