Sunday, November 20, 2016

Christ the King [Year C] - November 20, 2016 (Luke 23:33-43)

"Crucifixion" (Peter Gertner)
The world around us is talking about presidents and prime ministers, but we—you and I—are going to hail a crucified king.

The world around us is going to hash out popularity votes and voter turnout, but you and I are going to talk a profound unpopularity that leads nowhere but a cross.

The world around us is going to say that the people have spoken, and their voice is loud and clear, but you are I are going to know that the people just stood by, watching.

The world around us is going to say, “To the victor goes the spoils!” but you and I are going to hear, “They cast lots for his clothing.”

The world around us is going to witness the uncorking of champagne, the sweet taste of victory, but you and are going to hear “they offered him sour wine.”

The world around us will discuss the Oval Office, and moving into the White House, but you and I will remember they came to a place called the Skull.

The world around us is watching to see which allies will be selected for cabinet positions, who will sit at the leader’s right and at his left, but you and I will realize that he hangs between two criminals—one on his right and one on his left.

The world around us will wonder about campaign promises made and not kept, but you and I will hear, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Sisters and brothers, the world around us will sell us on the virtues of claiming what is ours, that screams, “Save yourself!” but we will meet a Savior who offers himself to claim others.

Christ is King. We’ve gone through another cycle of a church year, and that is the message we end on.

Christ is King. We’ve had another chance to reflect intentionally and methodically on the life and times of this man from Nazareth, and that is the statement of faith at which we arrive. The United States may have a new President, England may be working with a new Prime Minister, “Dancing with the Stars” may have awarded a new mirror ball, but when it comes to all of creation, Christ is King.

We know that Christ is many things for us: he is shepherd, taking care of his flock with unparalleled care. He is teacher, showing us the way of mercy and love for our neighbor. And he is healer, binding up our wounds, external and internal, and making us whole again. But ultimately it is his kingship that we must come to terms with, for it is a kingdom that he comes to bring. It is the first words on his lips when he shows up in Galilee preaching and teaching and gathering disciples, and it is one of the last things he speaks about as he dies on the cross. His loving reign over us and over all that is and all that ever has been and all that ever will be is what we need to consider and remember. His authority is what we must hold in tension with the all dominions and authorities of this earth we live under now. But his particular authority is radically different from other authorities we deal with, and this kingdom operates on a different philosophy.

It goes without saying that all good rulers are seeking to expand their boundaries, to establish a greater sphere of influence. We see political maps where certain states are labelled blue, red…or battleground. We talk about fundraising. We talk about ground games and air time. We see military campaigns fight for control over key Middle Eastern cities like Mosul or Aleppo. I know that in my own kingdom (if I could even call it that) if I want to establish any authority here lately it’s going to need to involve bribery and Halloween candy.

All of these different rulers of the earth use strategic plans to gain more power, but they’re all essentially aggressive, clandestine. Jesus’ kingdom, by contrast, uses mercy and kindness, and often beginning with the scattered-most remnants, those who’ve been looked over. That’s how it advances and gains ground. Jesus empties himself, disarms himself. We see this right up unto the end. He has been mocked and flogged by the very people he has come to save. The Roman authorities have offered to free him for the Passover, but the people chosen to crucify him instead of a convicted murderer, Barabbas. He has every reason to pursue revenge, to spite, to choose vindictiveness, but instead he lets himself be humiliated.

"Crucifixion" (Vernonese, 1580)
The kingdom of God advances with mercy and kindness. Look at how Jesus uses his last few breaths! Even as he is mocked by one of the criminals hanging next to him, Jesus manages to look to the criminal on the other side and offer him pardon and freedom. Crucifixions in the first century were always public events, and the Romans were known for nailing several people to crosses at the same time in order to maximize the gore factor and establish a rule of law.

Not much is known at all about the two criminals who were executed alongside Jesus, but we do know that one of them experienced the release of God’s forgiveness right at the end. “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus says to him. Paradise is a term that Jewish folks would have associated with the Garden of Eden, that time in creation when all things were in perfect relationship with God and with each other. Jesus is promising in that very dying moment this this man will know full restoration. In spite of his sin, in spite of his crime, the kingdom of God will come to him because Jesus advances his reign through mercy and forgiveness.

Even as he is hoisted on the cross above the crowd, Jesus offers forgiveness because they know not what they do. The “they” in that sentence has long perplexed scholars. Is he talking about the people doing the nailing? The jeering? The standing-by-not-speaking? It is believed that the “they” is intentionally ambiguous So that it can encompass everyone involved in any way in his death…from then until now. All these are forgiven, even though they don’t grasp what they’re doing to him.

God knows that nothing we experience can equal the power that forgiveness offers. That is the constitution of his kingdom: the forgiveness of the enemy. And when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, for his kingdom to come, that is the authority we’re appealing to. Martin Luther says, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own, without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” Through his blood on the cross, Jesus has advanced his kingdom right up to our hearts. And we, as those who have been freed by its power, have the command to follow the example of our king and help proclaim the freedom of others, to let them taste Paradise even today.

When we study God’s kingdom in confirmation, we discuss the powerful example of Mary Johnson, a woman in Minneapolis who lost her only son, Laramiun, in a shooting. When he was only 20 years old, he got into a fight at a party one evening and another young man, Oshea Israel, pulled out a gun and shot him. Israel was eventually convicted and spend more than a decade in prison. Now Ms. Johnson lives next door to Israel in the same apartment building. She has helped him get back on his feet and readjust to life after prison.

It’s a powerful story of forgiveness—these two people, living side to side, like Jesus next to the criminal on the cross. Their lives are joined by one horrible, deadly event, but then restored by an unlikely advance of Jesus’ kingdom. Ms. Johnson talks openly and honestly about hard it was to grapple with the evil that took her son, how hard it was to visit the prison and look into the face of her son’s murderer. But she also speaks beautifully and articulately about how unbelievably freeing has been to live in this new relationship of mercy with her son’s killer. She treats him as a son. Even today, in their own way, Ms. Johnson and Israel live with Jesus in Paradise.

In the end, when everything is said and done, when you and I have gone from this earth and creation reaches the end that has been prepared for it, we have hope that all will be restored through the blood of the cross. All wrongdoing will be accounted for and all brokenness will be healed. We will be able to look into the faces of those who have wronged us and those we have wronged and have all hurt and sorrow taken away. The scene that takes place on the Skull where Jesus forgives without will extend its healing rays all over the universe, over and over again. It is through mercy and forgiveness that this restoration will happen and no other way. No force will do it, no secret strategy, no clever manipulation.

Until that time, we keep advancing his kingdom in a ground game of compassion and kindness. We expand his boundaries, one act of selfless love at a time. So, when the world around us will be plotting revenge, retribution, but you and I will be thinking mercy. And when the world around is is saying, "We have only gotten what we deserve," we will practice grace.

And when the world around us is in arms about the republic, the state, the neighborhood, the universe…you and I will point to kingdom without end, because the One who was crucified now is risen and rules forever and ever.

We will point to the King, the King who frees.

Christ the King


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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