A president who refuses to supply weapons to an ally, which is fighting to repel invaders from its territory, unless that ally helps him blacken the reputation of a political opponent.
A prime minister who asks for the people’s trust, and they respond by laughing at him.
A prince who stays mates with a billionaire, even after that person has served prison time for raping young girls.
We are desperately short of role-models. Those whom we are supposed to be able to look up to and trust, turn out to be untrustworthy. In fact, not just untrustworthy but, in some cases, really quite despicable.
This relates to a wider crisis of authority. Historic structures of authority are crumbling. In some cases, this is a good thing. To the power men have historically held over women, we might well say “good riddance”. The rebalancing of international power away from historical empire-builders like the UK and the US, as countries like China and India rise to autonomy and self-assertion; this is surely a possible path towards a fairer world. But nevertheless, the decay of familiar structures of authority is profoundly destabilising – on a personal level, as well as a global one.
We are bewildered – perhaps in our own lives, but surely in those of our nation and our world. We have lost our vision of how authority can be good, and well-used.
Leaving that to one side for a moment… Today’s readings (Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43) offer the sharpest possible contrast. In Colossians, we hear of the cosmic Christ – the image of the invisible – the high King, in whom all things hold together, who rules over all of creation. But in Luke we read of a broken man, the scum of the earth, not only tortured to death but despised and mocked as he hangs dying.
In a sense, these two readings, between them, encapsulate the entire gospel. Or, more exactly, the gospel is found in an eternal dialogue between these two poles.
Christ tell us what God is like. Christ is the revelation of God, and God has no character that is not present in Christ.
So, of course, it is true that God is big, and powerful, and sovereign. We do not have any problem with that, I suspect. Of course, some of us might not believe in God at all – we might think that such an awesome monotheist’s Be All and End All ought to be more obvious within creation, make His presence more felt, hold humans back more forcefully from evil, or punish them more promptly. But the point is that we who believe, believe in a big God; and when people don’t believe, it is generally because God fails to live up to that bigness.
The monotheist’s conception of God is precisely that God is the keystone of the great arch: God holds reality in being; God anchors every system of ethics and aesthetics.
But the great mystery of God’s nature, as revealed in Christ, is that God is also with us. God is on our side. And this is a mystery, because the God who holds everything in being and in balance surely ought to be neutral. Within such a God is surely both light and dark; if all is held in such a God’s providence, then, surely, what is, is what should be. Taken to its ultimate logical conclusion, the monotheistic philosophy of God can end up depicting a deity that is impersonal and indifferent.
But the God who is revealed in Christ is a God of love. He is biased, outrageously biased. He is not neutral between our destruction and our flourishing. God’s will for the good of the other is an essential principle of His being and of God’s engagement with us and all creatures.
Moreover, although God-in-Christ is ultimately universal, this God is first of all, local and particular. That is what we see in Jesus. In order to get to Christ enthroned in the heavens, we have to begin with Jesus the man – who was born and lived in one place, at one time. Who ate and slept and itched and peed and laughed and cried. There is no short-cut – we cannot get to the universal God without beginning with the particular – the small, and human.
This is of course good news for us. Because if the path towards the universal does in fact lead through the particular, that means that our particular lives too become capable of transcendence. Spiritual reality is not to be found in the first place in grand schemes and ideals – which are of course much too grand to be contained within our little lives, they leave us feeling dwarfed, and trivial. On the contrary, the path towards the ultimate reality begins from and leads through little lives like ours.
And thus Jesus Himself, in order to faithfully represent His Father, sought out the very smallest life that He could find. The very lowest place. He sought to become the person least considered, with least dignity, the least respected. Jesus occupying this place is what we see in the reading from Luke – a place of pain; of degradation, physical and moral; of alienation from the community. Hanging on the cross, Jesus was seen to have absolutely zero value.
And in that very place, at that very time, Jesus reigned. The cross is His throne. And this, friends, is the very heart of the mystery, the very nub. The cross is not a bad spot, from which Jesus’ Father later rescued Him. This is not a young man who has pranged Daddy’s sports car and is waiting to be bailed out of prison. It is as Jesus hangs on the cross that He most fully shows us the character of God – who is utterly on our side, who enters utterly into our pettiness and smallness and particularity – who is utterly with us in the grimness of the world that we have fashioned for ourselves.
I have said two things. First, that in today’s world we are losing sight of what good authority looks like. And second, that the authority of God is most fully displayed in Jesus’ life when he is most deeply an outsider who counts for nothing.
The second is, of course, a response to the first. Our meditation on Christ offers a way to reconstruct, on sounder ground, an image of authority in which we can trust. We can trust those who find out how things affect the weakest, those least able to care for themselves. We can trust those who seek out the humiliated and excluded, and who show them respect and love – doing so, on behalf of God. Whether in personal relations, or in the church, or in politics, Christ-like authority adheres to those who cleave to the bottom rung of the ladder.
This is not to disclaim power or the pursuit of power. Authority, used wisely, is in fact necessary for human well-being and there is nothing wrong in ambition to do as much good as one can. Most of us have some power, even if it is only within our home or our personal relationships, or in how we use our money or our vote. We are all listening, just now, to politicians who ask us to entrust them with power.
The question is, though, will power be used in a Christ-like fashion? Will we take as our model the Saviour who reigns from the cross: Christ the King, who is pierced for our healing?