Sermon on Luke 23:33-43 for Christ the King Sunday C, November 20, 2016
When 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. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And 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!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Many of you have been around liturgical churches most of your life, but some others have not. It may be news to some that the church has a calendar year all its own, and this is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week will begin Advent, the beginning of the church year. Advent simply means “coming”. It is the four week season of our church year that anticipates the coming of Jesus’ birth which we celebrate at Christmas.
So this is the end of our church year. In 1915 Pope Pius XI proclaimed that the year should culminate with the celebration of Christ the King. Here is why. He said that first, the nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom and immunity from the state. Second, that the leaders of the nations would see that they are bound to give respect to Christ. Third, that the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration, remembering that Christ must reign in our hearts, mind, wills and bodies. (source – see Pulpit Fiction)
Those are lofty and admirable goals. As they say, what good are low hopes?
There were more kings and queens in the world in 1915 than there are now. Today the idea of a monarchy seems partly quaint and archaic, like England’s version, and partly abhorrent; an authoritarian alternative to democracy. So that makes speaking of Christ as king a bit awkward.
There is something else that makes speaking of Christ as king awkward. Jesus went around proclaiming the kingdom of God, but when people tried to make him king, he rejected the offer. The inscription that the Roman governor, Pilate put on his cross, calling Jesus the king of the Jews was meant to mock him.
Pilate, by that time, knew that Jesus had no army and was not trying to become a replacement to king Herod, but whatever kind of kingdom he was proclaiming, he was dangerous. Claiming to be a part of a kingdom other than the Roman kingdom was openly treasonous. Leading a march of peasants to the capital city during their independence day festival, as Jesus did on what we call Palm Sunday, even if a non-violent demonstration, was a threat Rome would not tolerate. And, shutting down the temple, like he did, was disruptive, to say the least, if not a direct confrontation with the powers that be. And So Pilate, in collusion with the local elites, had him executed by crucifixion.
The text we read from Luke is normally a Good Friday text, so it is surprising to read it here, one week before we start the Advent season, anticipating Christmas.
Christianity’s Climactic Moment
And yet, it is completely fitting and even crucially important that if we are to have a church year, it should come to exactly this kind of climax. On Christ the King Sunday, to sum up Jesus’ entire ministry, to burn into our hearts and minds the central image we should carry in our consciousness, we focus our attention on the moment of Jesus execution.
This is the opposite of a typical coronation. There are no flags, no banners, no trumpets, no horses, no procession through a triumphal arch or even a city gate. This is “not a victory march,” as the late Leonard Cohen might say. But it is the emblem of Jesus’ central message of love, enacted in the flesh and blood of a real person.
So let us picture the scene. Jesus was arrested by Roman soldiers the night before. He was then subjected to all the horrible things they did back then, which today we would simply call torture, which our country has declared, is illegal. Then, after a trial by mob hysteria, most closely akin to the mock “justice” of a lynching, even though Pilate knows the charge of armed sedition is false, he gives the order. Jesus, along with others, is crucified because that is the worst kind of death the Romans could come up with. It is long, it is slow, and it is public. It is meant to be both humiliating and lethal.
In this moment, the entire ministry of Jesus comes to a climax, as, in Luke’s version of the story, Jesus, from the cross, says,
“Father, forgive them”.
Without vengeance, without a prayer for vindication by violence in response to violence, Jesus simply prays
“Father, forgive them”.
This is the culminating moment for the one who taught us to pray,
“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” – or our trespasses, or our sins, or however you translate it.
Forgiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Even up to, and including forgiveness of enemies.
What does it mean to honor Christ as king? It means that we celebrate the triumph of mercy over judgement. This is our high and holy calling; to be a community of reconciliation.
The Weirdness of History
It is bizarre and, I am going to say, ridiculous, to imagine how we go from this moment of Jesus proclaiming, in word, and in his own body, the triumph of forgiveness of enemies, to Constantine’s use of the cross as a symbol by which the Roman armies crushed their enemies. History is full of the bizarre and ridiculous.
It is also and absurdity of history that the victorious Constantine, after becoming the Roman emperor, would be the one to make the Christian church the chaplaincy to the empire, blessing its battles and accepting its power. On the other hand, it is not surprising that the church would play nice; after all, Constantine started paying the bishop’s salaries and building them beautiful basilicas to preside over.
Return to the Source
As we embark on this year-long countdown to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, you are going to hear me say frequently that the clarion call of the Reformers was “ad fontes” meaning back to the fountain, back to the source of our faith. We are painfully aware of how far away from that source the medieval church had gone by the 16th century Reformation.
Now, 500 years after that Reformation, we continue to seek our identity as the church in our source: in the life and ministry of Jesus. We are painfully aware that the church, that became beholden to the wealth and power of the empire in the 4th century, had lost its way.
So our desire to return to the source is a quest to go back to our sources for the life of Jesus, the gospels, and to take a fresh look. Jesus preached the kingdom of God. In other words, the world as it would look and function if God instead of Caesar were king. What would that world look like?
When God is King
It would look like the kind of world Jesus created around himself. It would look like communities of people who knew that their deepest identity is that they are daughters and sons of God – people who can pray, and meant it when they pray – “our Father or Mother in heaven” – recognizing that God is not just a big man in the sky. But either way, to call God Mother or Father is to affirm that we are God’s children; loved, embraced, forgiven, accepted, and cared for.
If a community lives believing that God is on the throne, praying to have God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, then those communities gather without regard to any status markers: women and men, slaves and citizens, people from different races and languages all sharing food from one common table. It means radical inclusivity that rejected every from of discrimination.
If God is on the throne having God’s will done, it must mean that the hungry are fed, just as the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes teach. It must mean that proper care gets to people who are sick or lame or blind, or elderly, which we would call health care. In short, it means the same things that the Psalms of ancient Israel proclaim: that “righteous and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.” (Psalm 89:14 and 97:2)
So, Jesus went around establishing communities that would live according to this vision of God as King. On the cross, we reach the culmination of that vision in which Jesus looks in the eyes of those who had done all they could to end his vision of the kingdom, saying
“Father, forgive them.”
The Community in our Context
Now, all these years later, and in an entirely different context, we are seeking to live that vision. This is a community that gathers around a common table, men and women, without discrimination of any kind, celebrating the forgiveness we experience by God, and extending forgiveness to each other and to our enemies.
This is not the way the world works. We are an alternative community. Therefore, we need each other. We need to gather together to renew our vision and to encourage each other to live in this way, by these, frankly, upside down values. We need the strength we get from each other to know that we are not alone in our vision of a just and reconciled humanity.
We value this community. That is why we are not ashamed, once a year, to ask all of us to be a part of supporting this community. We believe that being an authentic community of Jesus followers means being authentically generous in our support. We believe that it is part of practicing the spirituality that Jesus taught us to be people who give as they are able.
Next week will be our Dedication Sunday. We will bring our pledge cards and we will sign up to indicate where we will give of our time and our creativity, as we commit to be there for each other in practical, concrete ways. In this way we show that we truly believe that Christ is king for us. And this is how we will begin to live a new year together as a called, beloved community.