A sermon for Proper 29, Year C: Christ the King
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. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; 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.”
Today’s readings are are the last of this stretch of Ordinary Time for the last Sunday before Advent which we have come to call “Christ the King.” The lessons, the psalm, and this Gospel, which we’ll read again on Sunday, tap into the images of the Reign of Christ. Even in our windows here, we can see these reflected images of Christ as King. It would be easy, perhaps, to take the idea of Christ as King at face value. Most of us get our ideas about Kings from two sources: childhood fairy tales, or the narratives of Western, European History. In those accounts, the King is the ultimate authority.The King is rich, powerful, commanding, respected…or if not respected, at least feared. At least, that is what we are taught about “Kings.” But, this Gospel lesson seems to present a very different picture of our Christ our King. Luke’s presentation of these last hours of Jesus’ earthly life invites us to understand this image of Christ the King not from the fairytale stories of our childhood, nor from history books written by the privileged and victorious. Instead, we have a view from the perspective of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, who in this Gospel is experiencing the painful and horrific final hours of his ordinary time on this earth.
One of the things that we pray in our own ordinary lives is The Lord’s Prayer. We’ll pray it today together as well. In that prayer, we close by saying, “The Kingdom, The Power, and The Glory are yours now and forever, Amen.” In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory that are present in his reign on earth, as it is in heaven. As the Gospel lesson hints, it doesn’t sound like the kind of King we hear about in our stories. What Jesus…Christ, the King…shares with us about the realm of God is something far more transformative.
We enter this Gospel lesson at the close of week when Jesus has moved from triumphant hero upon his entry into Jerusalem, to a scorned and beaten prisoner crucified between two criminals. Luke records the first words of this scene as ones reflecting the immensity of healing and forgiveness that has characterized all of Jesus’ life and ministry right up to that point: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Perhaps our first glimpse of Christ the King is this reminder: we are citizens in the reign of a loving God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The wholeness of this reign is extended even by a beaten and dying Jesus who sees himself…and all those with him…as being embraced in this same realm of redeeming, forgiving love which is known and experienced. This Kingdom of which Jesus speaks emanates from the love of God, and touches even those who are unaware of their actions. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” There is so much love bestowed in that statement of the kingdom where even those seemingly committing the unspeakable act of crucifixion are extended forgiveness. In the the realm of Christ the King, it is forgiveness that reigns.
Then, there is the Power. Power is tossed around and flaunted by those of Roman authority, “Save yourself, King of the Jews!” and even by the criminal dying on the cross next to Jesus: “If you’re the messiah, save yourself and us!” We can tend to think of power as a bargaining chip: “Jesus, if you have power then let my candidate win!” “Jesus, if you have power, open the park back up” But, this isn’t the kind of power Jesus has ever advocated in the ordinary days of his ministry. Jesus has shown us repeatedly in his parables, his healing, his eating with and sitting with and praying with people-who-are-rejected ministry that power is with the meek, the poor, the marginalized. Jesus is himself, as black theologian James Cone powerfully advocates, the embodiment of the Oppressed One. Jesus meets his life, his world, and his death as the one who aligns with the oppressed so that those who are themselves oppressed may experience his powerful, redeeming love. This isn’t the kind of power that comes from stepping on others. The power of Jesus, manifest in the reign of Christ, is the power that emerges when the oppressed are set free. The power of freedom, of wholeness, of healing. Jesus’ power isn’t evidenced by pulling himself off the cross and saving himself, but in choosing to be the Oppressed One on the cross, losing his earthy life so that he can liberate all of us through his resurrection. That power is not selfish and privilege seeking; that power liberates and redeems.
Finally, as we pray together, we come to know the Glory which is this kingdom, this paradise extended to us through the unrelenting, unconditional love of Christ. Jesus extends redemption to the criminal who is hanging in the shame and guilt of his own life and reaches out not to demand or to mock, but to ask so simply: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The gift extended is paradise…the glory of life everlasting not down the road or far away, but today. “Today, you shall be with me in paradise.” The Glory is not what Jesus possess and flaunts. Glory is what we share…here, now, today…as the risen Body of Christ.
Christ the King whose reign is healing, forgiveness, redemption. Reign in our hearts, in our community, in our nation and in our whole world today. The kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.
Prepared for Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Red Door Healing Service. Friday, November 18, 2016.