"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise"
I don’t suppose I’m the only one who has watched the BBC series ‘The Tudors’ over the past few years. The historical drama romps through Tudor England following the romantic, political, and religious twists and turns of that infamous king Henry VIII. It hardly portrays kings in a good light: more often led by libido than piety, Henry puts to death anyone who opposes him or what he wants. And, let’s be honest, there are very few kings, or queens for that matter, that are wholly different from Henry VIII.
Of course, such kings and queens are now half-forgotten. We may still have a constitutional monarchy, but dear old Queen Elizabeth more often hits the headlines for what she’s wearing, or what her children are doing, than because of some political or religious belief she has. So is this Feast of Christ the King caught between two very hard rocks – the image of a tyrant, and the image of a respectable, tweed-clad monarch. Can we take seriously the image of Christ as ‘king’ anymore? Does it even mean anything to call Christ a ‘king’?
Well, first of all, where do we get the idea that Christ is a king’ at all? Listen to the average Sunday hymn and you will hear Christ being called ‘king’. Today, for example: ‘Make way, make way, for the king of kings’ or ‘You are the King of glory’. We are used to singing that Christ is king, but that doesn’t get us too far. Where do we get the image we sing from? Surely it must be Scripture? How does the title 'king' work in Scripture, then?
In contrast to our hymns, God is only directly addressed as 'king' 29 times in the Old Testament, and only after the first king of Israel, Saul, is elected. In other words, the people of God only thought of calling God 'king' once they had made a human king. More commonly in the Old Testament God is named in images that come from people's daily lives back then: 'rock' for a strong and safe imagein the desert wanderings, or 'the one who gives water' for a people for whom water was a necessity of life. The Old Testament kings, by contrast, hardly seem a salutary bunch: murderers, adulterers, and heretics abound in contrast to a handful of holy kings.
Yet, something interesting happens in the Gospels to the idea of ‘king’. The Gospels tell us that Jesus Christ is the Son of David, that there is a link between Jesus and David's kingship. But the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament paint a very different picture of what kingship means. In the visions of Revelation, Jesus may be the King of kings and Lord of lords, but he is also the Lamb of God who was slain. Violence, oppression, power is not the way of Jesus in the same way as other ancient kings: Jesus does not use violence against others, he defeats violence for us on the Cross.
So, when we talk of Jesus as being our ‘king’, we have to remember that Jesus’ kingship cannot be extrapolated from human kingship. In John's gospel Pontius Pilate, whose experience of kingship was defined by the violence of Roman imperialism, tries to do this and comes straight out with the question "Are you the king of the Jews?" In other words, are you setting yourself up as an alternative king to the Roman Emperor? In Jesus’ subtle response, Jesus defines his kingship in relation to heaven, not earth.
Jesus knows that earthly kingship is all too often bound up with oppression, violence, and misunderstanding. And Jesus’ heavenly message of forgiveness, love, and freedom is misunderstood. In today’s Gospel, he is crucified as an earthly pretender to be the ‘king of the Jews’. But one person, amidst all of the pain, all of the curses, all of the insults, understands. And it’s the most surprising of people – one of the criminals crucified alongside Jesus. “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus’ response – a mighty ‘yes – today you will be with me in Paradise.” It’s a defiant glimpse of what God’s kingdom is and what God’s kingdom does. God is in the midst of the world’s brokenness and God brings new life, not in some distant future, but even now.
So, when we call Jesus ‘king’ we are really saying something like this: we see that God turns the world upside down, lifts up those in need, rescues the oppressed, sets us free. God’s kingdom is a rule of love in which we have a part to play. God doesn’t wield power over us like an earthly king. God gives us his power through the Spirit. God doesn’t want us to know our place. God wants us to take our place with Him. God doesn’t hold onto wealth and prestige. God gifts us a share. God doesn’t want us to obey and fear Him. God wants us to be his partners in loving the world. God doesn’t want us to wait for a better tomorrow, always just one day further off. God wants us to realise He is with us here, now, this very moment. God doesn’t just invite a privileged few to be his inner circle. God, through Jesus, remakes the whole universe so that even a crucified criminal can turn and say, “remember me”.
We are citizens not of Britain but of God’s kingdom. You don’t need a passport. You don’t need a visa. All you need is to see a broken world, as broken as Jesus’ body on the Cross, and see hope, see love, see God, see the glimmering of Paradise. The challenge then is not a heavy-hearted one. It is an opportunity to be the midwife of God’s kingdom, already here, still coming, and still to come. And Christ our King says to us, “today, you will be with me in Paradise.”