One of the loveliest and simplest materials in my youngest Sunday School room is the Cosmic Cross. A map of the world is shellacked onto a wooden board and a cross shape is cut out. I’m not good at describing these sorts of things. Here is a picture instead.
The catechist can lift the golden cross off so that the world lies bare and ask, “I wonder what it will be like when everyone in the whole world recognizes Jesus?” Little children, and adults for that matter, writhe around internally, trying to imagine such a time. Jesus is so hidden now, so obscured, so impossible to understand, that even when you do see him it is very hard to know who he is. He speaks and his words fall on deaf ears. His light shines and the whole world cannot comprehend it.
Very little children answer this question with a deep settled joy. “Everyone will be so happy,” some of them say. They remember that Jesus is the light. They feel sure that everyone will love to finally see him in his bright glory. If you ask, “Does everyone see and recognize Jesus now?” They shake their heads sorrowfully. But it won’t be too long now. Very soon Jesus will come, the king, the mighty one, and everyone will be so happy to see him.
But, of course, the older one becomes, the more one finds that deep settled happiness slip away. The Christian life is one long, extended encounter with a world that does not want to know who Jesus is or what he says. Indeed, rather than a settled peace, there is a violent conflict between Jesus and the world, a conflict that will ultimately bring this mortal sphere to its tumultuous end.
It is in an interesting existential exercise to take the golden cross and lower it down over the blue swirling earth. I try always to do the cosmic cross lesson on Christ the King Sunday, the best and most glorious day of the church year, the moment when the seed of the new year is planted in the ground.
Anyway, the thing that’s so curious about Jesus’ kingship is that it’s so, at least from a human perspective, inefficient. Almost no one can even recognize it, not without supernatural aid. You think you set out to find someone to follow, some way to order your life, some guiding star, and in your quest to find that one thing that will make everything ok, you pass right on by the bloody, horrifying spectacle of the King of the World, dying there in the midst of a lot of other human people. There he is, fixed in his sickening throne room, a thief on either side, the world mocking and jeering. No one wants the settled peacefulness he offers, his humiliating solution to intractable societal, political, economic, psychosocial and every other kind of problem. He is the only one to whom no one would even think to bow, unless moved by some strange sight, some incomprehensible love.The question, “I wonder what it will be like when everyone sees Jesus and knows him for who he is,” invites the solitary lover of Jesus into a discordant mental and spiritual landscape. On the one hand, Jesus is the King, as Kanye so rightly sings every Sunday. Every knee should bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, that he has power, that he has conquered the darkness. He is owed allegiance and obedience. On the other hand, there is the bloody cross, the shame, the humiliation of death.
Luke’s spare lines from this morning’s gospel are a bleak look into the kind of space the followers of Jesus will inhabit when they obey this kind of King.
And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” – Luke 23:35-38
There is no happiness here. The crowds are angry, bitterly angry that this beaten man would be their king. They reject him, utterly, in favor of the earthly tyranny of Caesar, or Rome, or the usual way of sorting out problems through social engineering, politicking, power, money. Even the other dying men have no use for him. Save one, who, in that final moment, suddenly sees the Christ, the King, and catches hold of his mercy. There, as Jesus readies himself to give up his spirit and finish his work, one person joins his ranks, following after him into glory.
You can’t really know, as you rush around your life, who sees Jesus. You can know a little, of course, and you can cast the light of the gospel down on the pavement before you as you go. But it’s mostly confusing. Even the known and faithful Christian suffers confusion and defeat, trouble and strife, trying to obey and sometimes failing, trying to bend the knee but finding it straightens and heads off in some other direction. The imagination fails even to conjure up what it will be like when you—never mind the whole world—see Jesus for who he really is
Still, you can probably get a small glimpse if you go to church this morning. Try it, you’ll be totally surprised.