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The Dying King

The Dying King

Category: Faith

Speaker: The Rev. Eric O. Springsted

Tags: faith

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Christianity as a religion is a matter of faith, and our faith is something that we openly confess. We do so each Sunday in response to what we have just heard from God in God’s Word read and preached. God speaks, we respond in faith. That is the way it is in Christianity.
Now, we have numerous ways to confess our faith. Here, we use the Nicene Creed, except when there is a baptism, when we use the Apostles’ Creed. Many Presbyterian Churches also draw from the dozen official confessions found in our Book of Confessions, or even from the Bible. Other denominations, too, use their own distinctive historical confessions. There are so many confessions, that it seems that what Ecclesiastes said about books is equally applicable to the church’s confessions of faith, that is, “of the making of them there is no end....”
Now, all this making of confessions stems from a single, simple confession in the early church, which ran, in its entirety: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Simple, elegant, that says it all–about who Jesus is, and about who we are in relation to Jesus. All Christian confessions have that confession at their heart. On this Sunday, when we celebrate the end of the church year on the Sunday of Christ the King, we are simply celebrating that basic confession of our faith: that Christ is Lord–Lord of the world, and Lord of our hearts.
I suppose that all the confirmation classes in the world wish that churches had not gone beyond this simple formula. It would make the memorization work so much easier. I suspect many adult members also wish that this formula were still the full extent of our confession of faith. Had we not ever said anything more complicated, we perhaps might not then have confused ourselves over fine points that seem to divide our fellowship more than they unite it. But, sometimes there are very good reasons why that simple confession of basic faith, “Jesus is Lord,” is expanded. Rather than trying to put too fine a point on the most basic confession of Christian life, expansion may be far more a matter of being struck deeply by all that it means. To expand on that simple confession is itself a way of acknowledging how and why Jesus is Lord. Sometimes, for example, it is a matter of trying to understand and spell out what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. Expanding can also be a matter of contemplation, or it can be a matter of celebration; it can be a matter of saying “Jesus is Lord” in different ways, so that we can put ourselves in front of its claim in wonder and awe and joy.
Expanding on the early confession of Christ as Lord, of Christ as King, is, therefore, really a part of confessing our faith. To say more about it, to sing it, to dance it, to pray it, to paint it, are all important ways of confessing that Christ is Lord, knowing that we can never finish that confession.
Now, doing those things didn’t begin with us. The earliest Christian writings, the letters of St. Paul, already expand on the first confession. They expand on it, of course, in what Paul says, for he always goes on to say what it means to say that Christ is Lord. But they also show that this expansion had been done before Paul even started to write. In his letters, he quotes hymns of Christ’s lordship that were already being sung in the ancient church’s liturgy and that were expanding and celebrating the confession of Christ’s lordship. Such, for example, is this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians that we read just a few minutes ago:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers–all things were created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him was all the fullness of God pleased to dwell, And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, By making peace by the blood of his cross.
In that hymn you pretty much have all of it means to say that Christ is Lord, or that Christ is King. All the things that the hymn praises tell us what it means for Christ to be Lord, what it means to be the ultimate and real Lord, the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings.
Consider what all it says. It first says that he is the image of the invisible God, which is to say that when we see Christ, we see and know what God is like; we know God himself. But Christ is no mere stand-in for God, for his lordship also consists in the fact that all things that exist, anywhere or anytime, high or low, exist because they were created in him. Moreover, whatever sense the world has, however all things hang together, well, that, too, is in him. That is to say nothing less than that Christ is not only the beginning of the world, Christ is also the meaning of the world, its sense, its coherence, its direction. And, of course, Paul adds, Christ is the head of the body, the church, for as the church is made up of those who are destined for life in God in the resurrection, Christ is the firstborn of the dead. That is why he is pre-eminent in all things. The universe comes from him, it is dependent on him, its direction is his direction. It is related to him not as to another creature, but as it is to God, for in Christ, the hymn tells us, all of God’s fullness dwells. In short, Christ, this perfect image of God, is God himself, for who else but God can represent God without deception in truth or in beauty or in power?
What more can we then say or sing about what it means to say that Christ is Lord? By most standards, not much. But Paul and the rest of the New Testament do add one more thing, and that is the most important thing of all in the confession that Christ is Lord. It is also the strangest and most difficult thing of all to understand. All add that Christ died, and not just that he died, he died humiliated on a cross. Think simply about this morning’s Gospel lesson. Luke indeed tells us that Christ is King, yet his single mention of Christ’s kingship in this morning’s lesson is the mocking attempt of Pilate to make fun of the man he was putting to death, by posting a sign above his head on the cross that said, in Latin, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” It was meant as a joke, and indeed, anybody who aspires to kingship and lordship, as it is normally understood, would see it as a joke. Most people would ask: “Where is the power? Where is the glory here that by right belongs to kings and lords? This poor fool a king? Isn’t the real king the one who had the power to torture him and kill him?”
Yet, for Paul and for Luke and for all the church, indeed, for all of us who confess that Christ is Lord, his lowly death is above all what we are thinking about when we say that he is Lord. To say that is something totally unexpected; it reverses most of what we think about lordship and kingship. Yet, still we mean that Christ is Lord because of, not despite, the fact that he died. As Paul finishes the hymn: “Through him God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace by the blood of his cross.” To anybody else, a dying king is no king at all; in death there is no power left to command anything. To the Christian faith, however, it is precisely the dying that makes Christ the king, because it is in dying that all things are brought back into God’s life.
Why is this so? It is because no other lord except the crucified king can allow such freedom as Christ allows, and yet still make all things still hang together and not fly apart. No other lord can do that because no other lord has ever figured out that it is humility, and not power, that makes a world of freedom hang together.
That is the great mystery of the Christian faith, that by Christ’s death we are reconciled to God, and our sin and our alienation, our strangeness to God, is overcome. But mystery though it may be, it is not something that is foggy and unclear, except to those who think that lordship is strictly a matter of power. For, the true king is not one who exercises power. It is the lowliness that makes Christ king and Lord. Let me explain.
St. Augustine was once asked why, since God is all powerful, did not God simply wipe out sin by overcoming the power of evil, by overpowering the devil, if you will. He could have, you know, Augustine agrees, but says that wouldn’t have done any good. For the point of the exercise was to make men and women good. The problem with power, Augustine suggests, is that, while it is a right and good thing for us to have power over our faults, it is not usually what human beings want power for; they want it over other human beings. That sort of exercise of power, we might add, is how men usually understand kingship and lordship. So, if Christ had defeated the devil by power and violence, human beings would have followed that example and would have continued to use power and violence to get what they wanted, just as they always have. If they had, they wouldn’t have become good; they would have been just as self-serving and oppressive and blind as they have always been. Nothing would have really changed. If, then, they continued that way, the world would have continued to run out of control; it would not have held together. So, Christ, by defeating evil by weakness and justice and not by power, teaches humanity the proper relation between power and justice and humility. He teaches them how to be good. He teaches them how to be part of a whole. He teaches them how to make things hold together. And the way he teaches them is that he doesn’t force them to be good, for human minds and hearts can’t be forced to be good; at most, only their outward behavior can be forced–sometimes. Hearts and minds can only be won or persuaded or inspired or even wooed. That is how Christ dealt with hearts and minds and continues to do so. That is why the dying king is the only effective king that there can be. In a world where people have free hearts and minds, the only true lord, the only lord who can be the head of the body, is the one who suffers for the body. That is the only way to make all things hang together.
That is what it means to say that Christ is Lord, or that Christ is king, and it is important to expand on the basic confession until we understand what real lordship is all about. But still, I have to tell you, that is only half of what it means to say that Christ is Lord. For, as I have been explaining it, I have only been giving you half of what that confession means, the half that is about Christ, about who Christ is and what Christ does. There is a second half: the half that has to do with us, and there is a lot that has to do with us in that confession. How? Well, for us to say that Christ is Lord, and a dying Lord at that, is not a neutral statement of fact that we can be indifferent about or stand to the side and look at with disinterest. We can be neutral about all sorts of things in this world–say, whether it is daylight savings time, or whether there are alligators in Louisiana, or whether Yehudi is the king of some small Pacific island. But there are other things we can’t be neutral about. We can’t be neutral about whether we are loved or not, we can’t be neutral about whether we live or die, or whether life has meaning and hangs together or not. For those reasons, we can’t be neutral in saying that Christ is Lord, or in saying that his lordship means humbleness and service, and not force. For if one says, if one confesses, that Christ is Lord, that is also to say something about one’s own relation to God in Christ. For to confess that Christ is Lord, Lord of the world, is also at its very heart to confess that he is my Lord; he is the king of my heart. And that means that he is the one we look to for light and love and wisdom, for security and for meaning, and for a way to live.
To say that Christ is my King is, thus, also to claim a way of life for ourselves. It is to say, not just in our verbal confession, but in the peaceful, non-violent way that we live, that goodness is not a matter of force, that it is kindness, and generosity and giving of oneself for others. To say that Christ is King is to say that the world hangs together by peace and goodness, and it is to live that way, too.
As we end this church year, confessing that Christ is Lord, and that no one else is, whether president or terrorist or party or country or corporation, visible or invisible, let’s not just say it. Let’s mean it. Let us mean it for the world and let us mean it for ourselves. Let us mean it in the way we live, in the way we treat others, and in the attention that we give to the Lord who made us, and who has reconciled us to God. In living that way, you will find that your life–indeed, all life–hangs together. And as we offer our pledges, let us also mean it by putting our money where our mouth is, showing what is in our hearts, and giving the means for that message to go out to the world.