“This is the King of the Jews.”
That’s what the sign at the top of the cross read. The irony was not lost on those who saw it, nor was it lost to history. Kings were usually crowned while sitting on thrones, not hanging from crosses. But this Jesus was a different kind of king. For him, the cross was his throne.
In the ancient world, it would have been unthinkable for a cross to serve as a throne. Crucifixion represented everything that was the opposite of kingship. Kings were blessed but crucified people were cursed. Kings were honored but crucified people were ridiculed. Kings were dressed in flowing robes but crucified people were stripped naked. Kings were beautiful but crucifixion was ugly. Yet, in spite of this, unbelievably, the cross was his throne.
Crucifixion was not just any old punishment. A criminal was not crucified for stealing bread or cheating on his taxes. No, crucifixion was a special punishment reserved for a special kind of criminal. The criminals crucified with Jesus were what we would now call terrorists. They were insurrectionists, religious fanatics bent on a violent agenda to overthrow the Roman government. If one wants to get a clear picture of just how radical it was for Jesus to forgive the sins of the criminal next to him, one should imagine that criminal as Osama bin Laden, because that’s who he most closely resembled. It was rare for crucified people to be buried in that time because most of them were simply left there to rot: their bones picked clean by birds and eventually scattered across the landscape. Their families were so ashamed that most would never again so much as speak the name of their crucified loved one. Most crucified people were utterly lost to history, but not King Jesus. No, for him, the cross was his throne.
When we look back at Jesus’ life as it is presented to us in the New Testament, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that this King of kings would reign from a cross, rather than a throne. After all, how did he come into the world? Did he come riding a white horse with banners unfurled and a terrible swift sword at his side? Did he appear at Caesar’s palace in Rome saying, “Hey Caesar, I just want to let you know that your days are numbered!”? Was he born into a wealthy family at the center of the halls of power? No, he was born in a manger, in a stable, outside an overbooked motel, in a teeny little one-horse town, in a forgotten corner, in a troublesome province, in a distant part of the Roman Empire. His parents were working-class peasants. Our Christmas pageants and Nativity scenes have made the story of Jesus’ birth into a sweet, warm fairy tale, but the reality would have been quite different. He was born in a barn. Have you ever smelled a barn where animals are kept? It doesn’t smell very good. His mother placed him in a manger. A manger is a place where pig slop went. It probably wasn’t very sanitary either. In today’s terms, Jesus’ mother would have given birth in a dumpster behind a Motel 6. And the shepherds who visited him? They weren’t very pretty either. Shepherding was not considered an honorable profession in those days. They would have been treated with the same indifference and contempt that truckers, janitors, garbage men, and McDonald’s drive-thru workers receive today. So you see, from the very beginning of Jesus’ life, we can pick up hints that he would not be a king like other kings, so that we wouldn’t be surprised to discover in the end that the cross was his throne.
As he set out into his life’s work, Jesus continued to defy expectations for a respectable monarch. He held court with tax collectors and sinners. His royal advisors were fishermen, his treasurer was a thief, and his attendants were prostitutes. They probably couldn’t have a royal cupbearer because the wine would have run out before the cup ever got to the king. And they almost certainly didn’t have a court jester because, let’s face it: they were all court jesters in some way. Based on the company he kept, it’s no surprise that the cross was his throne.
The upstanding citizens of the moral majority and the religious right in his day had nothing good to say about Jesus. They were the self-proclaimed protectors of traditional family values and Jesus was the biggest threat to their agenda. He called himself a rabbi, but they knew that no real rabbi would build such a rag-tag, permissive, tolerant, and inclusive community. Jesus questioned their established theological dogmas. He reinterpreted the Bible in ways that made them uncomfortable. He seemed to have little respect for their traditions, so they had little respect for him. Based on his relationship with the religious leaders of his day, we can see why the cross was his throne.
Finally, we come to the end of his life, the moment his followers had been waiting for, when all that he had been building toward came to its fulfillment. He rode triumphantly into town on a donkey’s back in a staged fulfillment of a prophecy from the book of Zechariah. He barged into the temple, flipping over tables, and sent the moneychangers packing. He said he was about to clean up this town and make his Father’s house into a house of prayer for all nations once again. His followers were understandably stoked at this new development. They realized that this was the moment when the King of kings and Lord of lords, the long-awaited Messiah, would ascend his throne and establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. But what they didn’t realize is that the cross was his throne.
On the day of his crucifixion, his royal robes were stained with his own blood, his crown was made of thorns, and the cross was his throne.
Above his head hung that awful, ironic sign, “This is the king of the Jews.” From the outside, the whole scene seems like a horrible, macabre parody of kingship. But here’s the thing: he really was a king. For Christians, he is the King of kings. In spite of (or perhaps because of) his unconventional life and ignominious death, Jesus has gone on to touch and inspire more people than any other single person in history. For those of us who are his followers, who pledge our allegiance to his kingdom of heaven on earth, Jesus is our paradigm: his life provides us with the lens through which we interpret our lives. As we make our way out into the world, we go as Christ’s ambassadors. The way in which we represent him to the world should be consistent with the way he himself walked through the world. And remember: the cross was his throne.
The king who reigns from the cross is fundamentally different from the king who reigns from a throne. The kings of this world, the powers that be, force their will on others through bullets, bombs, bucks, and ballots. Let me show you what I mean: when you dive around town, do you try to keep pretty close to the speed limit? Do you do it because you love America? Probably not. Most of us drive the speed limit because we don’t want to get a ticket. That’s the power of fear. Private companies get you to buy their products by appealing to your sense of greed, lust, or vanity. They promise you a better, longer, happier life, but they don’t really care about you. They just want your money and they will tell you anything you want to hear in order to get it. That’s advertising. That’s the power of manipulation. But Jesus is different. He doesn’t depend on the power of fear or manipulation as his weapons because the cross is his throne.
Jesus rules the world from within through the power of love. Love is amazing. People will do things for the sake of love that they could never be forced into by law or the barrel of a gun. Love gets new parents out of bed in the middle of the night for 3am feedings. Love leads partners and spouses to sacrifice time, money, and energy for the sake of the relationship. Love led Rev. Frank Schafer, a Methodist minister, to put his ordination credentials on the line when he officiated at his son’s wedding to another man, a crime for which he was tried and convicted by the United Methodist Church, just this past week. Love led Mother Teresa to the streets of Calcutta to care for orphans. Love led Rosa Parks to defy a racist law on a bus one evening in 1955. Love led Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oscar Romero to speak out against injustice at the cost of their own lives. Love led King Jesus to the cross, and the cross was his throne.
The people all around Jesus at Calvary kept shouting, “Save yourself! Save yourself!” but Jesus chose to save others instead. Jesus could have ordered his followers to rise up and kill, but Jesus chose to die instead. That’s the power of love. It was love, not nails, that kept Jesus on the cross. And that’s why the cross, which once signified shame and death, has become for us the symbol of faith, hope, and undying love. From the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ reigns in our hearts by the power of love and so it is that the cross is his throne.