There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Today is Christ the King Sunday, and whether you are here in this room at the end of the Christian Year, or watching from home at the beginning of the calendar year, it is an important day. It’s a day when we announce to the world that we have no king but Jesus.
There’s a scene in the book of Revelation where the 24 elders, seated around the throne of God, take the crowns off their own heads and cast them at his feet. If it were up to me, on a day like today I would put a throne right here at the front of the church, and give each of you a crown as you came into the sanctuary, and then during the closing hymn ask you to imagine that Christ is seated on that throne, and invite you to come forward and cast your crowns at his feet as a way of letting him know that for you he is—and will always be—the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. That would be a good way to celebrate. But if it were up to Luke he would do something completely different, and he does. He doesn’t ask us to imagine Jesus on a throne; he asks us to imagine him on a cross. Why?
Because Luke is up to something.
He gives us a hint in the first paragraph of his Gospel when he says that after following all things closely and interviewing a number of eyewitnesses he has decided to write an orderly account so that someone named Theophilus may “know the truth” concerning the things about which he has been instructed. Let me warn you that I wrote a 300-page doctoral dissertation on the first paragraph of Luke’s Gospel, but then let me see if I can sum up my findings in something less than that. One was that Luke doesn’t actually say he wants Theophilus to know the truth, but that he wants him to have some certainty about what he has already learned. The Greek word is asphaleia, and it is usually translated as “assurance.” In my dissertation I argued that assurance is an affective word: it describes a feeling. Luke wants Theophilus to have that warm, comfortable feeling that comes when he realizes that everything he has learned about Jesus is true.
So, something must have happened to Theophilus. I believe he was a God-fearing Gentile, like the ones we hear about in Acts 17, who attended the synagogue in a place like Thessalonica and who heard from Paul that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Messiah.[i] Theophilus heard that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans, but that God had raised him up again and given him “the name that is above every name,” and he believed it. But then someone came along and told him it wasn’t true.
I’ve seen this illustrated in the videos I’ve been watching from the BibleProject.com as I read through the Bible this year. They show those early Christian missionaries going from place to place preaching that Jesus is the Messiah, and the way they represent that message is by showing that the cross equals the crown. It’s up there in the little speech bubble over the missionaries’ heads: cross = crown. But then they show how others would come along later and say that the cross does not equal the crown. In the speech bubble there’s a diagonal slash through the equal sign. But why would anyone say that? Why would they say that Jesus is not the Messiah?
A blogger named Tracey Rich has helped me understand much of what traditional, observant Jews still believe about the Messiah.[ii] He writes: “The Messiah is the one who will be anointed as king in the Last Days. He will be a great political leader descended from King David. He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments. He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel. He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions.” And then he writes: “In every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the Messiah. If the time is right for the messianic age within that person’s lifetime, then that person will be the Messiah. But if that person dies before he completes the mission of the Messiah, then that person is not the Messiah.”[iii]
And what is “the mission of the Messiah”? To redeem Israel, and to do it in a very specific way. Listen: “The Messiah will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing them back to Israel and restoring Jerusalem. He will establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and gentiles. He will rebuild the temple and re-establish its worship. He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land.”[iv] Had Jesus done any of those things? No. Instead he had died on a cross like a common criminal; he had been buried in a borrowed tomb. But Paul said Jesus had been raised from the dead, and Theophilus had believed him. If Paul was right about the Resurrection then Jesus could still accomplish the mission of the Messiah, but if Paul was wrong then Theophilus would have to go back to waiting, and hoping, that one day the Messiah would come.
So, Luke writes an entire Gospel to assure Theophilus (and others like him) that what he has heard about Jesus is true: the cross equals the crown. When Theophilus finishes reading his Gospel Luke wants him to have that feeling—that warm, comfortable feeling—that Jesus really is who Paul said he was. So, how does Luke do it? He tells a story. He tells the story of Jesus from the very beginning. He creates a narrative universe and invites Theophilus into it so that he can have a first-hand experience of Jesus, because nothing is so convincing as experience.
This is where I spent a lot of time in my dissertation, talking about the story world and how the reader enters into it. You know what I’m talking about, right? Sometimes you start reading a novel and it takes a little while to find your way. There are all these new characters, settings, and situations. You have to listen closely to the narrator as he or she guides you through those first few pages. It’s the same with the Gospel. The world of the Bible can be a very strange place. You need someone to take you by the hand and guide you through it and that’s what Luke’s narrator does.
Some people speak of the narrator as the “whispering wizard” in a story, the one whose presence you are only vaguely aware of, but the one who helps you understand what you are reading.[v] You could think of it like this: if you were sitting in a box seat watching a play the narrator would be the one sitting beside you, whispering, “Now, these cowboys in the white hats are the good guys, but those other ones, in the black hats, are the bad guys!” In the Gospel of Luke, just after that one-paragraph introduction, the narrator introduces us to Zechariah and tells us that he is one of the good guys, but he is a good guy with a problem: his wife has not been able to have children. Already we begin to feel sympathy for him (did you hear that? We feel sympathy), and we rejoice when Gabriel gives him the good news that Elizabeth will conceive! But then we are whisked away to Nazareth, where Gabriel tells a virgin named Mary that she is going to be the mother of a child who will sit on the throne of his ancestor David. In other words, she will be the mother of the Messiah. And there you are, sitting beside the narrator in your box seat, watching all this happen on the stage. You lean in close and whisper, “Is that true?” And he whispers back, “It is!”
And so it goes, through the entire Gospel, at Jesus’ birth and later at his baptism, when he heals the sick and when he raises the dead, when he feeds the five thousand and when he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. Every time he says or does something remarkable you say to the narrator, “Wow! He really is the Messiah!” and he says, “Yes, he is!”
And then we come to the tragic part of the story, where the religious authorities, out of jealousy, have Jesus arrested and brought before Pilate, and where Pilate, out of cowardice, gives in to the demands of the crowd. And there you are, sitting beside the narrator as the soldiers strip Jesus of his robe, nail him to a cross, and hang a sign over his head that says, “King of the Jews.” And then everybody begins to mock him and taunt him, saying, “If you are the king of the Jews save yourself!” The sky grows dark and the rain begins to fall and there’s Jesus, the one you have come to love and trust, gasping for breath under that horrible sign, and with tears in your eyes you turn to the narrator and whisper, “But it’s true! He really is a king!” “Yes,” whispers the narrator: “He is.”
And that’s how a gospel works.
Back in the late seventies a religion professor named David Rhoads invited his friend Donald Michie, an English professor, to show the students in his New Testament class how to read one of the gospels as if it were a short story.[vi] He writes: “As I listened to an English teacher interpret the gospel, I was fascinated by the fresh and exciting way in which he discussed the story. He talked about the suspense of the drama. He spoke of Jesus as a character struggling to get his message across. And he showed how the conflicts come to a climax in Jerusalem.”[vii]
Of particular interest was his friend’s discussion of irony, when a speaker says one thing but means another, or when a character thinks one thing is true when in fact it’s the opposite. He writes: “Irony has a way of drawing readers into accepting the narrator’s point of view. By showing the authorities ridiculing Jesus [and mocking him as ‘King of the Jews’], the narrator leads the reader to sympathize with Jesus, thinking, ‘There’s more truth to that than they know.’ And because the reader sees what the real situation is, in contrast to the characters who do not see, the reader is led to be on the inside, perhaps even to feel superior to the blind victims of the irony.”[viii] Luke was up to something, and when you read this Gospel faithfully you can feel it. There you are, sitting beside the narrator in your box seat, looking down on those fools who keep calling Jesus the King of the Jews without realizing that he actually is. If everything works the way it’s supposed to, then at this point in the Gospel you will have the feeling Luke has been working toward from the very beginning: the assurance that comes from knowing that Jesus really is the Messiah, no matter what anyone else might say. Because in this story they say it, don’t they?
Luke tells us that while the crowds stood by watching Jesus die on the cross the religious leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even one of those two thieves who were being crucified along with him kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself, and us!” These characters in the story make the assumption most of us would, that if you had power you would use it to save yourself. Most kings would. But not this one. Jesus is up to something. The surprising thing about him is that he uses his power not to save himself but to save others. And let me ask you: if you could choose between a king who would use his power to save himself and a king who would use his power to save you, which one would you choose?
I know I’ve told you this story before but back in 1984 I went to the polling place to cast my vote for president. It was the year Walter Mondale was running against Ronald Reagan, the incumbent. I was 25 years old, I had just started seminary, I was out to change the world. To tell you the truth I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the presidential campaign and as I made my way to the polling place, I found that I didn’t have strong feelings about either candidate. I’ve never had a lot of interest in politics, never pinned all my hopes on any elected official. I stood in that voting booth for a long time, looking at those two names, and finally I chose the third option: I wrote in my dad’s name. When I told people about it later, I told them that, honestly, I couldn’t think of anyone who would make a better president. No offense to those two candidates but I knew my dad, I knew he was good and kind and wise. And I also knew this, that if it ever came right down to it my dad would lay down his life for me, and that’s the kind of president you would want, isn’t it?
“If you are a king,” the religious authorities said to Jesus, “then save yourself.” “If you are a king,” the soldiers said, “then save yourself.” “If you are a king,” the other thief said, “then save yourself.” But Jesus turned out to be the kind of king who cared more about saving others than saving himself, and so he hung there on that cross, under that sign, until his work was done. I don’t know what kind of king you want, but if I could choose, I would choose a king like that.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] Acts 17:4
[v] My doctoral supervisor, Alan Culpepper, used that phrase. I don’t know if he invented it or if he was quoting someone else. I probably have a footnote in my dissertation.
[vi] David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: an Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).
[vii] Ibid., p. xv.
[viii] Ibid., p. 61.