Reign of Christ/Christ The King, November 24, 2013

In Search of A Non-Offensive King

Luke 23:33-43 
33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

There was an online article this week about how a Twitter post by a random pastor got some people really, really mad at Costco.  It all began when a pastor walked into a Costco in California in search of a gift for his wife.  While browsing in Costco’s book section, he saw a stack of Bibles for sale with labels on them that said, “fiction.”  This stuck him as a very odd thing, so he took a picture of it with his phone and tweeted the photo with a comment that said, “Costco has bibles for sale under the genre of FICTION.  Hmmmmmm….”[1]It may not surprise you to learn that the photo quickly went viral on the Internet.  Within a couple of hours, hundreds of people saw the photo of the “fictional” bibles and some were even calling for a boycott of Costco.  Turns out that it was not Costco, but the book distributor who made an error in labeling the bibles for that one particular store and Costco later apologized for the mistake.  But some people are still pretty mad about it.  One pastor said, “Christians need to call out organizations like Costco whose actions undermine Christianity- regardless of whether those actions are accidental or intentional.”[2]
Christians in this country, I think, are becoming known for being offended by anything.  We don’t need Costco to undermine our faith.  We pick ridiculous battles and end up undermining ourselves whether it’s accidentally or intentionally.  If the resurrected Jesus walked into a Costco today and saw Bibles labeled as fiction, I think it less likely that he’d take a picture and tweet, and more likely that he would laugh and then multiply the $1.50 hot dogs in the snack bar so that every one in the place could enjoy a bountiful feast. 
In case I forgot to mention it, I think the $1.50 Costco hotdogs are absolutely delicious.   Jesus would win far more followers by multiplying Costco hotdogs than by throwing a hissy fit over a labeling error.
I thought about this story as I was reading the history of Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday.  This is a relatively new feast day in the Christian church, established less than 100 years ago in 1925, in the period between the two great world wars.  Although there weren’t many kingdoms left in 1925, the church at the time was worried about increasing nationalism as well as secularism in Europe.  By invoking the kingship of Jesus, they hoped to reinforce the claim of Jesus being ruler of all human institutions, political entities, and every economic and culture construct.   Although they did not throw a hissy fit to prove it, I suspect that church leaders were more offended that the CHURCH was losing authority than they were about Jesus losing authority. 

 Christ the King Sunday was born out of the same kind of anxiety that still exists today when people get all bent out of shape in seeing a fiction sticker on a bible, or get angry about “holiday trees” versus “Christmas trees.”  Those are easy targets.  What is much harder to admit is that the church doesn’t and probably shouldn’t call the shots in the broader culture, even as we affirm that Jesus is the center of our lives.
So today’s text from the lectionary for Christ the King Sunday is really very ironic when you think about it.  In the gospel reading from Luke this morning, we see that Jesus the Christ reigns in a very different way, over a different kind of kingdom, and with an authority that bears absolutely no resemblance to any kind of human power.  After all, what we see in the text from Luke today is not any thing like the coronation for a human king, but exactly the opposite – a very public humiliation.  This is not a beautifully rendered portrait of a celebrated sovereign taking his rightful throne, but a nauseating sketch of a convicted criminal being tortured and executed. 
Despite being treated in a manner that is precisely opposite what the King of all creation has every right to expect, Jesus isn’t bitter, angry, combative, defensive or even the least little bit offended.   In fact, here in Luke, Jesus looks out at the people who are not only persecuting him but also killing him and says, “Forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
The Bible does not give us just one picture of Jesus’ death, but five – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul, and each of them are different in their own way.  Only Matthew and Mark’s are somewhat identical.  But the fact that there are very different versions within scripture itself suggests that there is always more than one way of looking at things, even something as important as the crucifixion of Jesus. 
We think we know all the details that cut across all the stories and set the awful scene before us.  Three men hung on three rough wooden crosses.  Two common thieves and one baffling revolutionary with a sign above his head:  “King of the Jews,” which was of course both a joke and the truth.  And then there were the people hanging around the feet of the three crosses.  There were the relatives of the men.  There were a few chief priests and Roman functionaries. There were probably a couple people who didn’t know any of the men being executed, but showed up just to see the show.  And of course, there were the soldiers who were just doing their jobs and had long ago lost any horror about the kind of work they did.  Those were the guys passing the time it takes to actually die from being crucified by gambling and every once in a while taking verbal pot shots at the people doing the dying above their heads.
This scene has been interpreted in literally thousands of ways over the centuries – in creeds, novels, poems, plays, hymns, spirituals, great choral works, movies, and of course in explicitly religious art and no-so religious art.  But what is interesting to consider is that in the first five centuries after Jesus’ death, there were no works of art created to represent the crucifixion at all, despite its centrality to the Christian faith.  In fact, one of the earliest image of the crucifixion was a piece of graffiti scrawled on an ancient Roman ruin that showed a man looking up at a donkey hanging on a cross.  The inscription underneath it read, “Alexamenos worships god.”[3]
It seems the crucifixion was a “baffling, embarrassing event for early Christians.”[4]  It was a confusing event – shocking and frankly offensive for those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, and too easily made fun of for those who did not.  And truth be told, we still take offense today.  It makes us mad that we do not have a super hero Jesus to save us from every terrible thing that happens to us, but instead a suffering servant Jesus who suffers all those terrible things withus.   Which is so not what we want to hear.  What we want to hear is that Jesus is going to rescue us from pain, if not prevent it entirely.  We want to believe that Jesus will save us from suffering.  We want to call on the name of Jesus to save us from feeling lonely and afraid.  And what we get in this text is a Jesus who hangs up there, on a cross, dying a slow agonizing death between two common criminals, and it seems like he either can’t or won’t do anything about it.  What good is that dying Jesus to us?
We are the first criminal who turns to Jesus and says, “Are you the Messiah or aren’t you?  Save yourself and us!”  And you know, that isn’t the first time Jesus has heard this question.  Jesus heard it at the beginning of his ministry, right after his baptism.  Before Jesus had even had the chance to dry off after the holy dip in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit kicked him out into the wilderness for 40 long days.  And after Jesus had been out there long enough for his full humanity to get really hungry, really thirsty and really miserable, who shows up?   What shows up is evil itself, a sneaky and persuasive temptation telling Jesus that there’s absolutely no reason that Jesus can’t get himself out of this jam right now.  All Jesus has to do is turn some rocks into bread and he’ll get rid of the grumbling in his stomach.  All Jesus has to do is forsake this trouble-making God who left him out in some godforsaken hellhole and Jesus will never have to be this thirsty ever again..  All Jesus has to do is spit in his Father’s face and jump off the roof of the temple and Jesus will never ever have to suffer this kind of misery again. 
The criminal hanging next to Jesus who wants Jesus to save them both, right now, is the same temptation in an even more miserable place.  After all, if Jesus is the Messiah, the ruler of all, king of all creation, getting himself and the other two criminals off the cross should be a piece of cake. What good can a dying Messiah do for us?
I visited this week with a very, very dear friend who I just found out has a really nasty kind of cancer.  I went with another pastor friend to see him, but even with a backup, it was not an easy visit.  My friend is young, married, has young children, and before I saw him with my own eyes, it was absolutely impossible to imagine him being sick, much less so sick.  As we visited with him, he talked about how he felt when he was diagnosed with cancer and suddenly found himself facing a future in which the only certainty would be pain.  He referenced Jesus’ time in the wilderness and said that at first he thought he would just take the devil up on that generous offer and skip right over the suffering and land with either complete recovery or a very quick death.   After a whole lot of prayer and a whole lot of time reading scripture, he finally decided he’s going to have to follow Jesus’ example and be obedient to God’s plan which so far hasn’t included a pass on all the awful chemo and side effects and surgery and worry.  My friend was at peace knowing that Jesus had already walked the path he was about to walk and could show him the way to get through it, no matter the outcome.  Like Jesus after his baptism, my friend is trying his best to stay focused on who he is – God’s beloved child. That is enough for my friend – enough to get him through all the unbelievable awfulness he has yet to go through.
The second criminal hanging on the other side of Jesus is the only person in this entire scene other than Jesus who knows what is going on.  Jesus disciples are nowhere to be found.  The women still watching are overwhelmed with grief.  The leaders of the political and religious establishment are preoccupied with yelling smart aleck remarks.  The soldiers are distracted by their game of “Texas Hold Em” and thinking about what will be for dinner. 
But the second criminal is the only person who seemed to actually hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness – a divine free pass for all the jerks standing there who really did have absolutely no idea what they were doing.  And when he heard those ridiculous words of forgiveness for people who did not deserve it, the second criminal suddenly saw Jesus for who he is – a king, the best kind of king.  That criminal is the only one who sees that the forgiveness Jesus freely gave has opened up a way home to God that even a dirty rotten scoundrel like him can enter right now.  Not tomorrow.  Not next week, or at some point in the future, but right now.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  I think that’s about the most beautiful prayer ever uttered and it happens in the most horrible circumstance we can imagine.
And Jesus says to him, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”  Today.  Jesus doesn’t say, “You’ll have to hang on for three days until I’ve risen from the dead.”  Jesus looks at this bleeding criminal who has done god-knows-what to god-knows-who and says, “You may be hanging on a cross and suffering the same agony as me, but you’ve figured out how to find God.  It’s through love and forgiveness.  You’ve been reborn and that makes you much happier and freer than any of the other people standing around down there.” 
Another way of putting what Jesus says is this:  The only way I can get it across to you that I love you is by occupying the very worst space that any of you can come up with, the kind of place which you think I like to put people in. I don’t.  I don’t put you into places to suffer.  It’s you who put people there, you at your very worst.  And sometimes you even put yourself there. I’ll occupy that space of suffering and shame and pain to show you that I’m not out to get you, that I really do love you. The moment you see that, then you can relax, and trust my goodness. Then you need no longer engage in that awful business of making yourselves good over against, or by comparison with each other or taking offense at every perceived slight. Instead you can relax about being good, and as you relax you will find yourselves becoming something much better, much richer in humanity than you can possibly imagine.
The church was not created to be successful…we are called to be faithful.
Christians are not created to call the shots in the culture around us…we are called to be obedient to the One who showed us in his weakness what it means to be a fully human child of God.
The King we will be seeking in these weeks of Advent will reveal himself to us not in glittering palaces of power and might, thank goodness, but in even the dimmest light peeking through broken places and broken people.  When it feels too difficult for you to look directly at that kind of pain and experience that kind of suffering, remember the One who never forgets you and has always known you.  Never forget how much you matter in this terrible, beautiful world, and how much you are loved right now, how much you have been loved before the foundations of the world, and will be loved in the eternity to come. 
Thanks be to God. Amen.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Teaching Sermons on Suffering: God in Pain.  Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998. (92).
[4] (93)

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