SERMON ON LUKE 23:33-43 and COLOSSIANS 1:11-20
AT ST. MARTIN’S, NORTH VANCOUVER, NOVEMBER 24, 2013
Making a Choice
As most know only too well in our diocese right now – some more than others, choosing a new leader can be a serious business. But it can also have its more humorous moments, even when we serve on a canonical committee.
I’m reminded of the following, somewhat cynical “Top Ten” translations of “Expectations of Our New Rector” in a Parish Profile which I’ve adapted from an item in Leadership magazine:
#10: Parish Profile wording: “We’ll be happy to pay you for your moving expenses.” – Translation: “We’ve budgeted $375.”
#9: Parish Profile: “We have a long and distinguished history as a congregation.” Translation: “We were very active until about 1990. But we haven’t done much since.”
#8: “We want a Rector who can bring energy and life to worship.” – “We need someone to get the organist to play the hymns faster.”
#7: “We think many former members will return if we get the right person as our new Rector.” – “If you don’t get them back, it’s your fault.”
#6: “We plan to repair the Rectory just as soon as we get a new Rector.” – “We expect our new Rector to repair the Rectory.”
#5: “We will do everything we can to help you get acquainted with our church.” – “We’ll watch you like a hawk.”
#4: “We’re an easy bunch to work with.” – “We’ll take it easy while you do the work.”
#3: “You’ll have three weeks of study leave and four weeks of vacation annually.” “Whenever you take time off, people will be sure to tell you how much they wish they had such an easy schedule.”
#2: “Our attendance has been declining, but our church has a lot of potential.” – “You’re our last hope before we close the church doors.”
And last but not least: #1: “We are looking for a new Rector who’s an outstanding preacher, a compassionate counsellor, a successful evangelist, a gifted teacher, a strong motivator, and an efficient administrator.” Translation: “We really want Jesus. But you might have to do.”
Yet joking aside, our Gospel reminds us that in some ways, “we really want Jesus” is actually a pretty good answer. We obviously can’t expect to find his perfection in anyone else. But the church is his Body and as followers of Christ, leaders are called to follow his example, like everyone else.
So when we think about the leadership we want, it’s vital to consider the model of Christ. And thankfully, on this special Sunday, when we celebrate “The Reign of Christ,” our two New Testament readings give us a golden opportunity to do that. In fact, they couldn’t be clearer in emphasizing the marvellous mystery and the profound paradox that lie right at the heart of Christ’s leadership. For this is a king of great majesty and amazing meekness all in one.
The Majesty of Christ (Col. 1:11-20)
So let’s start with the “majesty” of Christ. The picture of Jesus in our epistle could hardly be more exalted and that presents problems for some. It’s easy enough to accept that Jesus was a fine teacher or a great prophet. But the claims of the apostle Paul in Colossians 1 go much further.
“He is the image of the invisible God,” he writes in verse 15 following, “the firstborn of all creation.” So Paul treats Jesus as living and divine, as quite literally God in the flesh. As God’s eternal Son, Christ was there at creation. Indeed “all things have been created through him and for him” (v. 16). “He…is before all things,” we read in verse 17, “and in him all things hold together.”
And Christ was not only present at creation, the apostle says; he is our redeemer. Verse 13 tells us that “[God the Father] has rescued us from the power [or “dominion”] of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son.” So it is in Christ that we can enjoy “redemption” and “the forgiveness of sins” (v. 14).
It was through Christ that God chose to “reconcile to [God] all things” and he is now “the head of the body, the church” (vv. 20, 18). More than this, we read in verse 18, having risen again, “he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have the first place in everything.” He rose again after his death on the cross of Calvary and the fulness of God still dwells in him (v. 19).
Christ has “the first place in everything.” You couldn’t find a more unqualified statement of his position and authority than that. Paul is obviously doing nothing more or less than identifying Jesus of Nazareth as God in this passage. To say this kind of thing about anyone else would be nonsense. So as God the Son, Christ enjoys all the rights and privileges which might be expected.
And a major consequence lies in the area of leadership. The idea of royalty has lost some of its magic. We may still admire them. But when we think of royal families, we don’t tend to picture great authority. Their powers are generally limited in parliamentary democracies and their role is often ceremonial. In our tabloid society, they have sometimes become objects of scorn and scandal.
But Colossians 1 reminds that Christ’s kingship is very different. When we say that he is King, this means that Jesus has absolute authority whenever he chooses to exercise it. The greatest power in our world is not of human origin. It is the power of love, as revealed in Christ. The ultimate ruler of Canada – or any other nation, is not Queen Elizabeth or her Prime Minister. It is Jesus.
As the apostle Paul says so clearly, Christ is “the firstborn of all creation.” He is the very “image of the invisible God” (v.15), with all the powers and prerogatives that flow from that. He is the greatest Lord of all and he alone deserves all that we have to offer because he will never abuse our trust.
The Meekness of Christ (Lk. 23:33-43)
And yet there’s another side to Christ’s kingship which also distinguishes him from any other authority figure. We find that in our Gospel reading from Luke 23, where we hear how this majestic Lord, this God in the flesh, also came in ultimate meekness to become God on the Cross for our sake.
Most still know the story of the crucifixion and I won’t rehearse all the gruesome details. But I wonder if you’ve considered what it tells us about Jesus’ kingship.
In verses 33 to 43, we have the climax of his passion. We find Jesus nailed to the cross in “a place that is called the Skull” or Golgotha, with the [two] criminals, one on his right and the other on his left (v. 33). We discover people casting lots for his clothing (v. 34). We listen to the taunts of bystanders, to the mockery of the soldiers (vv. 35-36), and to the insults of one of the criminals (v. 39).
Yet amidst all this terrible pain and savagery, we also hear Christ’s amazing words of forgiveness and promise. “‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,'” Jesus says in verse 34. “‘Truly I tell you,'” he tells the outlaw who defends him, “‘today you will be with me in Paradise'” (v. 43).
And why do so many of those present on that first Good Friday belittle and abuse Jesus? The answer is very simple, I think: because in submitting to the disgrace and death of the cross, Christ totally confounds all their expectations of what it means to be a King, to be a powerful leader.
We see this in the mocking notice which they place above him: “This is The King of The Jews” (v. 38). We hear it in their words of ridicule. “‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah [or the Christ, which means “anointed one”] of God, [God’s] Chosen One'” (v. 35). “‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself'” (v. 37). And finally, “‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!'”
“‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!'” The main problem which the soldiers and the jeering bystanders have is that Jesus is simply not behaving as they expect him to if he is truly a King or the Messiah, for whom they have been hoping and praying. So many have been looking for someone to come and take charge dramatically and aggressively. They have been longing for a very political ruler to exercise power and to put all their enemies to flight.
But when they are finally presented with the genuine article, the ultimate leader, he comes not as a military hero, but as a sacrificial lamb who gives up his life in the most painful way imaginable on the cross. He does not bring political liberation through force of words or arms. Instead, he offers forgiveness to those who mistreat him and eternal love to all who truly receive him.
So our Gospel reveals the unique kind of leader which Jesus was and is – a King of love and mercy, a King who is prepared to suffer and die to save people from the worst problem in their lives, a King who sacrifices himself for all who receive him as Saviour and Lord. But this is not the leader whom most present at the cross thought they wanted or needed, and that’s why they rejected him.
And nearly 2,000 years later, Jesus still presents the same challenge. Will we receive him as he is, the rightful King of our hearts and lives? Or will we look for another source of guidance and leadership elsewhere?
Our readings remind us so powerfully this morning that the exalted “God in the flesh” of Colossians 1 is the self-same person as the “God on the cross” of Luke 23. The marvellous mystery and paradox of the gospel is that we cannot separate Christ’s majesty from his meekness. So Christ is also “God for us” in a unique and quite remarkable way.
The Jesus of history and the Christ of eternity are one and the same. This is a king who is ultimate in supremacy, yet totally self-giving. This is a king who rules on high, yet reaches down to depths of human suffering to save us and set us free in his suffering sacrifice to follow his servant example.
All of which focuses our attention, I think, on two main questions. The first is obvious and that is: will we accept him as he is and take his lead? We love to hear the glorious truth of Jesus as Saviour. But what about Jesus as Lord? What does that mean? Are we truly ready to follow him, especially when the going gets tough or when he seems to ask more of us than we really want to give?
The second question goes back to the kind of leadership that Jesus offers, because compared with any other that our world has ever had to offer, our readings this morning remind us that Christ is truly unique.
Jesus shows a leadership of power and humility, glory and sacrifice, strength and forgiveness, honour and love, salvation and suffering, all in one. But he reveals his true nature in giving himself totally for our sake. In that sense, as in so many others, he is the ultimate role-model for all Christian leaders – the true King of hearts who can reach out in love even to his persecutors and say: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
On Friday, we remembered the 50th anniversary of the deaths of two prominent leaders. They were influential in very different areas of life and one death attracted much more attention that the other. Some of us here will remember the vibrant, progressive leadership of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who was gunned down in the streets of Dallas on November 22, 1963.
For many Kennedy remains an inspirational figure, whose challenge to altruistic service in his famous Inaugural Address and elsewhere still echoes down through the decades. In an age, when we can seem only too ready to seek what we and others can get for ourselves, Kennedy’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you,” but “what you can do for your country” continues to be an inspiring and counter-cultural one.
Yet on the very same day as Kennedy, another major figure died who made his mark in the very different fields of academia, fiction and theology. C.S. Lewis may have attracted relatively few headlines in 1963. But his influence has been great. Through his Narnia series and other works, he has captivated the imaginations of millions. His scholarship on English literature remains important and his theological writings have shaped the views of generations of readers.
Lewis had a remarkable ability to express deep truths about many areas of faith and life, often in deceptively simple terms. He never led a nation, like Kennedy, still less what Americans like to think of as “the free world.” But in a much less obvious way, his leadership has benefited millions.
And what lay at the heart of the message that this remarkable Oxford don left to the world. It was about the profound change that comes through faith in Christ. It was about the power of God, not his own. It was about the kind of leadership that can really make a difference, when we follow the leadership of Christ.
One of my favourite Lewis quotations comes from his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” and I quote: “Authority exercised with humility, and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live.” And the ultimate authority to which Christians are called to submit, of course, is that of Christ, our servant King. For it is only to the extent that we are willing to serve him that that we truly become ready to lead others.
 Adapted from James Dyet, David Goetz, et al., in Leadership, 13:4.
 C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949), also at http://www.verber.com/mark/xian/weight-of-glory.pdf.