Today (Thursday 26 May 2022) is Ascension Day. It is 40 days after Easter and 10 days before Pentecost. On this day in history, Jesus met with his disciples and ascended to heaven, completing the cycle of his earthly ministry, started some 30 years before. Here is the account of this event in Acts 1:
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’
Then they gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’
Below is a short (5-minute) message reflecting on the meaning Christ’s ascension.
We live in a world that is fraught with challenges and unpredictabilities. We think of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the continued challenges of the people of Palestine and the various conflicts in Africa. We think in South Africa of increasing unemployment, rising inflation, the upcoming petrol price hike. We think of loadshedding and the ongoing challenges of Covid. We think of the water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay and the devastation of the floods in KwaZulu-Natal. The world is unpredictable. Our lives are often unpredictable. Sometimes, we may feel disoriented and anxious because of the many challenges that we face at personal, national and global levels.
In these times, it is reassuring to recognise that while life may be unpredictable, God is consistent. God persists. God has always, continues to and will always engage with us. When life feels chaotic, we have a God we can rely on.
Today’s reading from John 14:23-27 is particularly strong in reassuring us of God’s continuity. Jesus starts in v23 with himself: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” And then he immediately continues, “My Father will love them.” Here is the first affirmation of consistency – between God the Son and God the Father. Jesus draws the immediate and strong link between himself, his Father and us – rooted in love – our love for Christ and the Father’s love for us. And he continues with these amazing words, “and we will come to them and make our home with them”. I love this use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ – here Jesus is referring to himself and his Father as operating together, as a partnership, and of coming dwell with us as a partnership. What a great reassurance of the continuity between the Father and the Son. And Jesus continues further, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” – yet further reassurance of continuity and consistency between God the Father and God the Son.
Jesus then continues, introducing the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name”. In this short phrase we have Father, Son and Holy Spirit, collaborating together – the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the Son’s name. And the role of the Holy Spirit will be to “teach you all things and [to] remind you of everything I have said to you”. Here again, we have continuity and consistency – Holy Spirit does not start a new work in us, but rather continues the work of the Son, by reinforcing his teachings in us.
The result of all of this continuity from the Father of the Old Testament, the Son of the Gospels and the Spirit of the New Testament church is peace. Peace! Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We can breathe out, we can rest in God, we can trust that God has been consistently and persistently at work throughout history, from the creation until now and into the future. Do not be troubled. Do not be afraid. Be at peace.
And these reassurances of God’s continuity extend into the future. Revelation 21:10 and 21:22-22:5 paint a compelling image of the heaven. John is taken by the Spirit – the same Spirit Jesus has spoken about in John’s Gospel – and sees the new Jerusalem, the Holy City coming down out of heaven from God. It is a glorious sight! There is no temple there, because God (the Father) and the Lamb (the Son) are its temple. God’s light shines out brilliantly. The gates of the city are always open. There is a river running through the city, with the water of life, and the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations. We can see God’s face.
John’s vision is a deep reassurance of God’s continuity – what have seen in the Father throughout the first Testament, what we have seen confirmed in the life of the Son in the Gospels, and what we have been promised and experienced in the coming of Holy Spirit in the early Church and continuing until today, will continue into the future, until the day Christ returns.
We can rest deeply into the continuity of God, into God’s steadfast faithfulness and persistence. We can hold onto a God who is faithful, even when our own faith is frail or when life’s burdens overwhelm or depress us. We can hold fast to God’s continuity.
Our Gospel reading (John 13:31-38) teaches a well-known phrase: “Love one another”. This is a consistent and repeated message from Christ – to love each other. We should remember that Jesus’ is most often speaking to his disciples – he is saying that the disciples must love each other, and that that will be a witness to Christ. In today’s terms, Jesus is saying that Christians in the local church must love each other.
But in today’s reading, Jesus says, “A new command I give you: love one another.” But this is an often-repeated command from Jesus. So what is new about it? Previously, Jesus says, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” But here he says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” There is an important shift here of the source of love – our love is to be like Christ’s love. Today’s readings give us three insights into Christ’s love that we are called to emulate.
First, Jesus is tolerant and accepting of his disciples. Today’s Gospel reading is book-ended with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (John 13:21-30) and Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial of Jesus (John 13:38). These are crucial betrayals of Jesus, and yet Jesus continues to engage with, tolerate, accept and love Judas and Peter. Indeed, he says to Judas, “What you are about to do, do quickly”. Jesus is under no illusions about his disciples, and yet he loves them utterly.
We in the church often make mistakes. We say hurtful things. We spread stories about others. We make poor decisions. We neglect to do things. This is true of all Christians in the church. And the mistakes of those in leadership are even more visible. We need to be tolerance and accepting of each other, even when we make mistakes or do wrong things. Our love for each other should persist through those challenges, as did Christ’s.
Second, Jesus is protective and caring of his disciples. Twice, Jesus says to them, “Where I am going, you cannot come“. Jesus is on his way to the cross, on his way to bearing the sins of the whole world, on his way to dying for humankind. He wants to protect his disciples from that. This is a trial that he will carry on our behalf. He does, eventually, say to Peter, “you will follow later”, but which is refers to Peter’s martyrdom. Yet, we see Jesus trying to protect Peter from this, or at least from knowing it.
While being protective of each other in the church may be patronising, we have a duty and calling to take care of each other and protect each other from harm. We do this by ensuring the safely of children, keeping checks on how finances are managed, being mindful of ethics and sound interpersonal relationships. We should recognise when others are going through hard times, and offer support or assistance. We aim to protect and to care for each other, so that we can all grow and flourish together.
Third, Jesus is inclusive, which leads to diversity. We don’t get this from our Gospel reading, but we do get it from other Gospel passages and from our other readings for today. We see Jesus repeatedly reaching out to people across boundaries – women, Samaritans, tax collectors, menstruating women, dead people, demon possessed people, Romans. He seems to deliberately cut across these boundaries.
Similarly, we as Christians in church are called to be inclusive of everyone and to celebrate a diverse congregation: black, brown, white or something else; male, female or something else; gay, straight or something else; richer or poorer; more or less educated; South African or from another country – you are welcome here! Everyone is welcome here. Diversity is desirable.
We want a church that is characterised by this kind of love of Jesus, the same love that Jesus has shown to us, he wants us to show to others. We want a church that accepting, protective and inclusive, that makes space for everyone, that cares for everyone, that accepts everyone. We must intentionally and purposefully cultivate this kind of church community. This kind of love does not come naturally or easily. We must be deliberate in emulating Jesus and emulating his love. This is the primary witness of the church: how we love one another.
Jesus meets his disciples in their rooms twice after his resurrection, according to John 20:19-32: first on the night of Easter Sunday and again a week later – this evening, the second Sunday of Easter. The first time Thomas was not there, and the second time, Jesus speaks directly to Thomas. In both accounts, there are three points of overlap:
Jesus appears in the midst or among the disciples (vv 19 & 26).
He greets them with the words “Peace be with you!” (or Shalom aleichem, in Hebrew) (vv 19 & 26, and indeed a third time in v 21).
He shows them the wounds or marks in his hands and side (vv 20 & 27). With Thomas, he not only shows his hands and side, but also invites Thomas to put his finger or hand into Jesus’ hand or side.
What is the meaning of these three actions, which are repeated almost exactly on these consecutive Sunday nights?
Jesus appears in the midst of or among the disciples. Literally, Jesus appears in the middle of them. This is the most appropriate place for Jesus be – in the middle: in the middle of ourselves, in the middle of our family, in the middle of our church and in the middle of our community. In our church, we usually read the Gospel from the middle of the church and all those attending will turn to face the centre. This is to help us feel the presence of Christ in the centre of everything we do. In our church today we also baptised five children, and after the baptism we give each child or family a candle, with the words , “Christ, our light”. This to symbolises Christ as the light in the centre of our personal and collective lives, in the church and in the world. Our lives revolve around the risen Christ.
Shalom aleichem. Three times Jesus greets the disciples with these words. Often when Jesus meets with people, and when angels meet with people, they use the words “Don’t be afraid”, for example when Gabriel appears to Mary at the annunciation (Luke 1:30). Jesus’ words here (“Peace be with you”) are not another way of saying “Don’t be afraid”. The word Shalom or peace means far more than the absence of conflict. Rather, it means the presence of wholeness, completeness, balance, order, goodness, rightness. It is a rich words that speak of the fullness of life, as ordered by God. Through Jesus incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection, God has brought about peace with humanity, peace between God and us, order and wholeness. We might not always feel or experience this wholeness – life is often fractured and difficult – but the potential for shalom is there and made possible by the risen Christ.
Jesus showed his hands and his side. We don’t under what kind of body Jesus was raised with. In some ways, it seems like an ordinary body, and in other ways it seems more like a spiritual body. But whatever it was, the marks of his crucifixion are still visible, so much so that Thomas is invited to put his finger into the holes in Jesus’ hands and his hand into the hole in Jesus’ side. These are clear evidence that this is indeed Jesus who hung on the cross. His is whole and restored, but also marked by his sacrifice for humanity. Jesus is quite willing, in both appearances, to provide evidence to his disciples for who he is. He provides evidence that he is the risen Christ.
We live on this side of Christ’s earthly life. He is the risen and resurrected Christ, who invites us to join him in the resurrection life – a life that is more than just an ordinary human life, a life centred on and lit by Christ, a life of peace and wholeness, and a life that celebrates everything Jesus did for the salvation of humankind. We are a resurrection people. In our church today, we celebrated this with baptisms, a sign of dying to self and rising again in the new life of Christ. We share with Christ in his risen life.
From the dawn of time, God has had his arms outstretched to receive and embrace us. God has always been open and receptive to us. He always has been like this, he is like this today, and he will remain like his into the future. This is permanent posture of God. Arms open and looking towards you.
When we feel disconnected from God, can’t perceive or feel him, feel abandoned – it is not God who has turned away. It is we who have turned away. Sin is one of the main causes of us feeling cut off from God – sin is us turning away from God. But God has not moved – he is still there.
Luke 13:1-9 tells of people coming to Jesus saying that some people who had died horribly must have sinned terribly to suffer such a death. But Jesus challenges this, and says they were no worse than anyone else. And then he cautions those who said this: “Repent, else you too will perish!” He then tells the parable of a fruit tree that was unproductive. The owner wanted to cut it down, but the gardener interceded for is, saying he’s car for it for three years and see if it produced fruit: if so, good; if not, then cut it down. The parable is not particularly confident about the tree becoming fruitful and being saved. Sin is serious – it can lead to our deaths.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 also speaks of sin. The people of Israel wandering through the desert for 40 years saw the most remarkable miracles – the plagues against the Egyptians, the parting of the Red Sea, water gushing from a rock, manna from heaven every morning, the pillars of fire and smoke and so on. Yet, they repeatedly turned from God and engaged in all kinds of sin. And many died as a result. Paul says these are warnings for us, of how NOT to live our lives. And he offers a bit of hope: that God will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear and that there will always be an escape route.
These two readings focus on the real risks of sin causing us to be estranged from God. But I say again: God has not moved! He is still there! His arms are still open to us!
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.”
Hear these repeated words from God: Come, come, come. Listen, listen, give ear. Eat and drink. Free, without cost. Good, delight, richest, everlasting, faithful, love, promise. These are words of God who is always facing us, with his arms always outstretched. This is the invitation to come to him, to quench our thirst, to eat and rest.
Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.
Again, hear David’s response to the God of love, the God with open arms, the God who is always present and always available.
I encourage you, if you are feeling burdened and challenged by life, or if you are feeling that God is remote, to come to our Lord, who is the fountain of life, who offers food and drink to refresh your soul, at no cost, with no conditions.
Luke 13:31-35 finds Jesus on God’s mission. He is busy “driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow”; he desires to protect the people of Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”; and he desires to reach his goal – Jerusalem, where he will die.
But Jesus’ mission is fraught with obstacles!
For one thing, Jerusalem does not want to be join him – “you were not willing” to respond to his protection and care. And so, he will leave them alone – “your house is left to you desolate” – until Palm Sunday, when they will say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” as he enters Jerusalem (Luke 19:38).
And for another, “Herod wants to kill” him. Others also are conspiring against him. His days are numbered. But Jesus says that he is too busy with God’s mission to die now, and moreover, “no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem”, so Herod will get his way only later, when Jesus goes to Jerusalem. In the meantime, Herod must wait.
Jesus continues on God’s mission, despite all obstacles. He is focused and determined.
We also face obstacles as we live out our faith in this world, as we live our mission, the mission God has given us. It is not always easy to maintain our faith in our personal lives; and it is even less easy to maintain our faith in the challenges and complexities of the world we live in. We need to be more like Jesus: focused and determined.
Our readings today provide some helpful advice for us:
First, we can take hold of God’s covenant, God’s promises. In Genesis 15:8-9, God is assuring Abram of his blessing and to make him a great nation, but Abram is beset by challenges, not least of which is that he has no heir. Abram eventually says to God, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it [of the land]?” And God engages with Abram’s need for reassurance and promise. The Scripture says, “So the Lord said to him…” and we get the instructions for the covenant made between God and Abram. God offers this covenant promise in response to Abram’s need for reassurance. Similarly, we can ask God for reassurance. And we can rely on the many promises God has already made to us through his son in the Scriptures.
Second, we can take up Jesus’ offer of protection to “gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Luke 13:34). This is such a beautiful image of Jesus as a mother hen, protecting her young ones, by sheltering them under her wings. Our reading from Psalm 27:5 speaks similarly: “For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock”. Here again is a wonderful image of God’s protection within a holy tent, a tabernacle, where we will be safe from harm.
And third, we can be tenacious and determined in our mission, trusting in a trustworthy God. Philippians 4:1 encourages us: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” and Psalm 27:14 concludes, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord”. Life is often hard, but we need to persevere.
Take hold of God’s promises, seek shelter under God’s wings, stand firm, be strong, take heart and wait for the Lord.
Today we celebrate the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), where Jesus reveals his divine nature to three of his disciples. This event, which in our church we celebrate with the colour white, falls after a period of ‘ordinary time’ in the church calendar, which we celebrate with green, and Lent, which we observe with purple. This celebration is thus well placed as a link between a period of ordinary growth in the church and period of intensive penitence and critical self-reflection.
Furthermore, the transfiguration is located in our church calendar almost exactly at the midpoint between Christmas (two months and two days ago) and Easter Sunday (10 days less than two months from now). Each of these events – the birth of Christ, the transfiguration of Christ and the resurrection of Christ – are moments of God’s self-reflection, or epiphanies. God shows God’s self for who God is, in these key moments in the life of Christ.
Christmas focuses on the incarnation of God the Son in the form of the human Jesus. It is God’s emptying of God’s self – the kenosis – in which God immerses God’s self into human life and comes to live among us as one of us. It is also a story of the birth of a child – of hope, of new life, of a baby. The Christmas self-revelation emphasises the light and life of God in our midst.
The transfiguration shows us that Jesus is more than ‘just’ a teacher, more than ‘just’ a healer or miracle worker. He is revealed in all his divine splendour, as the Son of God, even more, as God the Son. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Jesus. Most of the time it is hidden from sight. But in the transfiguration, Jesus kind-of drops his human skin and reveals his divine nature to Peter, James and John. The transfiguration self-revelation emphasises the power and divine majesty of God in our midst.
Easter focuses on the discipline and love of Jesus for his Father, and for humanity, leading him to walk a path that he knows will lead to his humiliation, suffering and ultimately, his death. He knows this is a path of suffering, but he also knows that it is a path towards the salvation of all of humanity. Jesus’ Easter resurrection is God’s self-revelation of profound and reckless love for humanity.
These revelations of God’s self – of who the triune God truly is – as our focus as we enter Lent. God is the child that brings life and light. God is the divine being, filled with power and majesty. And God is our saviour, filled with love and compassion. It is into this God, this Christ, that we immerse ourselves during the coming period of Lent.
The collect for today opens with the words, “Holy and righteous God, you set before us life and death”. This prayer sets the tone for today’s collection of readings, which are, literally, a matter of life and death. We are presented in the scriptures with two options – life and death – and invited to choose one. Let’s run through them swiftly together.
1 Corinthians 5:12-20. In this passage, Paul defends the importance of believing in the resurrection of the dead in general, and the resurrection of Christ in particular. If there is no resurrection, Paul argues, then there is no hope for us of a life after death. And if that is the case, our believing in Christ is to be pitied. Paul is impassioned in making his argument. You can hear, as you read, that this is for him, a make or break in the Christian faith – it is a matter of eternal life or eternal death.
Luke 6:17-26. Here, Jesus presents a series of blessings and woes, each comprising three verses. The blessings remind us of his beatitudes in Matthew 5, and speak of God’s favour on those who are vulnerable and marginalised, and those who suffer for the sake of Christ – they will be raised up. The woes are dire warnings against those who laud their wealth and power over others, who bask if their own accomplishments and who are self-sufficient – they will be brought low. Jesus is not afraid to divide the world into good and bad, blessed and cursed – it is a matter of life and death.
Jeremiah 17:5-10. Jeremiah echoes Jesus’ curses and woes. “Cursed is the one” he says, who trusts in human things and who turns away from God. That person will be like a dry shrub in a salty uninhabited wasteland. Jeremiah’s words here are clear and uncompromising. By contrast, “blessed is the one” who trust in God, for they will be like a tree, with its roots in a river, who is able to withstand challenges and be green and fruitful – it is a matter of life and death.
Psalm 1. The Psalmist replicates Jeremiah’s imagery of a “blessed one” who does not keep company with the wicked, but rather who spends time with God. This one is like a tree planted by a river. The ready water strengths and protects the tree, so that it is always fruitful. By contrast, the wicked are like chaff, who have no roots and blown away by the wind. Their way leads to destruction – it is a matter of life and death.
These four readings all say the same thing – there is a path of life and a path of death. The path of life involves maintaining fellowship with God and God’s people, and living in accordance with God’s values. The path of death involves relying on oneself, disregarding God and placing too much hope in how others perceive one. The consequences of these two paths are a matter of life and death.
All too often, we stray onto the path of death. Sometimes we do so quite consciously and deliberately – we turn from God and we choose to think or act in ways that we know are ungodly. Other times, we just stray there, quite unintentionally, as if drawn there. Roman Catholic theologians call this ‘original sin’ and Calvinists call it ‘total depravity’ or sometimes ‘pervasive depravity’. It relates to the fall of humanity in Genesis 3 – that our hearts, created by God for good, incline towards evil. If we are not watchful and careful, we all too easily drift onto the path of death, by turning from God towards sin.
We must be far more alert, awake and vigilant regarding our heart and our actions. We must be far more deliberate and intentional in what we choose. If we drift through life without thinking, we are at great risk of drifting onto the path of death. Rather, we need to be conscious and thoughtful about life. We must choose, repeatedly, even continuously, to follow the path of life, the path of blessing, the path of Christ.
Moses speaks strongly to his people about this shortly before they exit the wilderness. It is worth reading in full: Deuteronomy 30:15-20a:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life.
Last week we learned some Advent yoga – reaching back and seizing hold of the promises God made and fulfilled in Christ, which God has fulfilled, which feeds our faith; and reaching forward and grasping at the promises God has made that still will be fulfilled in Christ, which gives us hope. Today we focus forwards towards the hope of things yet to come. Central among this is Jesus’ second coming.
Our readings today (Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11 and Luke 3:1-6) all speak about the anticipation of Christ’s coming, including his second coming. Malachi (and Jesus) speaks about the second coming as being sudden, unexpected, which gives us a fright. We don’t know when to expect him. Malachi also says, when the Lord comes, the messenger we long for, the Son of Man, who will be able to stand? It will be daunting. (Though Jesus prays in Luke 21:36 that at the end times “you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”.)
Malachi, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all tell us we need to prepare for the coming of Christ. We must be ready. We must repent of our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, then we are made right God, and ready to receive Christ. Malachi speaks about purification – metal purified by fire and clothing cleansed with launderer’s soap.
There will be a sifting, a separation. Malachi calls it a sifting – of flour from chaff and sand and stones. Jesus speaks about it as a separation of sheep and goats, of pruning away and discarding unproductive branches off a fruit tree.
But it is not all challenge and judgement. It is also about hope. HOPE! The hope that comes through Jesus Christ and the great work he has done for us. Zechariah, praying over his new-born son, John (the Baptist), uses words of hope like: salvation, mercy, rescue, forgiveness, peace, covenant, righteousness, tender mercy, sunshine, rising sun. And Paul, writing to the Philippians, speaks of love that may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.
Let us prepare for Christ’s return. And let us hope for what he will accomplish in and around us. Let us articulate and pray for what we hope for – our lives, our world as a better place, as redeemed and sanctified. Let us pray with hope for the world we desire God to make real for us.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the church calendar. Next Sunday, we start a new church year, beginning with Advent, as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into the world. But the Feast of Christ the King is the culmination of everything we have done over the past year, and climaxes with a celebration of Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
In both the first and second testaments, there are passages that describe Jesus as King and God the Father as King: Moses can see only the back of God, not God’s face in Exodus 33, Daniel see one like the Son of Man in Daniel 7, and Isaiah sees God (but does not describe God; only the seraphim) in Isaiah 6. In all cases, God is powerful, magnificent and awesome, beyond words. They went out of their minds at their experience of the greatness of God. We get similar hints of this in the second testament with Christ: Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigure before them, and are overwhelmed by Christ in his glory (Matthew 17, Mark 9 & Luke 9). Hebrews 1 tells us Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being. And Revelation 1 describes John’s vision of Christ, including blazing eyes, feet like burning bronze and a double edged sword coming out of his mouth! John tells us that he feel at Jesus’ feet as though dead!
Our limited human minds cannot begin to comprehend or even see the full glory and magnificence of God as King.
And yet, in both testaments, God reveals God’s self most fully, not in such demonstrations of power, as much as in God’s love and concern for and solidarity with those who are vulnerable.
For example, both Psalms 146 and 147 present the magnificence of God, e.g., “He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them”; “The Lord reigns forever”; “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” and “He hurls down his hail like pebbles. Who can withstand his icy blast?”
But interwoven with these references to the power of God the King, we get verses like the following: “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow” in Psalm 146, while in Psalm 147: “The Lord gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord sustains the humble.”
The power and awesomeness of God is most fully revealed in God’s tender-heartedness, his compassion, his concern for the marginalised, his solidarity with the oppressed, and so on. And the most complete and full revelation of the heart of God is in the person of Christ, who is (as we read in Hebrews) the exact representation of God the Father. We think of Jesus, healing, touching, listening, seeing, walking, helping, weeping – all of these reveal the heart of Christ the King.
Our Gospel reading for today (John 18: 33-37) has Jesus talking with Pontius Pilate about Jesus as King. Jesus is persistently unwilling to refer to himself as a ‘king’ – twice he his pushed by Pilate: are you a king? And both times Jesus declines to answer directly. He is willing, though, to acknowledge that he has a kingdom (not of this world and from another place). I think he makes this concession, because a ‘kingdom’ emphasises the people who live in the kingdom more than the king of the kingdom. He is comfortable to speak about his people, the citizens his of kingdom, but not about his stature as ‘king’.
And in the end he says to Pilate, “You say I am a king”, in other words, you’re saying, not me. But, “in fact, the reasons I was born and came into the world [was not so much to be humanity’s king, but] to testify to the truth.” And what is truth? (as Pilate mockingly and cynically asks) The Truth is that God is, at the core and essence of God’s being, love. That is the ultimate truth of the Gospels and of God’s self revelation to humankind. That God is concerned for us and stands with us and fights for us and protects us and love us. This is Christ the King.