How can it be that Jesus of Nazareth is King of Kings?


A sermon preached on November 25, 2007 based upon Colossians 1:11 – 20, entitled, “How Can It Be That Jesus of Nazareth is King of Kings?”

If truth be told, there isn’t a great deal we know for sure regarding the historical truth of this man named Jesus, whom the Church declares as king of kings. From the point of view of an academic historian, here is pretty much all we can say for sure:

That in an obscure part of the world, some 2000 years ago, at the age of about 30 a small town Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth began moving about the countryside, teaching and healing and gathering followers about him. His teachings emphasized compassion and forgiveness and care for the poor, and a God who was very close at hand and cared about these very things.

Jesus of Nazareth came in conflict with the religious and political authorities of his day because he stood up for the poor and the outcaste. After perhaps two years of this teaching and healing, this Jesus traveled to Jerusalem, the power center of Israel, where he was welcomed by the peasants as a king — as one they hoped would bring liberation to their oppressed lives. He confronted the political and religious authorities, particularly in regards to the practices that were routinely taking place in the temple that conspired against those who were poor in body and spirit.

In a matter of days, following a last supper with his followers, he was arrested as his followers fled. He offered no resistance to the soldiers who came to arrest him, and within a day he was executed in the extremely painful method commonly practiced by the Roman Empire in those days so as to make an example out of him for others who might also consider challenging the power system. He was nailed to a cross, where in a matter of hours he died. This is what we know.

What we also know is that soon after his death, the movement Jesus of Nazareth had started arose from the ashes of their fear and despair, and his followers began carrying out the work he had devoted himself to before his death, strangely with more enthusiasm and courage than ever before, declaring from the very outset their conviction that they had in fact seen him alive again, raised by God from the dead.

What we also know is that from the perspective of those who had known and loved this Jesus, their encounter with him had changed everything — everything they thought about themselves and life and God.

And immediately a process of reflection began regarding this man — who he was, and is, and what he means for our lives — a process that has continued even to the present age.

In the process, “doctrines” were put forth, theological formulas. These doctrines were helpful in discussing the meaning of what they had experienced, but invariably these doctrines became problems in themselves when people claimed these doctrines to be absolutely true rather than as imperfect expressions of an ultimately inexpressible truth.

This process of reflection engaged in by Christians is analogous to the process engaged in by scientists for centuries. There is the data that scientists observe in their experiments,
and then there is the process of reflection — the theorizing about the data — trying to make sense of the data.

For ages a theory may have been in place that seemed to work, that is, made a certain sense of the data. But eventually new data arises, and it is discovered that the theory needs to be revised, or maybe even completely demolished, in order to make room for a new theory that can encompass all the data.

For instance, when the data began to show that the earth wasn’t flat, or that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe, or that Newton’s theories, useful though they had been, were fundamentally at odds with the data being encountered in the 20th century physics lab, old theories had to be given up, and new theories embraced. Generally speaking there was always resistance to this reformulation, because people had grown attached to the old theories, and found it difficult to think in new ways.

Returning to the process of reflection on the meaning of Jesus… following Jesus’ death and the mystery that was his resurrection, the earliest affirmations of those first Christians regarding Jesus were quite simple. Basically two things: first, that Jesus had risen from the dead; that death had not held him. And second, that he is Lord, that is — he is the King to whom they were compelled to serve with their lives.

But as time passed, the reflections became more elaborate. He was, for instance, surely a human being, who like all the rest of us suffered the consequences of mortal life in this world. And yet, they were convinced he was in some sense unlike any other man — that God was uniquely with him in a manner hard to define, but which they nonetheless tried their best to define.

You can see this process of reflection at work in the writings of the four Gospel writers, who, like different scientists working in separate labs, each trying to make sense of similar data, develop theories that are similar, and yet at certain points in contradiction of one another.

Take this morning’s Gospel lesson, which tells Luke’s version of Jesus’ death upon the cross. Luke wrote his Gospel something like 50 years after Jesus’ death, so it includes 50 years of this process of reflection by the particular community of believers of which Luke was a part.

What actually happened — what was actually said that horrid afternoon Jesus was nailed to a cross? We really can‘t know for sure. All we know for sure is that Jesus suffered a terribly painful death that included suffocation — that’s what crucifixion did to a person —
and so in the midst of trying to catch his breath, it seems unlikely he said much of anything.

Nonetheless, all four Gospel writers portray Jesus as having things to say, with each version quite different from the others, the one exception being a similarity found in Mark and Matthew’s versions.

I think it is fair to say that the words the Gospel writers place on Jesus’ lips express different threads of reflection on the meaning of this man’s life. From a faith perspective,
we believe that the holy spirit was actively involved in this process.

Luke alone tells us that Jesus said, “Father, Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Did he actually say this? Probably not. But Luke, recognizing that forgiveness
was at the very heart of Jesus’ life and ministry, puts these words on his lips in death.

Luke also portrays a conversation between two thieves who may or may not have been crucified with Jesus that day. One mocks Jesus, the other reaches out to Jesus, seeking mercy. Did this conversation actually take place? Again, probably not, since crucified people gasping for breath are not likely to engage in complex conversations.

Luke has a profound point to make — that in the experience of the Christian community,
every human being is confronted with a decision: whether to admire, to honor, to seek to emulate the life this man lived, or to reject it, and that this decision is tied up with the very meaning of our own life and death.

There follows a brief conversation initiated by the thief who honors Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Again, this conversation, found only in Luke’s Gospel, probably didn’t actually take place. Luke, pondering Jesus at the moment of death, places words in his mouth that are consistent with what he clearly expressed elsewhere: that there is a good and gracious life beyond this one for those who, like this thief, are open to this wondrous gift offered by a merciful God.

Throughout the brief scene of his death, much is made of what we might call the “irony of Jesus’ Kingship.” There is a plaque above him declaring Jesus to be the “King of the Jews.” And yet his kingdom is mostly mocked by those present: “How can this man be a king? He’s hanging on a cross!” But from Luke’s perspective, he is indeed the king of kings, even though he is acknowledged as such at this moment only by the one, repentant thief.

The epistle lesson, taken from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, is also written several decades after Jesus death and resurrection, and displays an even more elaborate reflection
on the meaning of this Jesus. Paul makes grand, sweeping statements: that Jesus has rescued us from the power of darkness, that it is through him that all things were made, that he is the very image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation — the center in which all things hold together, in whom the very fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
To some, this might seem like quite a leap to make regarding the simple wandering preacher known as Jesus of Nazareth who lived 2000 years ago in an obscure part of the planet.

Underneath all of these grand, theological formulas is the underlying experience and conviction of Paul and the others in that early Christian community that in Jesus the very key to the meaning of life can be found.

Everyone of us is confronted with a fundamental question: for what purpose were human beings born? Or more personally, why am I alive? What does my life mean? The experience of the Christian community leads us to declare that in this mysterious man Jesus, a reliable answer has been found.

There is a peculiar way in which a kind of intersection has occurred in recent decades between the process of Christian theology on the one hand, and the process of reflection going on in the realm of Physics and Cosmology, on the other.

Scientists have pondered the data that tells them that in the very first moment of that so-called “big bang” out of which the universe as we know it burst into existence, everything was in place that was required for the eventual evolution (billions of years down the road)
of the sort of remarkable complexity that we refer to as human life or human consciousness. Theoretically, the laws of the universe could have been established in an infinite number of other ways, but as far as the scientists can see, none of these other ways would have allowed for the eventual creation of anything resembling human life.

What’s it all mean? This, of course, is debated endlessly in scientific circles, and generally speaking, scientists are very reluctant to say it “means” anything at all; that it just is, and that such speculation is beyond the realm of science.

But there is at least the suggestion in all this of a purpose behind everything; that creation has been moving towards something through all these billions of years — that from the beginning, creation has been aiming at some kind of goal involving the unique possibilities brought into existence with human consciousness.

Human life, of course, encompasses a wide range of possibilities. Has creation been aiming since the beginning of time in the direction of a creature that could, say, “shop till you drop“, or make war on those who see things differently, or harbor old grudges, or veg out in front of the television set? Somehow it just doesn’t seem as though these were the sorts of things that creation has been aiming for since the big bang.

In this context, Paul’s leap of exalted language about the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth
might just help bridge the gap here. Referring to Jesus, Paul calls him

“the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–
all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

In other words, in the appearance of this Jesus of Nazareth, a quality of life was manifest upon this earth for the first time that all creation had been moving towards from the very beginning.

So here we are two thousand years after his appearance, sitting in worship on stewardship Sunday, confronted with the rather mundane decision regarding how much money each of us will pledge to support our church’s life.

It is in such mundane decisions that our life finds its destiny. To throw our lot with the thief on the cross who reaches out to Jesus and his kingdom of light, or to turn away, like that other thief, and wrap ourselves up in the darkness.

He has risen, and he is the king.

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