A different kind of power – a sermon for Christ the King

Colossians 1.11-20, Luke 23.33-43

What is a king like? What does it mean to call Jesus ‘king’?

In the first verse of our first reading today, we hear about Jesus’ ‘strength’ and ‘power’. And that might seem to align fairly neatly with conventional ideas about kingship, in Jesus’ day and our own. A king is strong, powerful, undefeated, triumphant. But… is that really what this reading is about? I think not.

The Godly Play version of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness has Jesus responding to the devil’s tempting offer of power with the wonderful phrase: “I am a king, but not that sort of king.” So what sort of king is Jesus? Does king imagery really help us to understand him at all?

That’s certainly a question worth bearing in mind as we delve a bit deeper into today’s readings.

Strength and power are only a very small part of the picture Paul paints of Jesus in his letter to the Colossians. This beautiful poetic description of Christ’s role in the creation, redemption and salvation of the whole world points towards something far greater than any human idea of kingship.

It is a passage which has been badly misused over the years. It has been read as a sign that power and privilege and even wealth are a blessing from God. It has been used to endorse the most violent, despotic and un-Christlike “thrones and dominions and rulers and powers” as God-created. It has been used by those who have power and privilege to oppress those who do not, to keep them in their place – “the rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate”, as we used to sing. As if any of that bears any relation to the kingdom of God.

We need to read this passage in the context in which it was written. It comes immediately after Paul has reminded the early Christians at Colossae of the gospel they have received. Read in the light of that gospel, which we too have received, it becomes clear that this passage is no endorsement of worldly power.

Jesus tells parables of a kingdom which very often seems strange to us, and would have been strange to his original hearers too. He never says exactly what God’s kingdom is, but when we hold together all the many weird and wonderful things he says “the kingdom of God is like…” we can see that it is an altogether different thing from our human ideas of kingdom, kingship, reign and rule. This is the kingdom of which Jesus is king – this strange, upside down reality, full of seeming contradictions, which exists in the now-and-not-yet.

Christ the king is just one of many images of Jesus, and it would be a mistake to think that any one image can pin down the truth of who Jesus is. It would be even more of a mistake to think that our human ideas of kingship and power can be easily mapped onto Jesus.

If we want to know what sort of king Jesus is, what sort of power Jesus has and how he uses it, the gospel does not leave us short of clues. From the radical manifesto of Mary’s Magnificat – “he has put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek” – to the strange blessings of the Beatitudes – “blessed are the poor in spirit… the meek… the merciful” – Jesus is using and defining power in a totally different way from how we usually understand it.

The essential strangeness of Jesus’ kingship is vital for us to grasp if we are to truly understand its implications. In our familiarity with Jesus, his life, his parables, in our familiarity with the image of Christ the King, we too easily lose sight of the strangeness of God and of God’s kingdom. If we only engage with those aspects of God which we find comforting and reassuring, which reinforce our own assumptions and worldview, then we are very much missing the point. We need to regain a sense of the strangeness, the otherness of God, of God beyond our words and our imaginings, of the essential mystery of who God is.

Jesus comes to unsettle and disturb, in order to make a new way of living possible. And part of that disturbance lies in the strange way he uses power. In our gospel reading, in the crucifixion, we see this unsettling power dynamic at its pinnacle. Jesus, who has more power than we can possibly grasp, power to speak the world into being, becomes powerless. Not because he has come up against a greater power – there is no greater power that the love of God incarnate in Christ – but because he knows the strange power in laying down his power, in not clinging onto status or influence or respect, or even his life. And in that self-emptying, that total surrender of power, Jesus does – paradoxically – the most powerful thing of all. He overcomes even the power of death.

With that power in mind – that strange and disconcerting notion that the most powerful thing of all is to let go of power – let’s return to our first reading. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power.” What sort of strength, what sort of power, is that? Not any sort of coercive, controlling, violent or manipulative power, that’s for sure. Here, we too are invited to take up the kind of power that Jesus has – the power of powerlessness, of letting go. It is a strange and disturbing invitation from a strange an unsettling sort of king.

Letting go of power, letting go of control, is not something that comes naturally to most of us (I speak as a recovering control freak!) But it is the way Jesus shows us, the way he calls us to follow. I wonder what that looks like in our lives? I wonder what power, or illusion of power, we cling to, which we need to lay down?

Yesterday at the ‘Creation Care and Climate Justice’ event I went to a workshop about how adults can support the young people who are leading the growing movement for action to tackle the climate crisis. One of the key things that emerged from that conversation between adults and young people is that we adults, who have the power and authority which young people often lack, need to stand in solidarity with them by giving up some of our power and handing it over to them.

It is the same in any situation where we find ourselves in a position of privilege. We are called to give up our power for the sake of others, for the sake of the kingdom. God’s kingdom is not the sort of place where some people have more power than others. When Jesus tells the rich young man that in order to enter the kingdom he needs to sell all that he has and give it to the poor, it’s not really about the money. It’s about the power. When Jesus speaks of being prepared to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, that’s about letting go of power and control too.

This strange and disturbing king whom we follow has a lot to say about power. But it isn’t what we expect. Sometimes we need to step back from the familiarity of the stories and images we love in order to rediscover something of the strangeness of the God they reveal. In becoming open to the strangeness, the otherness of Christ, we become open to meeting Christ in the stranger, the other.

Christ the King invites us into an altogether different way of living, an altogether different type of power, which is God’s kingdom. May God grant us the grace to accept that invitation.