Kingship or Kingdom
I grew up in a town close to Moundsville, WV. Moundsville is a pleasant little town, and if you are ever there, there are a couple of sights to see. There is one of the largest conical shape Indian mounds in the country there. Also in the same area encompassing about seven acres of land is the former West Virginia State Penitentiary. This prison is an impressive and massive stone construct that looks a bit more like a huge rectangular castle. The prison was closed in 1995 and now it is a tourist attraction of the most macabre type.
I have never been inside the prison, but as part of the tour you might get to visit the death house or see old “Sparky” the Electric Chair.
On the prison website one man tells of a guided tour he once had inside the prison years ago, before the electric chair had been put to use. During his visit he remembers: “Then came the thing I shall never forget. I was “strapped” into the chair as a condemned man would be. I remember the “clamps” that were part of the chair and held my wrists in place on the arms of the chair. I remember my feet being immobilized and it was explained that a water-soaked sponge would be placed on one leg behind an electrode to enhance current flow. Likewise, there was a sponge placed between the condemned’s head and an electrode that was housed in a rubber headpiece that got strapped securely it to the condemned man.
Behind the chair was a second room where the executioner was stationed. On the day of execution, three people were selected to be in this room. There were 3 push buttons and when the appropriate signal was given each of the guards would simultaneously push his button; only one of the buttons actually completed the circuit that would deliver the fatal jolt.
Now all of that is probably more information than you really wanted to know. You might ask, what has this got to do with the good news? Well, what would it be like to have a minister come around, begin a successful new church start and then get up one Sunday and preach, “Whoever wants to be a member of this church needs to walk to the death house with me and sit in “Old Sparky.” And then he goes into detail of how he, an honest and righteous man is going to be arrest, tried, convicted, thrown into prison, suffer beatings, and finally be executed in the electric chair –And in three days rise.
If you heard that, you would say, preacher that is just crazy talk. That’s not going to happen to you. God forbid it. Maybe you just need to take a vacation. Now of course I am sure that you see the parallel that I am creating. For didn’t Jesus have this same conversation with his disciples. “The son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and in three days rise again.” “He said this quite openly.” And then Jesus began talking about the cross. Jesus was saying that he would be rejected by the very people who were the caretakers and guides of their nation. Then he would be treated as any would-be anarchist, or enemy of Rome.
Dying on a cross was a public spectacle. Rome would crucify a person along the roadway going into Jerusalem as a warning to others who were thinking of committing a similar crime. Probably Jesus saw what death upon a cross was like more than once and everyone knew what the end results are of certain actions –including being the king of the Jews.
We read the text and I think often we do not really feel the horror of the situation. On one hand the cross is this horrible instrument of death; used by Rome to subjugate the people of Israel. From this perspective it is easy to understand Peter’s response to Jesus’ words. Jesus, no! You are just talking crazy talk. God forbid that these things should ever happen to you. It is just too horrible to even think about. Peter’s objections to Jesus’ words make perfect sense. Who would ever want to see someone they care about executed?
Yet in most churches we will find crosses on hymnals, bibles, windows, the altar, light fixtures. We decorate our world with crosses. We wear a cross as jewelry. Now this points to the fact that the cross has come to mean something besides being a tortuous instrument of death. The cross has become a testimony to the power of God to take the worst that the world offers and transform it. The cross is a sign of hope and spiritual salvation. Rather than horrifying us, it brings us comfort and reminds us of God’s indescribable love and power. For upon the cross, Jesus died and brought us salvation. Theologians talk about theories of atonement. We have different theological ideas to describe what God did in those moments of Jesus being on the cross. I like to think that there are different ideas, because at the cross the truth is such a mystery or is so large that the human mind can not truly understand the depth of God’s love and power. This is the cross too.
On one hand a torturous instrument of death used by the ruling authorities of this world that should horrify us, and on the other hand a sign of God’s mighty love and grace transforming our world. From one perspective the cross is about the tangible kingship found within the earthly power and authority that arrested and condemned Jesus –the chief priest and King Herod’s throne; the temple and Rome; the ruling structure and administration of the day. From the other perspective the cross is about the intangible kingdom of God summed up in the invisible nature of eternal grace and glory found within the spirit and life of Jesus and within the human heart. After thinking about this text, I think that is the way to view it -Kingship or kingdom. Which do you most perceive, and which will you choose?
Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah, he made a kingdom statement but mostly thinking about an earthly kingship. When Jesus began talking about dying on a cross his disciples could not have heard too much hope or comfort in such words. Like Peter they probably wanted Jesus to stop saying such horrible things. How could it be possible that someone as just and righteous as Jesus should ever come to such an end? To Peter Jesus was the chosen messiah of God –indeed the king of Israel. Peter was ready to stand his ground and fight for Jesus kingship. Isn’t that what a person is supposed to do?
Jesus had other ideas. Jesus was not interested in a kingship to be sought after and fought for, but he wished to lead people toward a kingdom to be a part of and ruled by. If Peter had fought for the kingship he would have probably been killed and missed the kingdom.
I think in those moments as Jesus was facing the cross, fighting and dying were not so much on Jesus mind, as the question of what we live for. When he rebuked Peter and told him, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” perhaps we can interpret his statement to say Peter was focused on the idea of the kingship, but he wasn’t paying attention to the kingdom. Peter would have fought and died for an earthly kingship, but Jesus wanted him to live for the spiritual reality of God’s kingdom. Where Jesus was concern life was not about dying or what we die for, but about how we live and what we choose to live for. Sometimes dying is easy and living is hard.
Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” I think we often have a hard time understanding this saying of Jesus. We think that this indicates that Jesus had a death wish, or we think the call is for us to likewise be willing to die. Sometimes we just belittle the whole question by thinking the cross is nothing more than the pains of life that get thrust upon us. “Well I wake up every morning and my arthritis is hurting me, but I guess that is just a cross I will have to bear,” or “My spouse sure can be cantankerous and grumpy sometimes, but I am not going to get a divorce, it’s just a cross I’ll bear.” What did Jesus really mean when he commanded his followers to take up their cross and follow him?
I believe that Jesus was using the image of the cross to cause his disciples to consider the significance of how they were to live. Taking up the cross was not so much an image about dying but an image about being unafraid to live for the kingdom, even if there be a cross at the end of the journey.
In Philippians we are told that Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Jesus was obedient to the will of God, and in great stress he gave up his life, in faith that God would vindicate him and raise him from the dead as God had revealed to him that he would do. When Jesus took up his cross he did so in love, in faith and obedience to God’s will; for the sake of God’s amazing grace that saved even a wretch like me.
It is wrong to assume that Jesus did not have chooses. Jesus did not have to go to Jerusalem. He knew what was going to happen. He could have put his back to Jerusalem, fled to Egypt in the night, like Mary and Joseph had done when he was a baby. He could have retreated and raised an earthly army, that would have fought for him to establish an earthly rule and won the battle. According to Matthew’s gospel, he could have called forth more than 12 legions of angels to do his bidding and in judgement laid waste to humankind.
Taking up the cross is not about dying, but rather it is about choosing to live for God’s kingdom in love, faith, obedience, and humility. Jesus was telling his disciples not to take up their swords, but rather the kingdom’s life, even if there is a cross.
For us likewise, the cross is not something that falls upon us one way or another, but the cross is clearly borne only in faith and obedience. It is the attitude and work within life that we willingly take up for the glory of God and for service to others. It borne in our willingness to love others. The question is not what are willing to die for, or what is there in your life that seemingly is killing you, but the question is for what reason will you live, and in whom will you trust. When you make a decision in life you might ask yourself, “Am I living for my kingship or for God’s kingdom. Am I taking up my sword for self-protection and earthly gain or am I walking the way of the cross?”
To bear the cross is to live for the kingdom. It is to have a life where our personal agenda has been willingly exchanged for a life directed by God through the presence of the Holy Spirit. To bear the cross is to have a Spirit filled life, and thus making our decisions by a different set of priorities. Jesus has already done most of the hard work for our sakes. Our cross need not lead us to a crucifixion, but every time it will lead us to making God’s grace and glory known. It will lead us away from the forms of power that represent an earthly kingship and deliver us into life within God’s kingdom. In this Lenten season take time to consider where faith and obedience are calling you. All too often people seek after the kingship, or confuse kingship with kingdom but you, you go and seek the kingdom. Follow Jesus in the pathways of faith, obedience, love, and grace; unafraid come what may, and find the life that God gives. Amen.