33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Today marks Christ the King Sunday, also known as the Reign of Christ Sunday, and it is the last Sunday in the Christian year. Before I get into today’s scripture I thought I’d let you know just a little bit about what that means, in case you aren’t familiar. The Christian year includes several seasons you’ve probably heard about before: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pentecost, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time, which is not about being ordinary as in regular so much as it is ordinary in terms of ordering, because we go through these seasons like we do summer and winter and spring, and the scripture passages associated with each of these days help to order our lives.
The Christian year is the same length as the calendar year, but it does not begin on January 1. In fact, it begins next Sunday, which I think is appropriate as it is the first Sunday in Advent, the season in which we anticipate the birth of Jesus on Christmas morning. You know, our daughter Emmaline is nearing her first birthday here in about a month, and I think it is appropriate that the church year begins with the expectation of a child, because I will say that there are days in which I have trouble remembering anything before Emmaline came along. There’s sweetness in that kind of expectation. There’s hope.
But this Sunday is the last Sunday in the Christian year, and it is the day on which we celebrate Jesus as the lord of our lives, as our king, as our ultimate authority, and while that can be difficult to swallow some days, I think its ultimately a good thing, because I can’t think of anything more boring than a world in which I was allowed to be the ultimate authority, a life in which the things to which I paid ultimate tribute shifted depending on my mood.
Now, Christ the King is a newer holiday, less than a hundred years old. It was instituted by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in response to growing secularism and nationalism. People were forgetting that Jesus was the ultimate authority, and they were placing that mantle upon whatever popular thing came their way, usually involving the government as the great hope of humanity. Now, it seems we’re dealing with the second verse, same as the first. And yet it is the case that if Christ is truly Lord of my life, then nothing else can be. If Jesus is king, if Jesus is the most important thing, my bank account is not. If Jesus is king, my schedule is not. And if Jesus is king, the President of the United States is not.
I always have a little laugh this time of year anticipating the preaching of this sermon, because you can sort of tell who in the congregation are Republicans and who are Democrats by how earnestly a person nods when the preacher says, “if Jesus is king, the President of the United States is not.” It doesn’t matter which party is in power; the folks who constitute the opposition always seem to nod. And it’s kind of funny, but it is telling of the state of things when we are so energized by the notion that a politician we don’t like—whatever the party—is not the ultimate authority. I think we ought to remember that Jesus is king even when we’re perfectly happy with the President, you know, for that first fifteen to eighteen minutes after he or she takes office.
And in many ways, this is precisely the point, because the revolutionary thing about Christ being king is that nobody else is, nobody else has the power that Christ has, nobody else has the ultimate authority, not a President, not a governor, nobody. Now, I am not saying we shouldn’t respect those who have political power. Don’t quit paying your taxes, don’t quit voting, don’t quit pushing for the kind of legislation for which you think Jesus would advocate. I love politics. I was a political science major in college. I spent part of last week devouring a five hundred page account of the most recent Presidential campaign. I eat this stuff up, and I know that the government loves to remind us that they are in control. But they can say what they want, for I know who the king is.
It’s only natural, of course, for the governments under which we find ourselves to exert authority, which is why I wouldn’t suggest scribbling anything about Christ being king on your income tax returns. But for as relevant as this issue is today, it was only more urgent in Jesus’s day, when the idea of Jesus being king was quite literally a life and death issue. After all, there is no more powerful weapon in the authorities’ arsenal than the ability to kill. The only time it is legal to kill is when the government says is legal, and the Romans who were occupying Israel in Jesus’s day wielded this power like a club. The scripture lesson this morning is a perfect example of the use of this kind of power, because Jesus was guilty only of worrying the authorities, guilty only of challenging their authority and making their tenuous grasp on power a little less absolute.
The criminals on either side of Jesus, of course, were being executed for, you know, actual crimes. At least as far as the convention of the day went, they were getting what they deserved. But Jesus had done nothing wrong.
But killing Jesus wasn’t enough for the authorities. They wanted to make him seem like a fool, like a joke. So they inscribed the words “King of the Jews” on a piece of wood and hung it above this dying man, so as to remind everybody that the man who claimed to be the messiah didn’t even have enough authority to save his own life, so as to remind everybody that they were in control, for there is no greater weapon in the arsenal of the powerful than putting someone to death.
It’s enough to just make you want to cry out of utter helplessness. (. . .) I am reminded of this feeling whenever I hear that the appeals of a death row inmate have been exhausted, that feeling of helplessness, that feeling that there is nothing left to do but die. I can only imagine what the disciples must have felt as the scene unfolded, as they watched from a distance.
I don’t know about you, but if I’d been up there, if I had been innocent, I’d fight with everything I had to save my own life. Jesus didn’t deserve death. He didn’t deserve a slap on the wrist. And as he waited for death, how awful it must have been to have heard that taunt, the one that added insult to injury, as the authorities said with a sneer, “if he is the messiah of God, the chosen one, let him save himself.”
If I’d been up there, I’d have fought with everything I had. But Jesus doesn’t fight. Faced with death, faced with the most powerful tool that the so-called authorities had in their tool belt, Jesus speaks a sentence that is at once ridiculous under the circumstances and yet, somehow, more powerful than a death sentence: “Father, forgive, them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
“Forgive them.” “Forgive them!” The one who has come to redeem the world, the authority above all other authorities, the one we worship every Sunday does not react with a display of raw power, but with forgiveness.
I mean, I hope you don’t think this too blasphemous to say, but it almost looks weak. This guy says he’s the messiah, and even as he is killed, he speaks words of forgiveness. It runs up against every convention of masculinity we have in modern society. Father forgive them. Today, you will be with me in paradise, for not even death is strong enough to stand up to the love of Jesus Christ. Even the most powerful weapon is no match.
But if we are talking about weakness, it is through that weakness that Jesus shows strength, for what he offers is stronger than death, because even the cross cannot keep Jesus from using precious breath to offer forgiveness to those who are killing him.
The power of the cross is that as he hangs on it, Jesus does not use traditional power at all, and in the final analysis, he rips the traditional understanding of power to absolute shreds, just shreds it, in the name of forgiveness. This is the one we worship, the one we claim has absolute authority over our lives, above government, above everybody. And it is an ultimate authority whose fundamental nature is love and forgiveness, for I know who the king is.
I don’t know about you, but when I see the utter cruelty that humanity sometimes manages to display, when I see children hurt or whole swaths of people wiped out, when I think about how awful we can be to one another, I don’t think I could survive without that ultimate authority of love. I think I’d starve to death if I were only fed on a diet of earthly authority, of threat, of status quo at all costs. I think I’d just wither away and die if that’s all I had to live for.
But the promise of Christ the King is that even when we’re talking about the Nuclear Option in the United States senate, even when Presidential debates become more about zingers than about policy, even when it seems like nobody in power cares about the folks who sent them there, my ultimate authority is love, is forgiveness, for I know who the king is.
I’m almost done, but believe me when I say that there are days when forgiveness is something I hold on to white-knuckled, for it means that not only am I called to something much higher than scoring cheap political points, much higher than wielding death as a weapon, it means that God loves and forgives me, too, no matter what I have done, and I’ve not been immune from the lurid pleasure that comes from being cruel to others. What’s more, neither have you. Nobody, but nobody, is immune from moments of being cruel, but just as Christ the King calls us to a better way, so too does Jesus love us and forgive us, such that even if we’ve done something so awful as to be executed by the state, even that can’t keep us from paradise, for the one who stands at the gate does not brandish death like a weapon, but forgiveness like a gift.
You can’t vote for that kind of leader, and you won’t find him in a palace. But oh, how wonderful it is to be a citizen of the kingdom of God. How wonderful to be forgiven. How wonderful to be loved.