Year C, Proper 29: Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King Psalm 46 or Canticle 4 or 16; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
This is the last Sunday of this church year. Next week we begin the season of Advent, the season of anticipation and of waiting for the birth of the Christ child, and with the inception of that time-before-the-dawn season that is Advent, we will leave Year C and begin Year A, and go from readings based largely on Lukeâ€™s gospel to ones reliant, for the most part, on Matthewâ€™s.
Consequently this Last Sunday After Pentecost is, in some way, the crowning Sunday of the church year. It is also known as Christ the King Sunday, which may sound appropriately royal and majestic. So it may seem odd today to return to Good Friday and Jesusâ€™ execution. Luke describes a helpless man pinned with cruel, bloody spikes to a cross being slowly executed by order of the state. The only reference to his royalty is a mocking sign that proclaims him â€œthe King of the Jewsâ€.
But what kind of king is this?
The bystanders certainly regard him with no deference or awe–in fact, they feel very free to mock him. Even one of the other men dying this death by torture alongside him derides Jesus. Heâ€™s suffering, heâ€™s dying, just like any other man. If he is Godâ€™s anointed, the Messiah, the Christ, where is the evidence of Godâ€™s favour? What kind of king is this?
Not an earthly king, certainly. The child whose birth we will begin to look for again next week did not come to a palace. He was not lapped in purple silks and fed pomegranates and ices carried by runners from distant mountains. He was born in a stable to very simple folk. He worked with his hands, and he never had a proper place to lay his head.
What kind of king is this?
His courtiers were mostly fishermen and assorted other rag-tag and bobtail folk, including an unaccountable number of women. He consorted with the lame, the halt, the blind, the mad, the diseased, the rejected and the despised. He never carried so much as one coin, and he told the rich to give away their money. He told the poor that God was on their side, and he told everyone who would listen to love their enemeies and to do good to those who hated them. He turned all the categories of power upside down, and he underlined his intention by saying, at every possible point, â€œThe last will be first and the first will be last.â€Â
What kind of king is this?
If you were standing there watching him die, you might have thought you were seeing, not a kingly triumph, but bitter failure and defeat.
His only army had been the crowd that had waved branches and hailed him at his coming. The mob had, perhaps, seen this as a bid for power. A failed bid at power, efficiently crushed by the grinding machine that is Rome.Â For Judea is a Roman colony, and crucifixion is a Roman death, one reserved for rebels or political criminals. That is one reason that there is that sign over the cross: â€œThe King of the Jews.â€ The Roman message is crystal clear. In Roman eyes, any would-be messiah is a rebel and any rebel is an enemy of the Rome, and will be dealt with summarily and bloodily. The sign is not meant to honour him, but to crush him in his last hours, and to ruthlessly extinguish any flickering hopes his followers might still have nurtured.
What kind of king is this?
That is what the sneering spectators are asking. If this is the Lordâ€™s Messiah, what is he doing, bleeding, suffering, dying, naked and alone?
But this is the very moment of Jesusâ€™ kingship.
From first to last, he has turned upside-down every other category of power. God became flesh–not just weak, but baby-weak. But God became flesh to enter fully into human life, so that we might enter into the divine life. Christ the King is not a king of earthly power who stands over and against ordinary, common human life, but a king of heavenly power who accompanies us in every moment of our lives, who knows what it is to be human in all its guises and faces.
What they do not see is that our king is right there, right in the very heart of all human suffering and all loss, plunged into the profound depths of all human loneliness and wretchedness in this desolate and desolating dying and death. For it is precisely this death that seals and confirms Christâ€™s kingship. His self-giving life pours forth onto all.
And one of the two men dying with him sees Jesus as he is. Not as a failed king, but as the only true king that ever was. In the midst of his own suffering and agony he understands: Only a crucified Messiah can enter even the deepest of human abysses and lead us to safety and salvation, for Godâ€™s power is utterly the opposite of human power. Godâ€™s power is the power of love and peace and justice and beauty and self-giving. The Kingdom of Heaven could never be seized by force. A kingdom of peace and wholeness can not be created by acts of murder and vengeance.
The dying man confesses his faith in the last words he may have ever spoken when he gasps out: â€œJesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.â€
And the only true King answers: â€œTruly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.â€
So what kind of king is this?
A king whose victory is the greatest reversal of all, for this time, death itself has been reversed. A king who has thrown open the doors of the Kingdom. A king who asks us to invite him into our hearts, that he may dwell here with us, just as he invites each and all of us to bide in his kingdom with him, for all time and eternity.