Citizenship in the Kingdom of God Jer 23:1-6; Col 1:11-20; Lk 23:33-43
As church festivals go, Christ the King Sunday is a young one. It doesn’t date from the early church or the Middle Ages; it was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It’s worth paying attention to what was happening in the world—particularly in Europe—at that time, so we can understand the impetus for creating this church festival. Vladimir Lenin had died the previous year. The whole world was emerging from what had been called the War to End All Wars—a war that introduced fresh horrors like trench warfare and the use of mustard gas as a weapon. It upended not just one country or people but many parts of the world. Grief, loss, and suffering were the collective experience.
As a reaction, nationalist and fascist groups in a number of disillusioned countries emerged, determined never to be conquered again. Their focus was on power over others, and the power of their nation-state above all. Near Pope Pius’ papal palace, Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy in 1925. This was the context in which Christ the King Sunday was created.
Other than what we see on “Game of Thrones,” “The Crown,” or remember from fairy tales and nursery rhymes, kings may seem like quaint, irrelevant relics. In modern days, monarchs tend to be politically impotent figureheads in faraway nations. To make sense of how truly revolutionary this church festival is, it helps to picture recent despotic dictators or world leaders demanding to be treated as if they were the Supreme Rulers of all. If you consider Pol Pot or Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein, it is clearer why announcing trust in a greater authority would be dangerous.
Those of us who have been studying the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation recently have repeatedly observed that resistance to oppressive governmental or other worldly powers is a courageous act of faith. Bearing those high stakes in mind, you see how audacious it was for Christians in 1925 to set aside a special day for honoring Christ as the one true source of all power. Forget pretty liturgical symbolism, this worship service is intended as a countercultural proclamation about the priorities and allegiance we declare as Christians.
Now, almost 100 years later, nationalism and facism are again on the rise. Some political and ideological groups are again favoring intimidation, punishment, and violence against those who don’t conform to their vision. That’s why it’s important for us to name Christ as our ultimate guide and leader. It’s why we must embrace the waters of baptism as our immigration policy. Why we must cling to the Beatitudes as our Constitution, and why we must rally around the cross as the flag we will defend above all else. We declare our citizenship in the Kingdom of God, resisting all other powers who vie for our support when we sing “Crown him with many crowns!” Let the royal trumpets blast and the red carpet be rolled out! Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords!”
And then we read today’s Gospel lesson from Luke And perhaps the wind goes out of our sails a little bit, because at first glance this reading from Luke doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in our King’s power and glory. At the time of the Roman Empire, conquering heroes were greeted with a procession of triumph as their golden chariots navigated through the streets of the city. Our King did have a parade, but he walked through the crowds carrying a cross. At the end, he was not crowned with a laurel wreath of victory but a crown of thorns. Above his head, not attached to a throne but to a cross, a sign read “King of the Jews.” Even the means of his death was a deliberate indignity. Crucifixion was a form of death penalty reserved for common criminals and slaves.
Political rulers and religious leaders gathered around mock him, frankly, putting voice to some of my own doubts and the doubts of many through the centuries: “If you are the king, why don’t you come down from there?” Why are you passively bleeding on an implement of torture instead of storming up to the the Capitol Building, ripping up unjust laws and enacting some good ones? Why aren’t you calling down fire and brimstone on cruel, corrupt, and haughty usurpers of your throne? We had hoped you were the Messiah, the Anointed One, who had come to liberate us from oppression. We thought God finally sent us the One who would overthrow earthly rulers whose behavior is so repulsive. You aren’t fulfilling any of the hopes we had about the Messiah.
Then, as now, people had assumptions about royalty and royal behavior. Then, as now, people look for kings in the places where we think a mighty ruler ought to be. The wise men sought One heralded by a star first in King Herod’s palace. Why not? No one expects a king to be born in a barn. Soon after his birth, instead of learning to crawl on marble floors or eating from a silver spoon, Jesus and this family became refugees. When he began his ministry in earnest, Jesus’ “coronation” of sorts was a baptism in the Jordan River, presided over by a local locust-eating prophet.
Jesus was not often in palaces or courts. He spent his time talking and listening to beggars, fishermen, foreigners, loose women, and people with horrible diseases and social stigmas. He never met Caesar nor dined with the High Priest. He blessed children and defended people with bad reputations—whether deserved or not. He didn’t have a grand home—he didn’t have a home at all. He was an itinerant preacher who spoke often of God’s kingdom—also called the Reign of God, since this particular kingdom seemed not to be a geographical place so much as it was a community.
Jesus said that in the God’s reign, those who were poor were blessed; peacemakers were precious; and anyone who was weeping would find laughter. In God’s reign, the lame could walk, the blind could see, the ashamed were lifted up, and the guilty were forgiven. In God’s kingdom, people of different religions drank from the same well, and no one was excluded from table fellowship. In God’s kingdom, the king did not wait for his wayward subjects to return home, but instead, went out seeking any who were lost or alone. In God’s kingdom, the primary rule was the law of love. By word and example, Jesus called his followers to join him in making this kingdom come on earth as it was in heaven.
It sounds amazing! So why wasn’t Jesus’ message well-received? Other than a few palms being waved, there aren’t many Biblical stories about Jesus being hailed as a King—or any kind of noble. Trouble usually began when people realized that the kingdom Jesus described as not just for them and the people they preferred to think of as God’s chosen ones, it’s for everyone. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a kingdom that includes all those with whom we most violently disagree or of whom we most severely disapprove. That’s why some of Jesus followers tried to throw him off a cliff. Some abandoned him. Some reviled or taunted or tested him in public. And, as we know, eventually, some of his detractors arranged for his arrest and humiliating death.
Which brings us back to today’s Gospel text, depicting God Almighty being executed between thieves and scoundrels. What should we call him king? What is it that draws us in? I think it’s because, deep down, and in our own ways, we all identify with the crook beside him. We know we live in a world where powerful forces are trying to shut down justice and shut up the cries of the oppressed. We know that we have both suffered from and contributed to the brokenness of the world around us. Whether or not he would have called Jesus the King, the criminal on the cross beside Jesus knew that Jesus’ death spoke volumes about systemic sinfulness and his refusal to be part of it.
We have the advantage today of knowing that the cross was not the end of the story for anyone. We know that Easter always follows Good Friday. Still we trust in the same salvation that the repentant sinner next to Jesus received, felt, and knew before his own death or Jesus’ death. Salvation for that man came in finding someone who saw his suffering, who was willing to stand in that suffering with him, who spoke up against his and all suffering in the form of empire, evil, and totalitarianism. That criminal died knowing that Jesus was the epitome of compassion and welcome. And that was enough.
So our King Jesus is nothing like other royals. He’s not always the kind of king we want, for his his path is challenging and his strength is always nonviolent. But what he was, what he is, what he will be, is the Complete and Total Embodiment of Grace. God so loves this world, dear church! As faithful subjects in God’s kingdom, we are assured Jesus always cherishes us, calls us by name, and feeds us with his own royal body and blood for the sake of the world. As we reflect on this extravagant and unusual ruler, may our lives overflow with gratitude. And may that gratitude show itself in our bank accounts and our ballots, in our conduct and in our calendars. May we eagerly tend to those with whom Jesus identified, those for whom Jesus lived and died, and for the creation God cherishes. Let us persist daily in trying to become more like the King that we adore.
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