The paradox of Christ the King

Christ the King 2009

John 18:33-37

Marian Free

In the name of God who invites us to journey into the great unknown. Amen.

I have been reading a book by a Catholic Franciscan, Richard Rohr, called “The Naked Now”. His thesis is that Christians have in general, lost the art of seeing the big picture, that we have in effect, reduced Christianity to a rule book, instead of the gateway to a great and wonderful mystery. He suggests that for centuries, believers have been told “what to know rather than how to know, what to see rather than how to see” that we have made our primary goal “sin management” rather than transformation.

The consequences of this approach have, Rohr says, been deleterious. Among other things, living according to doctrinal principles leads to a tendency to dualistic thinking, to a belief that we ourselves can judge between right and wrong, between good and evil. Dualistic thinking can lead us to believe that we have the wisdom to determine who is in and who is out and to impose conditions on those whom we deem fit to belong. At its worst, dualist thinking leads to the sort of arrogance and self-righteousness which creates oppositions and the need to be right and which seeks to impose one’s beliefs on another. It pits one idea against another and creates divisions so great that sometimes violence is the only possible result. At the same time trying to understand or to contain our faith leads to an emaciated, barren set of beliefs measured by what we do rather than who we are.

This is a regrettable state of affairs given that the primary purpose of faith is not to dictate morality or to create labels for people who are different from ourselves, but to provide a window to the unknown. Faith does not provide the answer to all life’s questions nor does it give us the keys to universal certainty. It invites us into a relationship with the totally other, a relationship with God who has never claimed to be accessible or even comprehensible. That we stand before a mysterious unknown was made clear to Moses who, when he asked for the name of God, was told simply “I am who I am, I will be who I will be”. Instead of being giving clarity and definition, we are offered ambiguity and open-endedness.

This paradox is expressed in the contradictions that we find in Jesus. Jesus, the son of God, is indistinguishable from the people around him. He doesn’t behave in the way we might expect God to behave and he is critical of the very church which proclaims faith in him. With few exceptions, Jesus refuses to be defined or to conform to the expectations which people might have had of him.

Today, the feast day of Christ the King, the contradiction is glaringly obvious. The gospel depicts Jesus standing before Pilate – friendless, vulnerable and humiliated, without dignity or status. There are no armies to back him up, no angels to protect him. The judge of humankind is being judged, the creator of the universe is powerless, the giver of life is risking death, the warrior God is confronting defeat.

Instead of reigning as King, Jesus is being tried as a criminal and, as we know, will be condemned and will die as a criminal. We have to admit that, by our criteria, this is hardly a credible candidate to be the son of God, or even the longed for King.

To some extent, Jesus himself provides the answer to this conundrum when he responds to Pilate’s question “Are you a king?” Jesus turns the question back to Pilate and suggests that those who handed him over, and even Pilate himself have the wrong idea about the notion of kingship. In fact, one would have thought this was obvious if they had only really observed what he did and noticed who His followers were. Jesus’ kingship is of a different kind and his purpose is not to win the world by force. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus’ mission has been to confront the very self assurance and arrogance of which Rohr accuses the church. It appears that scribes and the Pharisees had created certainties; they were telling people what to know and how to see. Instead of living with an openness to God and to God’s revelation, they had developed a closed system of belief which provided certainty, but which closed their eyes to mystery and vision. They were good at teaching the people how to follow their teaching, but had lost the art of drawing people into a relationship with God.

Jesus’ hope was to re-open their hearts and minds to the infinite possibilities of faith in the living God. In order to do this, not only did Jesus challenge their teaching, but in his life he created space for relationship by pulling down the walls of certitude and security, by breaking the rules which limited and defined, by separating rigid obedience from grateful response to God and by creating opportunities instead of limiting potential. Among other things, Jesus’ willingness to trust in God exposed the Pharisees determination to depend on themselves, his openness to God’s future revealed their limited vision and his humility before God highlighted their arrogance.

In response to Jesus’ statement, Pilate asks: “What is truth?” If Jesus provides and answer, John has not recorded it. Truth cannot so easily be defined, nor is it something that can be imposed on another. Jesus’ goal is to open our eyes to a bigger truth, by demonstrating that our hold on truth is at best tenuous and at worst a terrible falsehood.

It is the paradox of Jesus’ existence and the contradiction of his passion which opens for us a way into the mystery he proclaims. For the contradictions in his life and teaching force us to abandon our pre-conceptions, to ditch our certainties and to discover the sort of humility which allows us to admit our ignorance, to recognise the limits of our knowledge and to be liberated to enter the limitless, undefined and unrestrained wonder that is God.

Living with uncertainty and being open to possibility is the goal of faith. If we allow ourselves to enter into the paradox then somewhere in the tension between our expectations and the reality, we just might catch a glimpse of God.

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