(Sermon for Sunday, November 24, 2013 || Christ the King Year C || Luke 23:33-46)
Today, on this final Sunday of the church’s year, we celebrate the “kingship” of Christ or (put another way) the “reign of Christ.” I prefer this second word because “kingship” conjures up for me images of thrones and jousting and ladies bestowing tokens on knights who catch their eye. Possibly, I’ve read too many novels in the “historical fantasy” genre. But more than that, the word “reign” just feels broader and more energetic. The eternal “reign of Christ” stretches out from Christ the King and supplants the lesser things that attempt to reign in this world and in our lives. When we turn our attention away from these lesser (yet louder) things – power, money, fame, and the like – we can see and participate in the greater (yet quieter) reality of Christ’s reign.
The territory over which Christ reigns encompasses the whole of Creation, and yet we tend to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule because it seems like the normal and acceptable thing to do. But there’s the rub: Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing, so, of course, his reign subverts the expectations of the world.
Speaking of expectations – show of hands – how many of you expected to hear the story of Jesus’ crucifixion when you came to church this morning? Yeah, I didn’t think so. A little jarring, wasn’t it? We’re about as far from Good Friday as we can get on the calendar, and yet we read this story today. So my question is: why?
Well, the easy answer is that the reading speaks of Jesus being a king and today is Christ the King Sunday. But this sermon has about seven minutes left in it, so I should probably say more than that, right?
While reading this story may seem strange, no other passage of the Gospel sheds more light on Christ’s reign than this one which recounts his torturous crucifixion. On the cross, Jesus was expected to succumb to the agony of the nails driven through his wrists and feet. He was expected to be ashamed of his nakedness. He was expected to cry out for pity’s sake and beg for mercy even as his breath came short and ragged because of the slow asphyxiation the cross delivers.
The normal and acceptable thing to do on the cross was to whimper your way to your last pitiful breath, all for the pleasure of Rome. But remember, Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing.
He was expected to show agony and shame and to cry out for mercy to an empire that never showed any. But instead, in the midst of his torture, he spoke three kind, generous words, words that echo through history and come to us and show us what Christ’s reign is really about. The cross magnifies the power of these three words because they stand in stark contrast to what the cross represents. The cross represents domination, separation, and fear. And yet, while nailed to its wood, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness, relationship, and trust. When we live into the reality dreamt by these three words, we cede our personal territory back to the reign of Christ and the lesser things slink off in defeat.
First, forgiveness. The sound of the hammer’s echo is still reverberating when Jesus speaks his first word. He looks down from the cross, sees his captors gambling for his clothing, grubbing over bloody scraps of cloth, and he says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgive them: my betrayers, my torturers, my murderers. Forgive them. I have trouble forgiving the guy who cuts me off in traffic, and here’s Jesus choosing to use his last breaths to forgive those who numbered those breaths. What does he know that we forget all the time? What about forgiveness places it squarely in the center of Christ’s reign?
Jesus knows that forgiveness is a much larger concept than mere pardoning of misdeeds. Forgiveness is both an action and a state of being. When we forgive, we choose not to let anger, isolation, and vengeance reign in our lives. Forgiveness allows us to let go of these lesser things that, in the long run, can damage us irreparably. Writer Anne Lamott puts it this way: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Forgiveness releases us from the damaging power of brooding malice, of getting even. In their place, we find Christ’s reign, and with it the healing of brokenness and the bestowing of generosity of spirit.
Second, relationship. The sound of the thief’s request hangs hopeful in the air. And Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” You will be with me. I can’t think of a more wonderful promise for Jesus to make. With these words, he reminds us that the cross, which dominates the scene, is just a passing thing. The separation it stands for is one of those lesser things that tries to rule, but which will ultimately fail.
Death seems so final, the pinnacle of separation, but in Christ’s reign, death is just another passing thing. In his resurrection, Jesus demonstrates the utter lengths he goes to be with us forever. He proclaims this promise to the thief on the cross and he fulfills this promise in our lives when he claims our personal territory as part of his reign. The thief himself speaks of his just condemnation as a criminal, and yet Jesus doesn’t see this as a barrier to relationship. Rather, Jesus sees the thief’s sin as a reason for relationship. In the reign of Christ, our sin separates us from God; but, in a mysterious cosmic paradox, our sin does not separate God from us. We may cede our personal territory to such a lesser thing as sin, but the territory, in the end, belongs to Christ. He’s not going to let passing things like sin and death defeat his presence and relationship in our lives.
Third, trust. With his last breath, Jesus cries out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Another translation says, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life.” With these words, Jesus once and for all destroyed the power of the cross, which is a symbol for the power of fear. The Romans used this torture device precisely because it struck fear into the hearts of those living under Roman rule. But Jesus knows that trust is the antidote for fear.
The reign of Christ is a place where fear finds no foothold. Fear reduces us to selfish hoarders, whose lives are scarred always by the thought of “never enough.” But trust expands us, makes us generous givers, and vaults us into the reign of Christ, where the “never” of “never enough” falls away. When we trust God, we let go of the fear that grips us. Indeed, the act of simply attempting to trust God is in itself an act of trust. So even when we are bad at trusting, each attempt is a little skirmish that God wins over fear. Trust allows us to see past the deserted island of fear and view the ocean of God’s presence surrounding it. When we step off the island and into the water, we find ourselves floating in God and trusting God to keep us from sinking.
Forgiveness. Relationship. Trust. These are the words on the lips of Jesus as he hangs on the cross. Forgiveness. Relationship. Trust. These are the ways Jesus invites us to participate in his reign. We might be tempted to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule us. But in the end that secession is a mere illusion because our personal territory has never been ours to cede. We belong to Christ. We live in his reign. By the standards of the world, Christ’s reign is neither normal nor acceptable. But Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing. And nor should we.