St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Christ, the King

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.”


Philip Brad­ford