The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
The King Who Lost the Vote
Jesus stood before the voting public one time . Just once. Like a King awaiting his royal throne, he stood before them, wearing an elegant robe and a custom-made crown. The winner would win freedom. But the crowd chose someone else; they voted for the other guy – and it wasn't close. But then, they also cast their vote for him. In one united voice the rallying masses chanted, “Crucify! Crucify him!”
Jesus had healed their sick; he had fed their hungry; he had raised their dead. But standing before them now, he did not look like a king. His robe mocked him; his crown drained him. It was obvious to them. They needed a strong king; someone who would fight. And he was weak. He gave nice speeches. And he dreamed of impossible kingdoms. But they needed someone who would take real action; not someone who snuck away to quiet prayer gardens.
And so they voted Barabbas. He would actually fight for them. He had a proven track record. He was charged with insurrection. He fought for freedom with a sword. While Jesus was praying, Barabbas was killing their Roman oppressors. Like a king. Like a real king.
The people made their choice. They made their voice heard. They could only choose one. And so they chose the one who better represented their values. And they threw the other guy away. Their guy Barabbas was a killer; and now so were they.
This is the one democratic moment in the Gospels. And the people chose Barabbas.1 This was their moment to play judge and they chose to be judge, jury, and executioner. And then because that wasn't enough, the people trolled Jesus as he died on the cross. And they mocked him in tandem with the cruel graffiti painted on the hard wood above his bleeding head.
And then they moved on. Because that is what we do. The losers are yesterday's news. And when the votes were tallied, the results were quite clear. Jesus was the loser.
Or was he the King? Because today we celebrate the Feast of the Christ the King. And it's a little confusing because we read about a man who was mocked and beaten, a man who lost his only election, a man who was executed by authorities, a man whose throne more closely resembles an electric chair than a seat of power.
And if we just called Christ our King, in light of this story, we too could fairly be mocked. Our Gospel on the Feast of Christ the King, is the crucifixion, an execution of a feeble peasant. It is absurd. There is nothing about this story that should make us proud. This is what happens what weakness steps to power. Maybe we are dim, unable to comprehend that those calling Jesus King in the Gospel are actually making fun of him; they are mocking him as he dies a shameful death. But not content to stop there, we claim to see God on that cross, hanging beneath that cruelly ironic sign that reads “The King of the Jews.”
In the novel Life of Pi, the book we are reading in our Fall Book Group, an Indian boy named Pi first encounters this foreign religion called Christianity. In his initial conversations with a Roman priest, Father Martin, Pi struggles to get past the absurdity of the Christian story, of our story. He ponders, “That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand.... But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged though the streets and, to top it off, crucified – and at the hands of mere humans.... [D]ivinity should not be blighted by death. It’s wrong.... [O]nce a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son [of God] must have the taste of death forever in his mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?” “Love. That was Father Martin’s answer.”2
Christ the King is who we see: mocked, berated, belittled and dying. We see him, willed to death by mere humans, sentenced by the authorities, mocked by nameless soldiers, and we call him a king. We watch him die between two criminals and we dare call him God. What does this say about us? Do we find ourselves at the height of absurdity or in the depths of blasphemy?
Of course the crowds chose Barabbas. People are attracted to power. We choose saviors who grab the world by the throat, who destroy all challengers. We want a God who is not afraid to condemn most of the world to Hell, who punishes those who step out of line.
We know what power is. And power is not mocked; it is not laughed at; it does not wear a crown of thorns. Power does not meekly and quietly accept the verdict. Power does not die on the cross. What kind of savior is this? Jesus didn't even save himself.
Jesus, immediately after their last supper together, just before his crucifixion, said to his disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”3 This is Christ our King.
In a world that sees power as dominance, subjugation, and humiliation, God makes power a wooden cross, a broken body, and a declaration of forgiveness. It's not what we would choose; it's not what we expected. See, we've come to believe that the destructive expressions of power of some distant, apathetic deity are “acts of God”. But that's not it; it's not even close. If you want to see an act of God, look into the eyes of your Crucified King.
It really did look like a failure. The people mocked him – screamed at him to save himself, delighted in his weakness. Divine plan as absolute mess. The King died on a brutal Roman cross – like a common criminal. But in the mess humanity created we, his Church, see our victorious king – not the king we would elect, but the King who chooses us; we see victory. To many it looks like just another victim of an empire of dominance and humiliation, it looks like what happens when power and weakness collide, but on that cross we see God; it really is absurd. And, it makes no sense, but on that cross we also see divine power – the power to forgive, the power of serve, the power of love: what power looks like in Christ's Kingdom.
On a cross, between two criminals, the true nature of our God is revealed. God: willing to give up the dignity, give up the paradise, give up the power, to do whatever it takes to love, to love the ones who fashioned the thorny crown, to love the ones who cried “Crucify”, to love the ones who drove the nails, to love the ones who laughed in the face of mercy. God endured the jeers, God lost the vote, God suffered the cross. Why would God wish that upon God's self? Why make dirt what is beautiful? Why soil what is perfect? Love. That is the answer. To love us, to love the fickle insurrectionists in the court of Christ the King.
1 Stanley Hauerwas says, “We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas.” You can find his sermon here: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/11/08/4571091.htm
2 Martel, Yann. Life of Pi, 54.
3 Luke 22:25-27