Grace, peace and mercy are yours, from the Triune God. Amen.
As I prepare sermons, I often find that bits and pieces of music stay with me. A scripture text will often remind me of a song, and that music becomes the accompaniment for my writing. As I prepared to write this sermon for Christ the King Sunday, I was accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Some of the words of this magnificent piece are, “King of Kings, forever and ever” and “he shall reign forever and ever” and perhaps most profoundly, “the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” But the majesty and beauty conveyed in this stunning composition seems downright bizarre when compared to what we hear from Luke’s Gospel today.
This Gospel text seems more suited to something we would hear on Good Friday. It seems to belong more with the scripture texts of Holy Week than on the last Sunday of the church year, this day that we call Christ the King Sunday. To call Jesus a king when we hear a text like this seems more like a brutal farce than it does a confession of truth. The Jesus described in today’s Gospel text is not the sort of king that we would choose, given the opportunity.
Our idea of a king is triumphant. Someone who demands respect from those around him. Someone who is not going to be humiliated. Someone who hates all the same people that we do and someone that we can call upon to do battle against all the things that we find to be cruel and unjust. This King would not keep company with undesirable people and would silence those who would stand against us, using power and might. We come from a culture without a history of royalty, but we make other things into our kings. We make political parties the ultimate mediators of what is right or wrong, good or bad. We place general principles and ideals above individual people and situations. We see money and property and possessions as the ultimate security in this life. A king is anything in which we might put our trust to protect and defend us.
In this way, we are really no different from the crowd surrounding the cross. This crowd, probably composed of curious onlookers, along with some of Jesus’ faithful followers, and other Jewish folks, had lived with a story their entire lives of a Messiah who would come to earth to save them. This Messiah would be regal and wise, like King David, and would be strong enough to defeat their enemies. This Messiah would avenge generations of injustice. This Messiah would protect and defend.
With all this in mind, today’s Gospel text from Luke is terribly painful to hear. It sounds like a story of brutal defeat. Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, hangs on a cross, among convicted criminals. Not only has he failed to save the people, he cannot even save himself. He is mocked and tormented by Roman soldiers. Jesus speaks only twice and in ways that seem shockingly absurd given what is happening to him. He says of those crucifying him, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” and the last words spoken before his death are uttered to a criminal executed on the cross next to him, “Truly I tell you, you will be with me in paradise.” While the soldiers and the crowd mockingly call Jesus a King and taunt him with calls to “save yourself!”, the only person who actually sees Jesus for who he is a criminal sentenced to death. We do not hear the crimes for which these two men are convicted, but we do hear that they have been justly sentenced. This scene at the time of Jesus’ death is a reflection of his entire ministry.
Throughout his life, Jesus kept company with people who live on the margins of “nice” society. And in his death, he is not surrounded by family and friends at a quiet bedside, but rather criminals as he hangs on a cross, above a jeering crowd. And it is to these marginalized folks, people with nowhere else to go and no one to turn to, that Christ is everything. That he is truly the King. The criminal on the cross next to Jesus had nothing to lose by asking Jesus to see him and forgive him. And Jesus sees him and hears him, and invites him into heaven. This is profoundly hopeful for me…for all of us…and this is the essence of what it means to call Christ a King.
In the midst of a situation that seems desperate, at a place called “the skull”, in the middle of death by crucifixion, Jesus is still extending words of overwhelming grace. To those who torment him, and those who suffer alongside him. Literally with his dying breath he is saying, “You will never be separated from the love of God.” No matter what you have done, or failed to do, you will still be with me in paradise. THIS is the kind of King that we need. This king protects and defends us from all the things of this world that would separate us from God. God in Christ is continually noticing, forgiving, and making new all sorts of hopeless situations, people, and places.
Christ knows suffering. Christ knows what it means to be in unimaginable, excruciating pain. He knows death. To me this is infinitely more hopeful than any king that would defend or protect with brute force, wealth, or political power. Because of who Christ is and what Christ does, we are never separated from God. For all of us who feel like we are put on trial and convicted over and over again for not being good enough, wealthy enough, successful enough, Christ says, “You will never be separated from the love of God.” For all of us who struggle with the painful realities of addiction, depression, and broken relationships, Christ says, “You will never be separated from the love of God. For I have endured suffering and death and triumphed over all these things for your sake. “ He shall reign forever and ever.
I have been thinking a lot about why we have this text at the end of the liturgical year. We start each church year on the first Sunday of Advent, with texts that tell of the coming of the Messiah. We move into the season of Christmas and tell the story of the birth of Christ, and then comes Epiphany. We move into Lent. We hear the story of the last week of Jesus’ life and his triumph over death during Holy Week. Pentecost is the celebration of the giving of the Holy Spirit to all the people of the world. Then, in the time after Pentecost we tell the stories of the life of Jesus. This final Sunday of the liturgical year is a statement about the person of Jesus Christ and God’s ongoing work in the world. The kingdom of God is now, not some far away time or place, and Christ shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.