Early Christians—our many-greats grandparents in the faith—were a laughing stock. To live within the bounds of the Roman Empire meant to regularly honour the emperor in the way of gods. The specifics changed at different points in history, but people living in the empire were expected to appear at temples on certain days and offer incense and prayer to the emperor. Christians regularly refused to carry out this social and political obligation. We have an ancient commandment to honour no gods other than our own. Christians were entirely willing to pray for the emperor, but not to him. This created friction between Christian communities and the local Roman authorities. Sometimes the friction was enough to start fires. Fires then fueled with Christian bodies.
Sometimes there was a trial involved, sometimes just awkward questions from soldiers and officials. Regardless of the context in which it was asked, the question always came up: Who is this god of yours who is so great that you can disregard the Emperor of Rome? Many Christians would explain, only to be laughed at. A god who is so weak, so feeble, so powerless that he was executed like a common criminal in a distant outpost of the empire? What could be a more pathetic choice for a leader? What could be a more ridiculous expression of godhood? The entire idea of hanging your eternal life and all of your earthly hopes and dreams on a frail Galilean clad in a crown of thorns and hanging on a cross was utterly laughable. And laugh the Romans did. In fact, one of the first pieces of evidence we have of crosses used in connection with Christians is a piece of graffiti. It mocks a man for being Christian by showing a picture of his “god”, a man with the head of a jackass hanging on a cross.
Regardless of those who laugh and mock, whether at the trial and crucifixion of Jesus or at the trials and executions of his martyrs later, this is the model of leadership to which we Christians are called. Mortal kings and queens, presidents, emperors, dictators, prime ministers, and so-called supreme leaders too often gain and hold their power through violence, oppression, and domination. Too often they are motivated by human desires for money, influence, territory, resources, and power.
For those motivated by personal advantage, individual superiority, and grasping at power, the image of an executed god is an unrelatable, unimaginable, and foolish thing. Of course, in their employ of domination and violence to achieve their goals, they make Christ even more relatable to those crushed in their path. Few mortal monarchs could make sense of a crucified god, but they have never seen their family, their friends, people like them beaten to death and tied to a barbed wire fence in Laramie or hanging, breathless, from a tree’s limb in Alabama. For the oppressed, forgotten, and persecuted, the crucified god who claims victory in death and reigns over all creation even while bleeding is a powerful vision and a promise of hope. Few mortal rulers have the humble wisdom of St Elisabeth of Hungary and ask the question, “How am I to wear a crown of gold when the Lord wears a crown of thorns, and wears it for my sake?”
To claim Jesus as our leader, our model, our king without shame or apology is not about placing the violence, domination, and patriarchal sins of mortal rulers in the hands of Jesus. It is not about legitimising the sin and injustice perpetrated by humans who hold power or seek to wrest it from others. To claim Jesus as our king is to point to one who shows true power by giving it away, rather than holding on to it. Who claims territory by tearing down walls and opening gates rather than building and locking them. Whose following increases by the softening of hearts and the sharing of good news, rather than at the barrel of a gun or the heel of a jackboot.
To claim Jesus as our king is to point boldly, fearlessly to an alternative to the rulers of this world and call out for an inversion of how power and authority are so often exercised by humans. Our king dwells not in mansions and palaces, but among the poor. Our king walks not the halls of power, but among the marginalised, lonely, and forgotten. Our king pours out eternal life for you and me by dying himself.
When we tell this story, the good news of Christ, our king, in a world that is broken and divided, we speak healing. As the rulers of this world seek to divide, conquer, and oppress we can share the hope of a leader who draws together, who offers belonging in the face of exclusion, who pours out love in the face of hatred and persecution. We, the Body of Christ, do not choose sides in human struggles for dominance, but instead walk a third way: the good road of Jesus Christ. We sing the anthems, not of earth’s proud empires that pass away, but of the New Jerusalem whose walls are Salvation and whose gates are Praise.
In our world which is split by struggles over power, factionalism, hatred, and loneliness, we can share the good news without shame, apology, or fear. We can offer abundant life in a world fettered to death. We can offer true freedom and liberation to those shackled by human greed. We can offer to a world riddled with despair the joy that only the good news of Christ’s gospel can bring. We can offer the hope of a god who takes humanity’s crown of thorns and turns it to a crown of stars.
Photo by Samuel Lopes on Unsplash.