The world held its breath as a boy stood in front of a tank in Tianamin Square – an image of peaceful confrontation that can never be erased. Whatever the immediate outcome, that image animates, provokes and provides a template by which Chinese history will be judged into the future. Martin Luther King in Washington declaring “I have a dream”. Saint Francis of Assisi stripping off in protest in the Cathedral. Nelson Mandela warmly shaking hands with the jailers on his release from Robben Island. Men, women and children standing peacefully on the top of the Berlin Wall, declaring that it no longer has the power to divide them.
There are many other images that will always confront the human imagination. Creating these images is the work of prophets. They are images of power exercised by the apparently defeated, images of a liberated human spirit confronting huge, apparently immovable systems. They are images that have confronted and changed human history in our own life times, continuing the long prophetic line of men and women who search after truth, and speak that truth whatever the cost. They cannot now be erased.
Here is another image on this great Festival of Christ the King, on the last Sunday of our Christian year. A humble man who entered his home city on a donkey surrounded by a crowd at a religious festival. Who is arrested by the occupying forces, and condemned to death by the religious leaders of his day. And who now hangs on a cross and prays for forgiveness for those who have put him there, and offers hope to a man on the cross next to him who seeks after truth.
On this Festival of Christ the King we return to one of the final episodes in the life of Jesus, as we find it reflected upon by the writers of the Gospel of Luke. The scene is designed to confront us with Jesus’ seeming fearlessness at the hands of human leaders, as he proclaims a Kingdom that is not from this world, but that will effect this world totally and fully.
It is the culmination of all that the Gospel writers having been pointing towards as they have told the life of Jesus for those who will come after him. It is the culmination of our Christian year, it is the culmination of our year of reflections on the Lukan narrative of the life of Jesus as we have travelled with Jesus and his disciples, marking the events of his birth and his ministry.
Over the last two weekends in this Kingdom Season, we have celebrated the Kingship of Christ, our Eternal King of Glory, we have been challenged by Christ our Loving Servant King; and now, as we hear again the words of this familiar Gospel, in this harrowing scene of Our Lord nailed upon the cross, we come face to face with the Suffering King of our Salvation. It is true that we could console ourselves by focusing only on the glory of our King, it is true that we can be motivated and inspired to work for his Kingdom as we glimpse him as a servant, but one of these descriptions alone is not sufficient for us to understand the King that we worship and adore. Christ the King of Glory, Christ the Loving Servant King, Christ the Suffering King of our Salvation: this is Christ the King.
Luke’s Gospel gives us five especial glimpses into what this Kingdom will be like through the final hours of Jesus’ life.
Firstly, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. He comes to fulfil the prophecies of the past that say that a Messiah will enter that city to bring about change. But Jesus’ entry is not as his followers had expected. His arrival does not signal the start of a violent rebellion, because Jesus has come to show that his Kingdom will not be found in the places where strength and might are to be found. That is why he has continually taught his disciples that it is those on the margins, those in need, and those who love peace who will find themselves in his Kingdom, and not those who are the rulers of the present age. The Kingdom of God will be a Kingdom for the powerless, and not the powerful, when the order of things is turned around.
Secondly, Jesus cleanses the Temple. He sees what is happening there, the corruption, the money making, the dishonesty in God’s house and in righteous anger – regardless of the cost to himself – he clears the tables and offers that place a new beginning.
Thirdly, Jesus hosts the Last Supper, a religious Passover meal at which he not only offers his hospitality, but offers his body and his blood to those who share table fellowship with him. We can be in no doubt that this prophetic sign is designed to re-orientate his followers towards a life of utter self-sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom.
Fourthly – proclaimed by some as the King, and named a King by others as a form of mockery – Jesus meets with the earthly rule of that place, Pontius Pilate, in his headquarters. Pilate gives him the opportunity to save himself by clarifying his position and his loyalty to the occupying Roman Empire. But Jesus signals instead that the Kingdom of God is a place where truth is proclaimed, and to which those who desire truth will be attracted.
Then finally, there is the most powerful and baffling scene of all: as Jesus hangs on the cross. Those first four scenes – of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the righteous cleansing of the Temple, the giving of himself in the Last Supper and the truth-speaking encounter with Pontius Pilate, only make sense in Luke’s Gospel when we are forced to come face to face with Jesus on the cross.
It was Mel Gibson’s film of the last moments of Jesus’ life, which really brought home to me for the first time some years ago the sheer agony of Jesus’ experience, and the violence that the cross symbolises. Even the red of our vestments that we wear in this Kingdom Season, cannot capture fully the blood and the suffering that was involved. For those who stood around and watched it, it would have seemed like Jesus’ ministry had ended in agonising and embarrassing failure. We can suspect that the disciples felt this too, given that the resurrected Jesus meets them huddled away in an upper room living in fear and not knowing what the future would hold for them.
For the writers of Luke’s Gospel, the drama of the cross has a different meaning altogether. It is on the cross – in the vulnerability and pain of his final moments, that Jesus reveals to us most fully what it means to live life in communion with God. It is, after all, the utter self-sacrifice of Jesus which opens the key to humanity’s salvation: seen so clearly for us in both Jesus’ prayer that those who have put him there will be forgiven, and the offering of eternal hope to the man nailed to the cross next to him.
So for the writers of Luke’s Gospel the cross is for Jesus, what a throne is for a normal king. It is the place where his power and glory are most fully revealed, even though those who watched on at that time, (not knowing the end of the story) could not have seen or understood this for themselves. That is why images of Christ as King throughout the history of the Church have most often depicted him upon the cross. Yes, it is true that we sometimes see glimpses of him on a throne of glory, but the Church understands that his true throne is the cross – that is where his glory is ultimately revealed, that is where his Kingdom is most clearly declared. The significance of this for us, is that this is where his Kingdom is defined.
If we are looking for a Kingdom of power and might, we have come to the wrong man – for we find in Jesus a Kingdom which is built of loving sacrifice and service to others: where sinners are prayed for for forgiveness and eternal hope is offered. We remember that Jesus never loses the wounds of his suffering. Even in his resurrection he is still scarred by his suffering, as he offers his hands and his feet as testimony to Thomas that he is alive. Because by his wounds, the wounds of the suffering of our King, we are offered healing, forgiveness and eternal hope.
We celebrate today (rather nervously I suspect) our place in a Kingdom in which crowns of gold are put aside in place of a crown of thorns, and thrones of grandeur and comfort are put to one side in favour of the bare wood of a blood stained cross. The Kingship of Christ challenges how we perceive every Kingdom in this world, every power and authority on earth (and especially how we use our own power and influence as individuals and as the Church) and it orientates us back to the heart of the life of Jesus.
In these final acts of his life: and in this final moment of his self-sacrifice on the cross we see most clearly the King that we worship today, who breaks open his life for us, but calls us to live in utter commitment as we follow in his Way.
As the wise priest Zechariah declared as he anticipated the birth of Jesus right back at the start of Luke’s Gospel: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel: who has come to his people and set them free. The Lord has raised up for us a mighty saviour… to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Today, on this last weekend of the Christian year, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, whose throne is his cross, whose jewels are the nails, and whose crown is made of harsh thrones: the King of Eternal Glory, the King of Loving Service, the King who suffers for our salvation. At this Mass, the last Sunday Mass of this Christian year, we pray for the power of God’s Holy Spirit to grace us and strengthen us, in the year ahead that, despite all of our natural anguish and reservations, we will follow his example as we live out the promises of his Kingdom.