What Kind of King?
Luke 23: 33-43
The engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton this week notwithstanding, we don’t really think much about kings. Here in individualistic, democracy-loving America, kings mostly sound old-fashioned and quaint. Back in the old countries or the olden days, we lived with kings, but we have moved beyond that now. So it can be hard to figure out what we’re supposed to do with Christ the King Sunday.
It comes around each year as the final Sunday in the Christian year. Next week when we gather again after Thanksgiving, we could start the worship service by saying, “Happy New Year.” It will be the first shiny new Sunday of the next liturgical year, the first Sunday in Advent, the season where we start out again each year right from the beginning of our story with Christ.
But today is Christ the King, also called Reign of Christ. Here poised in this little half-week of classes with too many things on the to-do list, thoughts of Thursday’s feast tantalizing us, and thoughts of Advent and exams both exciting and torturing us – here we are trying to figure out what it means to celebrate Christ as King.
Liturgically speaking this Sunday is a relative newcomer, created in 1925 by the Roman Catholic church to show solidarity with Christians at that time who were living under anti-religious governments (www.gbod.org/worship). The church wanted to show that no matter what is happening in the world of politics and earthly rulers, no matter how much it seems that some other king or political leader or despot has control, Christ is the true king over everyone and everything. God is reconciling the whole world to Godself through Christ and, no matter how it may seem in a certain time or place, we can trust that this is true.
That’s a strange king we worship.
At the end of his time on earth, Luke tells us they took Jesus to a place with the attractive name of “The Skull” and nailed him on a cross, crucifixion style, right alongside two common criminals (Luke 23: 33). As Luke tells it in today’s reading, Jesus only says two things from the cross, so listen for them. As soon as he’s nailed up there he says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (v.34). Even though we just spent some time at Richmond Hill this weekend talking about forgiveness, this is still hard to hear. Jesus has just been nailed to a cross – his very real human body, not different from yours or mine. He is bleeding and in excruciating pain but the first thing from his mouth – unasked for – is forgiveness, bathed in understanding and mercy.
In response, the soldiers gamble to see who gets his clothes. People stand around, doing nothing, watching all this and clucking their tongues. They say Hmmph! I heard he saved all those people but let’s see him save himself – if he is who he says he is. Messiah, my foot! The soldiers take part in the mockery, Yeah, save yourself, if you are the King of the Jews. And they like the sound of that title so much, they nail it up on the cross above his head: “This is the King of the Jews” (vv. 34-38).
The criminals hanging with Jesus starts to argue. One says If you really are the Messiah save all three of us. The other one tells him to shut up, saying Don’t you have any respect for God? We’ve been rightly accused and sentenced but he never did anything wrong. And then that one asks, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” And here’s the only other thing Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (vv. 39-43).
From the pain and humiliation of the cross, this man with nails hammered through his body says two things: “Forgive them” and “Yes, you are in my kingdom.” The ironic “King of the Jews” title the soldiers slap up to mock him in that most un-king-like situation also affirms the truth of who Christ was and is: King of all (www.gbod.org/worship). This is not like the kings of England or Israel or Disney. This is not a powerful president or king, in the ways we like to think of and acquire power. This is a king who is completely within his kingdom – right there on the cross, offering mercy, forgiveness, and an invitation to life in the kingdom, turning the world upside down and rightside up all in one swift move.
This king looks weak by worldly standards but has the strength to offer forgiveness as he dies at the hands of the ones he forgives. This king heals the ones no one else wants to touch. This king promises to go after one lost sheep even when he has 99 safe and sound in the gate. This king offers the finest invitations into his kingdom to the prodigal son and the poor widow and the unwed teenage mother and the meek and the poor and the common criminal. This king offers us eternal and abundant life. All we have to do is follow where he leads.
Worshipping Christ the King is subversive, countercultural. Aligning ourselves with Christ as the Lord and King of our lives means that other people and things who want that primo spot can’t have it. Worshiping Christ the King means we give up worshiping other people and things. Aligning our lives like this means that they won’t make sense to everyone and some people will not have a clue what we’re about. And it means we have to constantly ask ourselves who and what we are worshiping, so we know when we have steered off course.
Who is king in your life?
Who are you really worshiping? What or whom is your life organized to pay honor to? Where does your money go? Your time? What relationships are you nurturing? As we head towards that Thursday feast and those famous “black” shopping days…as we head from the end of this year into a new Advent next week…as we wind down a semester during the slow, deliberate gestational season before Christmas…what does your life – even and especially life right now in this packed-full busy time – what does your life say about who and what you worship? Is Jesus your king afterall?
Thanks be to God!
© Deborah E. Lewis 2010