Christ the King/Reign of Christ
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.”
Today is Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. Which marks the end of the church year, and is the pivot point between ordinary time and Advent.
Christ the King is a relatively new feast day in the Christian church.The day marking Christ’s reign or kingship was established in the period between World War I and World War II,less than a hundred years ago.
Christianity’s influence, especially in Europe, was being replaced by secularism, nationalism and communism as the primary power brokers.
By invoking the kingship of Jesus, the church hoped to reinforce the claim of Jesus being ruler of all human institutions, political entities, and every economic and culture construct.
I have no way to prove it, but I am convinced church leaders in 1925 weren’t really much worried about Jesus losing authority. The church was anxious about losing its authority.
Church leaders were worried that they were losing their place of dominance and power in society. And we know how they feel, don’t we? I think we do.
In fact, I suspect Christ the King Sunday was born out of the same anxiety that still exists today when people get upset about “holiday trees” versus “Christmas trees,” or red cups at Starbucks, or a sales clerk saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.
Many Christians today feel anxious because the number of people of other faiths or no faith at all is growing. Even among people who claim to be Christian, church attendance is down.
When I was growing up in the 1960’s, everyone went to church. If you wanted to be considered a “good” person, you showed up to worship pretty much every Sunday. Remember that?
Now, going to church is no longer a measure of goodness.People figure they can be good people without church. And frankly, many people look at the church and don’t see much good in it.Fewer and fewer people outside our walls listen to us.
That can make us defensive. Angry. Or sad. And, I dare say, a little frightened about our future. So today’s text from the lectionary for Christ the King Sunday is really very ironic when you think about it.
What we see in the text from Luke today isn’t anything like a coronation for a human king or even a presidential inauguration. What we see in Luke is exactly the opposite.
We are at Calvary. And Jesus doesn’t look like a powerful king or a president, or even like the pastor of a successful church.
Jesus looks like a beaten up and bleeding man.
I once had a spiritual director who encouraged me to look closely at the crucified Jesus as I prayed. She told me to spend time in prayer and imagine myself sitting at the foot of the cross and focus my gaze on Jesus. To remember that Jesus knows and shares in the suffering of the whole world.
When I see this scene in Luke, I want to clean Jesus up, put some clothes on him, and tend to his wounds. I want to knock that sour wine right out of the Roman executioners’ hands.
This text from Luke is not a beautifully rendered portrait of a king taking his rightful throne, but a nauseating scene of a convicted criminal being bullied, tortured and executed by the power of the state.
This is not a coronation of a king, not by a long shot.
What do we see?
Three men hang on three rough wooden crosses. Two garden variety thieves and one troublesome revolutionary with a sign above his head: “King of the Jews,” which is of course both a mocking joke and the God’s honest truth.
There are the people hanging around the feet of the three crosses. There are a few chief priests and Roman functionaries. Might be family members of the thieves. And probably a couple people who didn’t know any of the men being executed, but show up anyway to see the spectacle.
And of course, there are the soldiers who are just doing their jobs and had long lost any remorse about executing people. Those are the guys passing the time it takes a condemned man to die on a cross. They gamble to see who gets the dead man’s sandals and look up every once in a while to make sure all is going to plan.
This scene at Calvary 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 here is an interesting fact to consider.
In the first few centuries after Jesus’ death, there were no works of art created to represent the crucifixion at all. At least none that any scholar or archaeologists have been able to dig up.
Despite its centrality to the Christian faith, the crucifixion wasn’t mentioned or celebrated for hundreds of years after Christ. Like so many of us, the earliest Christians looked away from the brutal scene of Jesus hanging on the cross. For the longest time, they pretended the crucifixion never happened.In fact, one of the earliest images of Jesus’ 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 his god.” The artist apparently wanted to mock Alexamenos for worshipping a crucified God.
Jesus’ death on a cross was, to put in bluntly, embarrassing for early Christians. How could anyone of faith possibly make sense of God dying in such a horrible way? It was a confusing event – shocking for those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, and for non-believer, it was proof of how ridiculous this whole Jesus business is.
And truth be told, crucifixion is still embarrassing for us. Because if we spend time pondering Christ on the cross, we realize we do not have a king who will save us from every terrible thing.
What we see on the cross is that Jesus is not going to rescue us from pain.
What we see on the cross is that Jesus will not save us from suffering.
What we see on the cross is Jesus dying a slow agonizing death between two common criminals, and it seems like he either can’t or won’t do anything about it.
The first criminal turns to Jesus and says, “Are you the Messiah or aren’t you? Save yourself and us!”
This isn’t the first time Jesus has been dared to put up or shut up. Jesus heard it at the beginning of his ministry, right after his baptism. Remember? The Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness for 40 days.
Jesus had been out there long enough to be really hungry, really thirsty and really, really miserable.Then who shows up?
The face of evil itself, a sneaky and persuasive temptation telling Jesus that if he’s truly God’s Son there’s no reason Jesus can’t get himself out of this jam.
Put up or shut up, says the devil. If you are the Messiah, this is a no-brainer.
All Jesus has to do is turn rocks into bread and he’ll get rid of the grumbling in his stomach.
All Jesus has to do is forsake this God who left him to die in some godforsaken hellhole and Jesus will never 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 is the same voice of temptation. After all, if Jesus is the king of all creation, rescuing himself and the other two criminals should be a piece of cake. Put up or shut up. Jesus. Save us.
The second criminal hanging on the other side of Jesus is the only person in this entire scene who sees things differently.
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 at Jesus.
The soldiers are distracted by their game of “Texas Hold Em” like any other day.
The second criminal hears Jesus say something. Maybe nobody else heard it. Maybe nobody else believes it.
Jesus looks out at the people who are killing him and says, “Forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” And in those words, the second criminal hears something like hope.
When the second criminal hears those ridiculous words of forgiveness he sees Jesus for who he is – a king of the best sort.
That criminal is the only one who understands those words as an opening to God for even a dirty rotten scoundrel like him. 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. Right now. Not in three days. But now.
Jesus on the cross is not a super hero who will save us from terrible things. Instead on the cross we see a suffering servant Jesus who suffers all terrible things with us, right now.
We see a king of a different kingdom that has nothing to do with power or might or numbers or institutions.We see a king who stands with the marginalized, the meek, the vulnerable, right until the end.
I sometimes feel very defensive about the church to which I have been called to serve. Jesus’ church. I feel sometimes as if I personally have to answer every single criticism of what we get wrong. And to tell you the truth, these are questions I ask myself all the time.
If we are the church of Jesus Christ, why are we dying?
If we are the church of Jesus Christ, why isn’t God saving us?
Why aren’t our pews filled? Why aren’t we successful?
If God is love, why is following Jesus sometimes so painful?
Look at Jesus on the cross, patiently loving and forgiving the people who are killing him and being killed with him.
Well. I don’t know.I don’t know.
Maybe in order to be saved, we need to take Jesus seriously, seriously enough to follow him all the way to the cross.
Maybe in order to be saved, we have to get up there with Jesus.
If you look up at the cross right there, right in front of you in this beautiful sanctuary, you’ll see there’s room there for one more.
Jesus was there, he died and he’s been raised, and now it’s time for us to do the same.To follow him. To die and be raised. Each day as we seek to follow his way.
We need to die, trusting as Jesus did, that God will raise us to new life. Not in the way we would want to be raised, necessarily. But we will be made new because that is who God is.
We need to die trusting we will be loved and forgiven and saved, not because of who we are, but because that is who Jesus is.
Paul says it in Romans 6: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
The church was not created to be successful…we are called to be faithful, even at the risk of losing our lives.
The church was not created to be successful…we are called to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, in and out of season, trusting in the Spirit to guide us and challenge us.
The church was not created to be successful…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.
Jesus was not clamoring for earthly power, but he does call his church to join God’s insistent, consistent, and persistent solidarity with the weak, the oppressed, and the forgotten of this world.
Jesus leaves behind all the strength and power of his status – as Paul writes, “emptying himself and taking the form of a servant” – in order to redeem those who are weak, vulnerable, and lost.
We are called not to rise up but to get low enough to wash stinky feet.
We are called not to hoard our possessions, but to feed hungry people.
We are called not to stand at a safe distance, but to get involved in messy stuff of life.
We are called not to condemn, but to forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable.
We are called not to defend ourselves, but to be vulnerable enough to have our hearts broken by those things that break God’s heart.
We are called to be the church.
The King you and I will be seeking in these coming weeks of Advent will reveal himself to us not in glittering palaces, but in the dimmest light peeking through the cracks of broken places and broken people.
Maybe even in people like us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.