Listen to this sermon “as delivered” here:
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.”
Most of you here probably remember Cliff Clavin, one of the characters on the old television show “Cheers.” Cliff was the bumbling, nerdy mail carrier who sat at the end of the bar with his buddy Norm, and who tried to impress everybody with bits of trivia that few people knew, and probably even fewer people actually cared about. Well today, I’m going to be kind of like Cliff, because I’m going to tell you that today is what we call Christ the King Sunday – and that technically, this is the last Sunday in the year, according to the Christian liturgical calendar. Next Sunday, the First Sunday in Advent, is the first day of the Christian new year, and the annual cycle starts all over again. So I guess if you need a reason to party next Saturday night, you can break out the funny hats and noisemakers and tell everyone you’re celebrating Christian New Year’s Eve.
Or maybe not. Maybe for most of us, the church calendar, and the cycles of the church seasons, are just the kind of sidebar trivia that Cliff might offer up. It doesn’t usually seem to have a lot of interface with our day-to-day experience. And that’s likely the same with the idea of today, Christ the King Sunday. We just don’t think about kings, or royalty, much any more. These days, when we think about a king, and we aren’t thinking of the tales of King Arthur or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, what probably comes to mind for most of us is some ceremonial figurehead who really doesn’t have much actual power over the people he supposedly rules over. Maybe someone like the king of Sweden, or Belgium. Did you even know there was a king of Belgium?
Of course, we got rid of our royalty a long time ago, and haven’t much looked back since. Oh sure, maybe some of us watched television coverage of Princess Diana’s wedding. Or maybe some of us followed Princess Kate Middleton’s pregnancy, to see how that was going to turn out. Or maybe we wonder what the next wild and crazy and politically incorrect thing Prince Harry is going to get caught doing. He’s actually the most human, and likeable, one of the whole lot of British royalty, if you ask me.
But other than the curiosity factor, we just aren’t that into the whole king thing, and royalty. And the idea of a real king – one with real power and authority, the kind of old-school king that the writers of the New Testament knew and lived under, when they called Christ the King – that’s something that we modern, postmodern, Americans have trouble getting our heads around.
And what’s just as hard is to understand is why, if you want to have a special Sunday to build up to, to recognize Christ’s Lordship, his powerful Kingship over humanity and all the rest of creation, why would you pick this particular passage from Luke to express it? Why read about what seems to be the worst moment of his life and ministry, his weakest, most powerless moment, the moment of what seems to be his biggest failure? I mean, really, if I were in charge of putting the Lectionary together, I’d have picked something about Christ being victorious and powerful. Maybe some passage from Revelation that shows him ushering in the new age, sitting on his throne, punishing the wicked, wiping away every tear from the righteous; that kind of thing.
But we don’t get that. We get this. Jesus naked and bloody and nailed to a cross, being scorned and insulted, executed by the powers-that-be, because he was considered a political threat and a religious fraud.
But that seems to be the whole point. This is Jesus, showing them, and us, that this is the face of what power and authority and kingship looks like in God’s eyes. This is the kind of kingship that Jesus came into the world to proclaim – and that we, his followers, profess as truth. The power that Christ shows from the cross is the polar opposite of how most of humanity understands power. It’s the teaching, literally in the flesh, of God’s good news for us, and of what we’re designed to be all about. That good news is that real power is loving one another without condition. Loving and serving one another not just out of our excess or surplus, but giving and loving beyond that threshold. Loving and accepting one another in humbleness, and even when it comes at real cost and inconvenience to us. Sometimes, maybe even loving to death. Real power, in God’s eyes, is forgiving others for the wrongs they’ve done to us, because just like the people who executed Christ, none of us really know what we’re doing – all any of us have at best is a deeply nearsighted understanding of God and our place in creation. Power, in God’s eyes, is forgiving others without reservation, as Jesus did from the cross, even while they were hurling insults at him, and even though they didn’t even see that they were doing anything wrong, let alone that they needed forgiven at all. This is the power of God. When we look around the world today and we see pain and suffering and evil, and we wonder where God is, this is our answer, staring us in the bloody face straight from the cross – God is everywhere we see that kind of self-giving love, and acceptance, and forgiveness. Wherever we see that, and whoever is expressing it, that’s God’s power, that’s Christ’s kingship, being expressed in the world. That’s the message of Christ, that’s the love of God, that we’re called to make real in the lives of others.
It’s always been a paradox that this scene – Jesus’ crucifixion – is the thing that the faith’s enemies point to as its biggest failure and fraud; while at the same time, it’s where we followers find its deepest power and truth. In the crucifixion, we see God, and God’s power, as clearly as any human being ever can or will. We learn that the almighty, all-powerful God of the universe thinks that we human beings – all of us – you – me – each and every one of us – is so valuable, and loved, and precious in God’s sight, that God is willing to become one of us, in the flesh. To walk our walk, live our life. To know, firsthand, our joys and laughter, and to know firsthand, our deepest pain and suffering. Being treated with no justice, not from church or state. Receiving no mercy. Being marginalized, oppressed, rejected. Being persecuted. Going through all of the worst that human beings can experience from another human being, in order to show that God wants to stand with us through all that. Going through that just to show that God wants us to be reconciled, to be atoned – to be “at one” with each other. And the way that we’re made at one with God, is that God has chosen become at one with us, precisely to show us how valuable we all are, how loved we all are, how precious we all are in God’s eyes.
That’s my kind of king. And this week, as we think about the reasons that we’re thankful, maybe this should be at the top of the list, that we worship a God who is this kind of king.
That’s the kingship that Jesus on the cross shows us. That’s the kind of king that Christ is to us. Not the kind of king who rides down the street in a grand procession, with ridiculous-looking old carriages and horses wearing headdresses and guards wearing hats that look like oversized wooly-worms. Not the kind of king who retires to the palace to enjoy great state dinners with all the other rich and powerful of the world, while the rest of us common folk stand outside the gate trying to get a glimpse of all the grandeur inside. Christ is the king who loves us all, who literally loves us to death. Christ is the king who leaves the trappings of power behind to become one of us. Christ is the king who leaves the palace and opens the gates and invites us all in to that great feast, that great banquet in the kingdom of God. The scriptures say it will be a feast of the finest food. It will have the finest wine, the finest drink. It will be a place of eternal happiness and joy. And I suspect, it will be the kind of place where everybody knows your name.
Thanks be to God.