This is a fairly confusing experience of worship we’re having this morning. We began outside joyfully, symbolically there with the people of Jerusalem, waving palm branches and proclaiming Jesus to be king of kings. We cried out, “Hosanna” – which means, “save us” – and we followed him in triumph into the holy city, here into the church. But as soon as we found ourselves here in Jerusalem, everything changed. Instead of shouting praise, instead of calling out for Jesus to save us, we’re shouting, “Crucify him!” and taunting him to save himself. It’s a worship experience guaranteed to make your head spin.
Maybe we can get some clarity about what’s going on by asking a question of the scriptures we’ve heard. And that question is this: “Who’s in charge here?”
We might think the Jewish religious authorities are in charge. After all, they manage to bring Jesus to Pilate on a trumped-up indictment, and they play the system to make the charges stick. But their authority only goes so far: They have no law – or at least no will – to execute a blasphemer, so they have to defer to Rome to carry out their plan.
So we might think the Roman authorities are in charge. After all, Pilate is Caesar’s man in Palestine, deputized to keep the Pax Romana at any cost and remembered in history as a ruthless imperial hatchet man. But in the Gospel accounts, especially in Luke, all Pilate does is stand there protesting about Jesus’ innocence – and then he bows to the pressure of the crowd and kills him anyway. He’s not exactly a paragon of Roman power.
Oddly enough, the one who’s in charge here is the one who ends up being tortured and crucified. Jesus may not have a lot to say, but that’s partly the point. This isn’t power on the world’s terms, the power of religious manipulators and petty rulers and angry mobs. This is power on a whole different scale.
Listen to the language both Luke and Paul use in today’s readings. When the disciples take a colt for Jesus to ride in royal triumph, they explain that “the Lord needs it” (Luke 19:31). And in the reading from Philippians, Paul says this crucified one has been exalted such that “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:10-11). Now, to our ears, we probably hear that word “Lord” as something roughly equivalent to “God,” but that’s not what people heard back in the day. The word in Greek is kyrios, and it means “Lord” in the sense of the divine king, the one who wields ultimate power. And when you talked about the kyrios in the Roman world, you were talking specifically about Caesar. Caesar was the one called “Lord.” Caesar was worshipped as a deity by those under his thumb; he was even described as the “Savior” because of the peace Rome had brought to the ancient world with its iron fist; and when Caesar went off visiting some part of his empire, his messengers would announce the “good news” that the kyrios, the Lord, was coming. Sound familiar? So when Luke says “the Lord” needs that colt; and when the crowds come out to welcome Jesus with palm branches the way they would welcome a king; and when Paul proclaims that every tongue will confess that Jesus is “Lord” – in all this, what’s being proclaimed is an explicit challenge to the power of Caesar. After all, if Jesus is the kyrios, if Jesus is the true emperor and savior, then Caesar isn’t.1
So, the Lord is now hanging on the cross, bleeding and suffocating to death. All the signs around him point to that deep and awful irony. The religious leaders speak the truth without realizing it by derisively calling him “king.” One of the criminals crucified with Jesus picks up the same refrain, naming Jesus as the king but demanding that he prove it by saving himself and the criminals. And over Jesus’ head hangs the ironic caption for the whole picture: “This is the King of the Jews,” the sign reads (23:38). It’s only wrong in the sense that it’s too limited. This kyrios is Lord over every nation.
And then, we hear from the one character in this Passion story who sees the truth. The second criminal hanging next to Jesus has watched all that’s been going on. He’s seen Jesus make his triumphal entry into the city, being hailed as king; and he’s watched that adoring crowd from Palm Sunday turn into an angry mob out for blood. Now, this second criminal has watched Jesus be humiliated and broken. But unlike the others in this scene, this criminal can read the signs around him. So when the first criminal joins in the abuse, this second one says, “Do you not fear God…? [W]e indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:40-41)
When this criminal looks at Jesus, he sees that this is no wild prophet, no political zealot, no bankrupt faith healer, no failed revolutionary. This is the Lord, the emperor not of Rome but of all creation. So, hanging on his own cross, the criminal verbally bows down before him and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). Not if, but when.
It’s perfectly fitting that, while all the respectable people are ridiculing and killing the Lord, the one faithful actor in this scene is a criminal. In the logic of the Gospel, blessing always seems to come as a reversal. Blessed are the hungry, for they shall be fed. Blessed are the mournful, for they shall laugh. And, in this case, blessed is the lawless, for he shall behold the one who rules all.
So how about us? When we look on this crucified, broken, innocent man, whom do we see?
Do we see a pitiful sap who got chewed up in the wheels of the imperial machine? It’s right to pity his horrific suffering, but that’s not enough.
Do we see a great teacher whose words offended the powerful so much that they silenced him? It’s right to mourn what we didn’t get to learn of Jesus’ wisdom, but that’s not enough.
Do we see a leader who tried to guide people in righteousness and enact God’s peace and justice in the world? It’s right to grieve the silencing of this prophet who led us into God’s commonwealth rather than our own politics of self-aggrandizement, but that’s not enough.
Or do we see the king, the ruler of the universe, the one who, “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,” even to the point of death on a cross? (Philippians 2:1-8)
And when we finally recognize that king on the cross, what on earth are we supposed to do?
Faced with the deep mystery of a crucified emperor who reigns over us still, perhaps the best thing we can do is what Jesus asks us to do each week at this altar – and that is, to remember. Remember him this Thursday in the terrible beauty of foot-washing and Eucharist, the stripping of this altar, and the long, lonely watch through the night. Remember him this Friday in the desolation of crucifixion and the attack on the Savior by the saved. Remember him again on Easter, when the light of an empty tomb finally breaks over death’s horizon. And remember him every day thereafter, living your life subject to his authority.
Through this holiest of weeks, and through our weekly remembrance of Jesus, and through all the burdens and blessings that come our way, may we always look to the cross and remember: This is where we’ll find the one true king.
- For more on the “counter-empire” of Jesus, see Wright, N.T. “Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire.” Available at: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Paul_Caesar_Empire.pdf. Accessed March 18, 2016.