Jesus—King or Mascot?—Luke 23: 33-43
(November 20, 2022-Reign of Christ Sunday)
One of my favourite popular writers on the Christian faith is Anne Lamott. Her expressions of faith are beautiful in their simultaneous, simplicity, depth, and playfulness. She shares the practical wisdom of a faith that saved her from the indignities and hopelessness of addiction. Some of that wisdom came to mind for me this week, it goes, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Ouch isn’t that the truth.
Today is Reign of Christ Sunday. For many years I’ve been ambivalent with this notion of Jesus as king. In league with the Church, political powers have and continue to co-opt Jesus with the language of empire and domination. This is a Jesus who hated and often still hates many of the same people as the dominant culture—Black and brown people, Indigenous people, 2SLGBTQ people. In many ways the description of Jesus as king is simply power creating God in it’s own image—Jesus and God weaponized for the benefit of a few. That’s what power does to faith when faith threatens power. Power projects faith outward instead of taking it inward. Power says, “Jesus should be everyone’s king”. Instead of asking, “Is Jesus my king?” Jesus’ kingship is not something to be projected onto others, it’s something to invite into our lives.
We might ask, “Is Jesus my king or is Jesus my mascot?” Does the way of Jesus rule my life or is Jesus just a symbol or an emblem of team Christian to which I claim to belong? Do I allow Jesus to challenge me, to make me uncomfortable, to prompt me to take risks in love or is Jesus merely the justification for the privileges and power I want to defend? Is Jesus my king or is Jesus my mascot?
He’s not an easy king to let rule in us. He’ll make us uncomfortable. What kind of a king let’s himself be executed and then offers hope to a criminal in his dying moments? He is the one who washes the feet of his disciples. He is a healer. He is a friend of the outcast and despised. He defies the authority of those in power for the sake of love and mercy. He is a threat to established religious and political powers. What is this kingdom that Jesus rules? It is the place where the first shall be last, and last shall be first. It belongs to the poor and the meek. It is received by little children. It is hard for those with wealth to see it or enter it. It is a place governed by servants. It is a place where enemies are loved. It is a place where forgiveness is endlessly offered. Jesus completely re-defined what everyone understood king and kingdom to mean.
This king’s power is love, the power to transform human lives and relationships in the direction of love. Jesus’ power is not based on domination; rather it is a vulnerable power, because love is necessarily vulnerable. Love cannot be imposed or else it stops being love, love is offered freely, love is an invitation. Love has power, we all know that, we’ve all experienced love’s power, but first we need to let it into our lives, we need to allow love to rule us.
What are the forces vying for kingship over your life? What are the forces that seek to supplant Jesus, that tempt you to treat Jesus as your mascot and not your king. It’s a daily struggle. I’ll tell you for me lately it’s despair. I came across a term that seems to capture the essence of these times for me—polycrisis. Pandemic, climate crisis (and the associated superstorms, droughts, floods, extreme heat, fires), Russia/Ukraine war and the threat of nuclear war and a wider conflict, misinformation, threats to democracy, housing and a homelessness crisis, racism. These are strange times and it’s taking a toll on our psyches. When the crises are many and you feel like every time you scroll Twitter or watch the news you are being knocked to the ground by a fire house of doom it is absolutely overwhelming. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my sense of reality; Is it actually possible that we’ll see nuclear weapons used again? Did I hear right that the massive Athabasca Glacier on which I once stood will be gone toward the end of the century? How is it that in the United States there is no longer a consensus on the value of democracy? Things that once seemed unfathomable are now real.1
How do we fix all this, especially when so many people of means and power either willfully contribute to the dysfunction or minimize it because their wealth and privilege shield them? How could you not despair? I think of those shows on the Discovery Channel where people go into the Alaskan wilderness to live off grid, disconnected from the outside world and I can see the appeal. I fantasize about a simpler life, unencumbered by the relentlessness of our connected world. My wife laughs at the idea, truth be told I wouldn’t last more than a few days, I’m not the handiest or hardiest of people.
There’s nothing wrong with disconnecting from time to time, with stepping back for the sake of our own sanity, for some rest and renewal. But, if despair and cynicism are my kings than Jesus can’t be, he’s just my mascot. Faith, allegiance to love calls us to rest in God amid the tumult. Ironically, sometimes our connected world becomes a means by which we find that rest. A few days ago, former United Church of Canada Moderator David Giuliano shared a post on Facebook. I’ve seen it before, but it’s a reminder I need. It’s a portion from the Jewish Mishnah, a collection of commentaries and teachings published in the second century. It goes, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
It’s a reminder of my limitations, it both chastens and comforts. Who am I to think it’s all up to me? I simply do my part in faith, to serve, to cooperate with God in works of justice, mercy, and humility. We walk with, we support the families from Syria adjusting to life in Canada, we fly the pride flag even though we open ourselves up to vandalism, we learn and try to live lives informed by anti-racism and right relations with First Nations, we proclaim that Black lives matter even though we get nasty phone calls, we bake and deliver desserts for A Better Tent City, we give generously to the Mission and Service fund.
1 Adam Tooze, Welcome To the World of the Polycrisis, Financial Times, October 28, 2022, www.ft.com/content/498398e7-11b1-494b-9cd3-6d669dc3de33
When Jesus is our king, we do our part and leave the rest to God in faith that God is working through our acts of love. Some of you might remember an email the church office received three years ago about the impact of the flag out front. It read in part, “I wanted to reach out to express gratitude for your community’s commitment to being publicly supportive and welcoming to LGBTQ people…. The message that myself and others like me are unwelcome is often heard from people who hide their personal discomfort behind their faith, and when I was younger, I understood religious faith and hatred to be the same. When I drive by your church and see the flag my heart is lifted. I feel safer knowing your community is open. I am writing this to tell you how much seeing your flag means to me. Thank you.”
When Jesus is our king we acknowledge our limits. We do our part; God does the rest. We have faith in the strange economy of the Holy One, an economy that is hard to grasp in our competitive win/lose society. When we give, we are enriched, when we love the love multiplies. There is no domination, no hoarding of power but a sharing in the abundance of love that is Jesus’ kingdom. A mascot faith is not for us. Jesus is our king. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Joe Gaspar
Jesus—King or Mascot?—Luke 23: 33-43