The glory of God comes down to the lowest part of our need.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine won a decisive battle at the Milvian Bridge in the year 312, he had a vision. He thought he saw in the sky the Greek letters Chi-Rho – the first letters of the word Christ – with the words in hoc signo vincit – ‘in this sign, conquer’. Constantine won, and took control of the Roman Empire, bringing to an end the persecution of Christianity, and establishing it as a permitted religion, leading to it’s eventual recognition as the religion of the Roman Empire. This even though Constantine himself was not baptized until he was dying. The church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, saw the conversion of Constantine as one of the great providential moments. Just as St Luke, at the end of the Acts of the Apostles, brings the Gospel to Rome, the political heart of the known world, so now the kingdoms of this world, and the Roman Empire in particular, ‘have become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.’
Would that things were so simple. A millennium or more after Constantine, Martin Luther, looked the corruption of the western church and, in part, blamed it on Constantine. Had the church captured the empire, or the empire captured the church? The relation between church and state has always been ambiguous.
Jesus was put to death by both religious and political authorities. The Gospel accounts of his trial include exchanges with Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor whose name now echoes down the centuries through his place in the Creed. Jesus tells Pilate that ‘his kingdom is not of this world.’ If it did belong to this world ‘my servants would be fighting.’ ‘Are you a King?’ asked Pilate. ‘King is your word,’ says Jesus. ‘My task is to bear witness to the truth.’
When Jesus dies in the hideous agony of crucifixion the reason for his criminal’s death is nailed over his head – ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.’ Who is this Jesus? A political threat to the kingdoms of this world and to Roman authority in particular. Who is Jesus? A disturber and distorter of religion, one who claimed to embody the presence and authority of God, who purported to forgive sins (which only God could do), healed the sick, attacked the traders in the Temple, and who proclaimed that in him the kingdom or rule of God was breaking in. ‘It is expedient, Caiaphas says in John’s gospel, ‘that one man dies for the people,’ that one man dies lest the balance of religion and political power, the negotiated compromise, be overthrown. ‘That one man dies for the people’ – at a deeper level the ushering in of something much more profound, a redemption much more costly, a bringing in of that new order which sets us free from captivity to the powers of this world and enslavement to the domination of evil.
As Christians asked themselves the meaning of a crucified Messiah, and sought to understand the paradox of how the preaching of God’s kingdom of justice, love and peace, ended in the crude appalling agony of a criminal’s death, they came to see it as a glorious battle , a wrestling with the powers of darkness. As an old hymn puts it: ‘Death and life have contended, in a conflict all stupendous.’ The darkness over the land spoken of in the Passion narratives of the Gospels, is not just outward but inward. The great cry of dereliction, Eloi, eloi, lama sabachtani? – My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? is the deepest paradox of all. God himself in our human nature knows the absence of God, the blotting out of meaning, the engulfing and overwhelming horror of darkness, nothingness and the seeming triumph of evil and death.
The German theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer, writing from a prison camp in Nazi Germany, where he was shortly to be hanged, wrote of God ‘allowing himself to be pushed out of the world and on to a cross.’. God saves us through that identification, by the seeming triumph of evil, and yet being absolutely and profoundly with us,
“Therefore he who shows us God,
Helpless hangs upon the tree,
And the very nails and spear,
Tell of what God’s love must be.
Thou art God, no monarch thou,
Throned in easy state to reign,
Thou art God, whose arms of love,
Aching, spent, the world sustain.”
How do we know all this? How can this dying be at the centre of our Christian faith? Only because the Cross is seen in the light of Easter. The Gospels do not end with the cry of dereliction, and the limp and tortured body taken from the Cross and laid hastily in a tomb. If the stone rolled across the entrance to that tomb had sealed the story of Jesus as well as his lifeless body, there would be no Christian gospel, no good news of salvation, no church.
On Easter morning, ‘on the first day of the week, just as the sun was rising’ the tomb is found empty. Why? Because resurrection, the new creation, has happened. In a multitude of mysterious encounters that new life is found to be victorious and triumphant. ‘He is not here, he is risen.’ The Risen Christ speaks to a grief-stricken Mary Magdalene, and calls her by name; he walks as a stranger with sorrowing disciples, and their hearts burn within them. He makes himself known in the breaking of bread. He bursts through the imprisoning walls of grief and fear to speak the word of peace – the peace which is the harmony of the new creation, a peace which passes all understanding. New life ripples out from the empty tomb in a transforming tidal wave of love.
“Love’s redeeming work is done,
Fought the fight the battle won,
Lo our sun’s eclipse is o’er,
Lo he sets in blood no more.”
‘The Prince of Life who died, reigns immortal!’ This is the kingdom for which we pray; this new life for all creation. And the cross is seen in the light of Easter as the place where the glory of God shines out, in the love that comes down to the lowest part of our need.
It is for us to let our lives be touched by this love, transformed by this love, a love which is Easter in us, and reach out through us to bring new life to the whole world. Then indeed the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. As he promised in the blessing and sending out his disciples, he is with us always to the end of the age.