Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Execution of a King: Meditation on John 19:16-22

Scripture can be found here...

I have been thinking a lot about kings. For the past four months or so I have been watching movies and television shows about British monarchs. It all started back in December with “Elizabeth R”, a 1971 miniseries depicting the life of Elizabeth I of England.  That was followed by the movies “Elizabeth,” “Elizabeth the Golden Age,” “Mary, Queen of Scots,” “Anne of the Thousand Days,” and then all four seasons of “The Tudors.” After that, we went back to Henry II with “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter.” Fast forward several hundred years to “Edward and Mrs. Simpson,” and then rewind again to the miniseries “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.” And back to his daughter with the “The Virgin Queen.” It still isn’t over. I have a list of fifteen more films about Elizabeth I alone. We (the movie- and TV-watching public) seem to have a bottomless appetite for the stories of kings and queens.

And it was not unheard of for monarchs to be executed. Lots of beheadings—Mary Queen of Scots, James I, Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard… not to mention courtiers such as Sir Thomas Moore and Thomas Cromwell.

It is a fearful thing to watch a monarch walk to the place of their execution. Even if you are aware that you are watching actors, on a very accurate period set, all recorded for purposes of entertainment, your pulse quickens a little. Your throat dries out. Anne Boleyn was convicted of adultery, incest, and high treason, though most scholars believe she was in fact innocent of all those charges, and the victim of the king’s fierce desire to have a male heir. On the day of her execution she walked to the scaffold smiling, in a grey gown trimmed with fur, an ermine cape over her shoulders, her long hair tucked into a white bonnet to give the executioner, a particularly skilled swordsman brought in from France, a clean view of her neck. She spoke to the crowd.

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man… but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord… And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.

The gospel of John is very different from the other three gospels. Are you tired of my saying so? I can’t help myself. Read John’s account of the crucifixion, and then read any other account for comparison. In John’s gospel Jesus goes to the cross with all deliberateness, with all confidence that this is God’s will and plan, and that it is, instead of a moment of despair or defeat, a moment of absolute, resplendent glory.

In our short passage today, Pontius Pilate pronounces the sentence, though we don’t ever hear his words. There is one ruler, there is one king here, and it is not Pilate. It is Jesus. He is not assisted by anyone; he carries the cross himself. He is not led, or dragged, or carried; he walks, under his own power. He is crucified alongside two other men, but their backstory and their ultimate fate is no concern of John’s, so we don’t hear a word from them. Our focus is on Jesus, and only Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

‘Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”’ ~ John 19:19. This caused some amount of consternation. Why not write, “This man said ‘I am the King of the Jews?’” they asked. “What I have written, I have written,” replied the prefect of Judea.

What are we to make of this? Are we to nod our heads and think, “Ah, Pilate is convinced”? Or, do we look at the prefect and think, “Oh, he’s figured another way to torment the Jewish population: show them a man on a cross, and send the message, ‘No one is safe, not even your king.’” I think we could go either way.

Me, I lean towards the “Out of the mouths of…” well, not babes, in this case—more like ‘Out of the mouth of the enemy.’ Or, ‘Out of the mouth of the oppressor.’ The person who you would least expect to get it, gets it. The people with all the education, the ones who know their scripture inside out, who’ve spent their lives steeped in God’s word—they don’t get it.

But really, why should they? Even now, even two thousand years after the fact, with something like ninety-nine generations of preachers between Jesus and us, interpreting the story, explaining it to us, helping us to see him for who he is… even now, we read these words, or we close our eyes, or we gaze up at a movie screen to watch a biblical epic, and we see this image of a man nailed to a cross, and it is very, very hard to understand what in blazes Jesus means by “his hour of glory.”

Irenaeus was a prominent figure in the early church, born just about 100 years following the death of Jesus on the cross. “At the very heart of his faith was a conviction that the unseen, unknowable God who had created everything so loved humanity that he had become a human being just like us.”[i] And perhaps the statement of Irenaeus that is  best-known and most often-quoted is one that speaks to this text: “The glory of God is the person fully alive; and the life of the person is the vision of God.”[ii]

John tells us that the vision of Jesus on the cross is truly the hour of his glory, and the glory of God. The moment in which he is lifted high on the cross is the moment at which Jesus is most fully alive, the moment at which he truly gives us a vision of God and kingship unlike any we have seen before, and unlike any we will see again.  

We see the God and king who does not leave us alone in our suffering, but who joins us there.

We see the God and king who does not cling to his power, but who empties himself of it.

We see the God and king who does not flinch from love, but who embraces it, arms stretched wide, whatever the cost.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] “Portraits of Witnesses to Christ: Saint Irenaeus of Lyons,” at
[ii] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7.

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