Christ the King

(sermon 11/20/16)

arson-hopewell-missionary-baptist-church-greenville-ms

Interior of the historically-black Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, Greenville MS, destroyed by arson

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.”- Luke 23:33-43

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So today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s meant to be the culmination of the church year, just before we restart the cycle with Advent and our spiritual reflection and preparation for observing the coming of the Lord into the world. It’s meant to be the ultimate, full, shout-it-from-the-rooftops affirmation that God entered our existence in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus’ mission in the world was successful, and that Jesus is indeed the Lord and King of all. Given that intent for the meaning of the day, this might seem to be an odd gospel text to hear. If we’re meant to focus on the Reign of Christ, the reality of his Kingship, why not pick some other passage? Why not maybe one from Revelation, with cherubim singing, and saints prostrating themselves on the ground, and Christ returning to earth riding in the clouds; something like that? Why not something that shows a King of power and might, and setting things right? No. Instead, we get this dreadful passage that details the lowest, worst moments of his earthly life. Why?

Well, I think that maybe it’s meant specifically to point out the very different kind of King that Jesus is, and the very different kind of Kingdom that he reigns over. We talked a bit about this idea of Christ the King last week, and how that should play out in our lives, and this gospel text today speaks even more to that point. Christ is the kind of King who stands for God’s compassion for the world, and all who live within it. The kind of King who upholds that message even when it’s unpopular. Even when it’s dangerous and will be opposed by the rulers and powers of this world. And I think this passage reminds us that Christ is the King of a Kingdom that will lose many battles in this world, as his own crucifixion attests. And yet, it’s those same battles that he calls us, his people, to engage in, as a part of our faithful response to professing Jesus Christ as our King.

I think that the next several years are going to be crucial ones for us as Christians in this country. I think that we may find ourselves in a serious time of crisis, one that transcends partisan politics or ideology, or any particular individual leaders or political parties. This crisis lies in many of the policies that are currently being floated as potential directions for our country – and which apparently have a large block of support within the general population. I’m talking about policies that run absolutely, irrefutably contrary to the core teachings of our faith. Policies that would bear down unjustly on immigrants, refugees, and their families. Policies that would permit our government to engage in what the world community considers torture. Policies that would harm women, people of color, LGBTQ people, religious minorities, and others.

These are all policies that must be absolute non-starters to anyone who professes Christ as King. Upholding justice, defending the weak, the powerless, the publicly scorned and rejected – these are absolute, non-negotiable, bedrock essentials of our Christian faith. This is what Christ our King teaches us. This is what Christ our King demands of us.

And I believe that standing up and speaking out, and working to stand up for these members of our society, and opposing these policies, might cause us difficulties. We might be opposed by individuals, we might be opposed by groups, we might be opposed by governmental leaders and even some in the religious community. If we faithfully stand up for these core principles of our faith, we might very well find ourselves in the same unpopular position as those who were part of the Confessing Church movement in Germany in the 1930s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of nationalism and the overreach of state authority, and who gave us the powerful Barmen Declaration, part of our Book of Confessions. We might find ourselves in the same position as those who were part of our own American Presbyterian tradition in the 1960s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of racism, sexism, and other social ills in our own country, who gave us the profound Confession of 1967. We might find ourselves in the same unpopular position as the black church in South Africa in the 1980s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of apartheid and racial segregation, and other justice issues as well, and who gave us the prophetic Belhar Confession.

In all honesty, I look at the current situation in our country, and I truly wonder if we’re on the verge of the next time of crisis that will end up producing our next major confession – or at least will lead to an energized movement of Christian witness against the popular heresies and sicknesses in our society that will make us just as unpopular as those earlier movements were when they began.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when I was at our Presbytery meeting. Before the meeting began, there was a brief presentation and discussion about the Belhar Confession, and in that session, I read again some of its closing lines. I want to read those lines to you this morning:

“We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things [commanded by Christ], even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.

Jesus is Lord.”

In other words, Christ is King.

We are currently living in strange times.

We’re currently living in a time when a successful, well-dressed, native-born Asian-American attorney driving a luxury car, living in an affluent community can be harassed and taunted by an affluent, white man at a gas station in that same community, telling the man he doesn’t belong here in this country, and that he needs to go back where he came from. We’re living in a time when a gay senior citizen in Florida can be jumped and beaten by a man who all the while yelled at him that now that we have a new President-elect, it’s OK to kill all the faggots. We’re living in a time when black churches and mosques are burned, and synagogues have their windows bashed out and swastikas painted on the walls. We’re living in a time when people feel emboldened to harm others in ways like this. These are not normal times.

I believe that in order to be faithful to our profession that Christ is King, all of us – each and every one of us – are very possibly going to have to get out of our own comfort zones and stand up to oppose these and other things, and to protect and help those being attacked, either through policies or personal attacks. I believe that we’re going to have to stretch ourselves spiritually to rise to what Christ, our King, is calling us to in these times. What we may have been doing in the past in trying to be obedient to our King may not be sufficient for the living of these days.

We may have to speak out, loudly, maybe even forcefully – even the most soft-spoken and quiet and shy among us. We may have to protest. We may have to take actions to support God’s love, and mercy, and compassion, and justice, and the other key teachings of the gospel that might not seem to be decent and in order at all.

Is this what we’re facing in the next few years in this country? I don’t know.But I do know that if it comes to that; if you and I have to take some unpopular stand in order to uphold the values of the Kingdom of God by standing up for God’s justice for all, especially for the most discriminated against of God’s people; if we face the scorn and rejection of people for doing it – whatever happens, we can remember this awful, dreadful passage from Luke that reminds us that our King suffered for this Kingdom, too. This was the way that our King modeled how we should live, even in the face of opposition, even in spite of defeats. This, according to Luke, is what we mean when we say Christ is King. And we can have hope, because yes, Christ is indeed the King of the cross – but thankfully for his sake and ours as well, he’s also the King of the resurrection.  And for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God.

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Christ the King (sermon 11/24/13)

Listen to this sermon “as delivered” here:
http://worthingtonpresbyterian.com/sites/default/files/sermon_-_christ_the_king_-_dwain_lee.mp3

Luke 23:33-43

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.”

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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.