The Magdala Trilogy by Peter Longley
Christ the King


By Peter Longley, MA (Cantab)

Author of The Magdala Trilogy

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Liturgically, the last Sunday of the Christian year is devoted to Christ the King. In this context, we try to reconcile the perceived failure of Jesus to be able to save himself from the torment of his crucifixion with the monarchial title that Christianity has placed on his person as Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

On this day, I was privileged to hear a great sermon. Many consider a great sermon to be one that makes them comfortable and which aligns the preacher's thoughts with one's own. This particular sermon was brief, which might be a secondary reason for it being great, but also challenging to me, who like so many, has been struggling with the Christian concept of salvation, whatever that may be, through Jesus Christ alone.

The preacher started by giving samples of seeking salvation by going within. He cited the self-help movement and its companion, the New Age movement. Yes, going within is the basis of much in these movements. Various manifestations of these movements can show good results from such discipline rather than can be found in conventional Christianity—discipline that these movements often claim is more akin to Eastern religious philosophy as found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and the way of the Tao, the practice of Yoga, Zen, and all the benefits of meditation and contemplation. I felt somewhat of a glow, because I sensed that this preacher and I were on the same page. I got even more of a glow when he quoted from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, the verse that so many of us who feel we are enlightened love to quote, stating as a saying of Jesus that we "should find the spirit within." Then, he told of his experience in seminary when sitting on the front row as one who somewhat embraced the practice of going within. His seminary professor clearly stated directly toward him: "There is only one way to salvation and that is through Jesus Christ alone." The preacher then, in reference to the gospel of the day from St. Luke's account of the crucifixion, showed how Jesus gave forgiveness from the cross to the repentant robber being crucified at the same time, telling him: "Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Even from the cross Jesus poured out this forgiveness in the cornerstone of our Christian pre-destined salvation: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing." They were killing the 'King of the Jews' by the cruelest means, but to his very executioners he says: "Father, forgive them."

At first, this seems like the sentimental version of Christianity that comfortably assures us of our salvation as sinners through the outpouring forgiveness of this Son of God nailed to a cross, but still completely free from thoughts of revenge or regret. Could Jesus have magically saved himself from death and come down from that cross? If he had, there would have been followers. Many would have believed in him as the Son of God. But would we now, two thousand years later, still be proclaiming him Lord of Lords and King of Kings? I doubt it. Many have created followings through magical acts, whether true or false, but in time have become forgotten.

Of course, at this point in the sermon I was asking myself, why two thousand years later we are still raising this failed monarch to the title of kingship. In Andrew Lloyd Webber's great musical Jesus Christ, Superstar! at the trial before Herod, the king says to Jesus: "If you are He, walk across my swimming pool?" Jesus refuses to do so. We are left in the musical to believe that if he had, Herod would have let him free, maybe even become a follower of the charismatic superstar. But no, Jesus died a criminal's death between two robbers on a hillock just outside Jerusalem, all three of them nailed cruelly to wooden crosses. This can engender some sympathy that a good man was falsely accused and put to death with common criminals, but it hardly makes him exalted, raised up as Lord of Lord and King of Kings! Now, those looking for miracle to give him this title will swiftly point to the empty tomb. Jesus showed his ability to overcome this cruel death not by freeing himself from the cross, but by resurrecting himself from the tomb—a resurrection from death itself! Ah, now it is beginning to make sense. This ultimate miracle can prove his Divinity and make us eager followers. And, conventionally, within Christianity, our belief in this miracle is enough for us to believe that because of Jesus' Divinity, his message of salvation to the robber crucified beside him can stand for all of us. We are forgiven and that salvation is through Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!

The skeptic, however, still has an uncomfortable feeling if this salvation has to be dependent on a mystical magical act that in the superstitious world of the First Century was able to catch on fast, but today might be challenged by most—a miracle too, that some avant garde theologians now challenge. Nobody really knows what happened to Jesus' body, unless we rely on the late First Century interpretations that we find in the canonical gospels, none of which were written by eyewitnesses. The whole concept of the resurrection may be more symbolic than factual. It is more probable that the body of the failed king was thrown into a common pit for criminals.

A good sermon for me, is one that gives me an 'ahaa' moment, a wake up call. And as I wrestled with this I had such a moment. I am reminded of a sermon I gave long ago shortly after I had graduated in theology from Cambridge University. I was at that time a licensed lay reader and preacher in the Anglican Church of Ireland. I was illustrating what remains to me an important verse in the nativity story: "And the angel said to Joseph, take Mary and the babe and flee into Egypt." I always remember this verse because of a Sunday school class when children were asked to draw a verse from the Bible. A child in answer drew a picture of Joseph leading a sort of a donkey with Mary and the baby Jesus seated on the donkey, the baby clasping his little hand around the handle of a suitcase with the letters J.C. emblazoned on it, and his other little hand holding a long trailing piece of string behind the donkey with a blob at its end. When asked about the verse this depicted, the child said, "This is Joseph pulling the donkey with Mary and Jesus, and at the end of the string here is the flea as they go down to Egypt." I like this verse as I think it makes a lot of sense to believe that Jesus might well have spent much of his childhood in Alexandria in Egypt, which was one of the great centers of Jewish learning at the time. This might well account for Jesus at the age of twelve when going to the Temple for his 'Presentation' or rite of passage, being able to astound the scribes and Pharisees there with his knowledge. I build much of this into my interpretation of the early life of Jesus as found in the first volume of The Magdala Trilogy titled A Star's Legacy. However, with reference to the child's drawing, it is now the suitcase that interests me most—emblazoned with the initials J.C., standing, of course, for Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is a weird combination of title and name. Jesus is our Lord's name, a translation from the Aramaic Yeshua, to the Greek Yesous, to the Latin Jesus. Christ is an abstract title that loosely relates to the Messiah in Aramaic, the Christos in Greek, and the Chrestus in Latin. I say loosely, because there are various complex attributes to these titles. The Messiah is best translated from the Aramaic as the 'Annointed One' and was commonly thought in the First Century to literally refer to a future King of the Jews who would not only free Israel from her Roman oppressors but be the 'branch' of David referred to by Jeremiah in the chosen Old Testament reading for this Sunday of Christ the King. This Messiah was prophesied to be a king of David's lineage "who shall reign with wisdom, justice, and righteousness, and Judah and Israel will be reunited and live in safety." Jeremiah goes on to say that the name of this king will be "The Lord is our righteousness", another loose interpretation of the title 'Messiah'. When the title gets translated into Greek, the language of most the Roman world in the First Century, it acquires a less nationalistic meaning, but a more Divine meaning. This is best summed up in the opening verses of St John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." The Greek word 'Logos' that we loosely translate as the Word in this passage, by the probable time of the writing of St. John's Gospel in Greek in the early Second Century, has become very much the same as the Greek 'Christos', which in turn becomes the Latin 'Chrestus' that we have anglicized to 'Christ'. As a title it definitely affirms that very early on Christianity wanted to equate Jesus with this Divine title that today we would see as the 'Essence' of all that is. It is, therefore, somewhat unfortunate that this incredible title and the name of Jesus became so fused. Somehow, the important definite article disappeared. Jesus should not be Jesus Christ, but Jesus the Christ.

And, herein lies the 'Ahaa'. We use the name Jesus Christ too easily when speaking of our salvation because throughout two thousand years it has become our habit within Christianity. Had the preacher's seminary teacher said to him: "You will not find salvation except through Jesus the Christ" instead of "Jesus Christ" he would have acknowledged the Christ consciousness that I believe was the real teaching of the Kingdom of God. The Christ is within, for it is that Divine element that is the very breath of the universe. Jesus was not a failed king who died before he could establish the Kingdom of God. He was a manifestation of God, and the greatest message that I believe he gave to us is to recognize His Divinity indivisible from the Father's Divinity in every living cell of creation. He was the Word, that was in the beginning, and is now, and forever will be—the living Christ.

In this context, we can see our interconnection with all that is. If we believe our Divinity is not great enough for us to grow new bones, it will not, but remember that a lizard can lose its tail and grow a new one. We live in an eternally shape shifting universe. The miracle is the Cosmic Christ whom we have only come to know through its manifestation in the teachings of a man named Jesus, who died between two robbers, but whose spirit lives on within every manifestation of grace and goodness that we witness between each other and the wonders of the universe around us, carrying a title that is above all principalities and powers, King of Kings and Lord of Lords—the eternal Christos that lies deep within and is one with the Creator.