Monday, April 2, 2012

Jesus the Crucified King

And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”

In the church calendar, Christ the King Sunday falls on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, which is the last Sunday of Advent. Certainly this is an appropriate Sunday on which to hail Jesus as king. However, I think it is perhaps even more theologically rich to consider that recognizing Jesus as king during Holy Week may be more powerful than celebrating Christ the King in November.

After all, if we take the traditional reading for Palm Sunday, that of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, then we clearly see that the scene of Jesus riding into the Holy City on a donkey, and the crowd waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” are images of Jesus coming as king. Indeed, his coming into Jerusalem resembles very much a royal parade, which would have been a counter challenge to another parade coming into Jerusalem at about the same time. That would be Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem.

And, when we look at the response of the people to Jesus’ entry, we find that these people living under the oppression of Roman rule see in Jesus’ coming the hope of liberation. They believe that Jesus is not only the Messiah, God’s anointed one, but that he is also the king who comes in the name of the Lord, and who will sit on the thrown of David.

But something happens between the time that Jesus enters Jerusalem and the time he is brought before Pilate. Something changes that causes the crowd who at first looked with hope and celebration on Jesus’ triumphal entry, but by the time he is given over to Pilate they are calling for his crucifixion.

Even in Jesus’ triumphal entry we see, and perhaps the crowd recognizes, that Jesus’ position as king will be quite different from what they expected and what they experienced in the world. Kings hold power through the use of strength and violence. Moreover, kings who challenge other kings and kingdoms do not ride into the territory of their opponents on donkeys. Rather, they come in on strong horses, carrying weapons that signify a challenge to war. But already in the triumphal scene when Jesus enters Jerusalem, we see that his kingdom will be quite different.

This difference is played out in the arrest and crucifixion scene in all four Gospels, but in the John’s telling we find some details that inform us of what it means to say and believe that Jesus is king. It means that Jesus is the Crucified King.

What is interesting about John’s telling of the story is that when Jesus is brought before Pilate, he and Pilate have somewhat of a philosophical conversation, and it seems that Pilate is quite intrigued by Jesus and what he has to say. But Pilate is interested in one central question, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

But what might be the telltale point in this conversation concerning whether Jesus was a king and what kind of kingdom was his kingdom is found between the two questions asked by Pilate about whether Jesus was a king of not. After Pilate asks Jesus the first time if he is a king, Jesus talks about how his kingdom is not of this world.

We can easily skip over this part of the story if we assume that Jesus is simply stating that his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom that has come from God. But, we miss something very important if we do this.

When Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, he clarifies what he means when he also states, “If my kingdom was from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” (John 18:36).

What exactly does Jesus mean by this statement?

He means that in the face of the violence he is about to face, violence at the hands of an angry mob, and at the command and hands of an illegitimate kingdom, his kingdom is one of non-violence, sacrifice, and peace. In other words, Jesus, knowing full well the person before whom he stands, and knowing full well that this person, Pilate, has the power to command his death, bears witness to Pilate that the kingdom of Jesus is very different from any kingdom in the world, including that of Rome. The kingdom of Jesus is one of non-violence, sacrifice, and peace.

And thus, what we find in the Passion Narrative of John’s Gospel is not simply the crucifixion of Jesus. What we find in the scene from John’s Gospel is Jesus’ coronation as king. There are no pomp and circumstance; only mocking and beating. There is no grandiose ceremony; only pain and suffering. Jesus’ coronation as king does not fit the normal pattern of installing kings in this world. But, then again, as Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

The message is clear. Jesus is can only be king by his crucifixion. His crown is the crown of thorns. His throne is a Roman cross. And on that cross, where the sign hung proclaiming Jesus as “King of the Jews”, Jesus takes his proper place as king, and those who seek to be part of his kingdom are called to do the same.

Jesus’ kingdom redefines what it means to live in the kingdom not of this world. It means living as subjects of the king who lived and died in non-violent protest of the kingdoms of this world. Yes, Jesus as king is different from any other king. He is not a king of worldly power or violence and war. He is a king of sacrifice and peace. He is the Crucified King.