Christ, the King
Sermon preached at Enmore, ‘Christ the King’, Sunday before Advent, 20th. November 2016
Readings: Jeremiah 23. 1–6, Colossians 1.11–20, Luke 23. 33–43.
The feast of Christ the King is one of the newest in the Church’s year. Established by Pope Pius xi in 1925, it was intended as a statement about the primacy of Christ over all other earthly authorities in the face of increasing secularism and the rise of militant dictatorships in Europe. While it is clear that the theme of God’s Kingship runs through the Scriptures, it has to be acknowledged that ‘kingship’ is a problematic concept to sell in the early 21st. Century.
In Australia there is considerable fondness and respect for our Queen but many Australians are much less comfortable with the prospect of a king, whether he be Charles or William. Kings seem to smack of a past era and carry memories of oppression and servitude. So when we speak of Christ as King what kind of image does that convey? One modern commentator (Prof. David Lose, Luther Seminary) suggests that “using the term ‘king’ to describe Jesus, threatens to miss the whole point of the gospel because of the way ‘king’ plays to a static sense of order rather than a dynamic sense of God’s rule on earth.” Perhaps that is why Jesus seemed reluctant to use this term of himself. In Luke’s account of the trial of Jesus, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” to which Jesus responds, “You say so.” None the less, the very earliest Christian confession was simply Christos Kyrios- Christ is Lord and Christians were prepared to face death rather than declare that Caesar is Lord. In confessing that ‘Christ is Lord’ Christians were not just saying that Christ is a preferred king to Caesar they were saying something about the nature of Christ’s reign. They were declaring that in Christ everything we normally imagine about kings and kingdoms is turned on its head. That is why so much of Jesus’ teaching is about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of heaven. Many of the parables are told in order to help us understand what this means. Parables aren’t designed to correspond to reality exactly- rather they provoke us and challenge us to think about something in an entirely new way.
Glimpses of the nature of Jesus’ kingship are seen in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard who discover at the end of the day that they all are treated as equals, even though some have worked only a small part of the day, thus dismantling all our notions of fairness and justice. We get some sense of the extravagant nature of this King’s concern for his subjects in the story of the father who humiliates himself in the eyes of all his community by refusing to reject his wayward rebellious son and running after his self righteous brother. We find out what it means to be a neighbour in this kingdom by hearing the story of the despised foreigner who shows compassion for his injured enemy when the respected leaders in the community pass by on the other side. Through these stories we discover that Jesus’ kingdom is different from any we have encountered before. But we also learn that the Kingdom of God is not some far off place, somewhere in the future but is already among us, announced in Jesus’ teaching and made evident in his death and resurrection. So for followers of Jesus we live as citizens of two kingdoms, citizens of this world and citizens of the Kingdom of God. We live in the tension of ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. Yet once we have had a glimpse of the realm described by Jesus we can never be satisfied with the way things are in this world. We are like the magi in T.S. Eliot’s great poem who having seen and worshipped the Christ child “returned to (their) places, these kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.” In the words of one writer: “The realm and rule of Christ is all around us beckoning us to live by its vision and values even now.” (Prof. David Lose)
So this long introduction brings us to today’s Gospel reading where Luke presents for us the penultimate scene in the ministry of Jesus- Jesus hanging on a cross between two criminals outside the walls of Jerusalem. The journey that started in Luke 9 when Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem ends here. Throughout that journey Jesus has shown by word and action the nature of his kingdom and his disciples have been taught the meaning of discipleship. But the crucified king has more to teach them. On the cross, hanging under the placard that proclaims to all the passers by, “This is the King of the Jews”, Jesus does two kingly things: he gives a lesson in forgiveness and he comforts a dying man. “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.”
Several times in his ministry Jesus had declared that someone’s sins were forgiven. Most notably in one of the earliest healing miracles, Jesus had declared to the paralysed man who had been let down into the house through a hole torn in the roof, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” His words had caused consternation among the scribes and Pharisees who had responded, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” On the cross Jesus does not declare that his persecutors are forgiven but he asks his Father to show forgiveness. When the injustice is great and the wounds deep we may not be able to offer forgiveness ourselves but we can ask God to show mercy on the offender. Here on the cross Jesus gives us an example to follow. So Stephen the first Christian martyr described in Acts 7 prays for those who stone him in words echoing those of Jesus.
Describing the crucifixion all the Gospel writers highlight the fact that on the cross Jesus is subject to mocking from the soldiers, the religious leaders and those crucified with him. Only Luke tells us that one of the criminals refrained from this mockery and even chastised his companion for so doing. He declares that they are facing the just consequences of their deeds but Jesus has not done anything wrong. He then prays, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It is a humble prayer. He does not ask to be rescued from death or to be spared the pain he is suffering, he simply asks to be remembered. We love to be remembered, We enjoy it when someone remembers our birthday or rings us when we are in pain or grief. It is even more wonderful to be included in God’s remembrance. To know that we are not forgotten, not alone but embraced by the love that will not let us go. “Today”, Jesus promises the dying thief, “you will be with me in Paradise.” Who else can make that kind of promise, and give that confident word of assurance?
There is a story I rather like about Michelangelo (supposedly true): while he was painting his famous fresco of the Last Judgement on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, one of the cardinals came to examine it and was shocked by the amount of naked flesh on display so he went to the Pope to complain. Hearing of this complaint Michelangelo retaliated by painting the face of the cardinal on one of the figures depicted suffering the torments of hell. The cardinal was even more incensed by this action and went to the Pope demanding that Michelangelo remove him from hell. The Pope replied that he had the power to remove a soul from purgatory but not from hell, so he could do nothing! Unlike the Pope Christ has power over life and death- he alone could speak that word of assurance to the dying thief. In the words of Paul found in today’s epistle reading, “in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
So we finish our journey with Luke on this Sunday before advent with this final vignette, this last glimpse of the King who reigns from a cross and who dismantles all our preconceived notions of what kings and kingdoms are about and with the repentant thief we pray, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”