Sunday, November 24, 2019

Ser on for Christ the King

St Andrew’s, Carbondale--Luke 23:33–43, Colossians 1:11–20

A week from now, we’ll be able to say “Happy New Year” in church, right? Today is the final Sunday of the liturgical year, and next Sunday is the beginning of the new one, the beginning of Advent. Yet, even though we’re technically talking about two distinct church years in a repeating cycle, one leads smoothly into the next. The end of the old year is actually powerfully connected to the beginning of the new one. If you look in the Prayer Book, you won’t find any such season as “pre-Advent.” But, if you’ve paid close attention to the readings for the last two Sundays, as well as those for today, you’ve seen how the end of one liturgical year tees up the next one, with material from various sources about God bringing a conclusion to the long story that we live in the middle of. Some of it is direct, some of it is subtle, but it all points in the same direction. So, next Sunday is all about Jesus returning in power and great glory to judge the living and the dead. Then, we slingshot back in time to the prophecies of Isaiah about a coming Messiah, and the narratives about John the Baptist, who was Jesus’ advance man, all before an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and we slide on in to Christmas.

Today, as part of that unofficial pre-Advent season, is known, also unofficially, as the feast of Christ the King. We read him in the epistle to the Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
But when we look at the appointed gospel, it seems a little underwhelming, perhaps even disappointing. Three weeks from now, we’re going to have a gospel reading in which an imprisoned John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to inquire, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” John, remember, had prophesied a Messiah who was basically going to blow a lot of things up, and kick a lot of rear ends and take names. The only things he hears about Jesus doing are talking kindly to people and healing those who are sick. John’s question itself betrays a bit of disappointment. So now we have a gospel reading about a Jesus who’s been arrested, tried by the Jewish authorities, sentenced to death by the Roman governor, and then executed in an unimaginably cruel manner. In its own context, this snippet from the passion according to St Matthew doesn’t scream “Christ the King.” It’s part of a larger narrative that is foreboding, full of dark inevitability. Our first inclination is, understandably, to associate this sort of thing with Holy Week, and to hear it read publicly outside of that context feels more than a little bit jarring.

It might make a little bit more sense, though, when we look at any of the passion narratives through the lens of this present moment of liturgical time—that is, Christ the King Sunday. If we’re able to do that, the accounts of our Lord’s suffering and death take on a special character of meaning that is uniquely powerful in its own way. I would suggest that we might call it “sacred irony.” As he hangs on the cross, Jesus is arguably in his least kingly moment. Yet, it is in that manifestly unkingly moment that Christ is most evidently the King—not just incidentally, but precisely. It is precisely in his unkingliness that Christ is sdeen to be the king. It is in his abject vulnerability—a vulnerability that we know to be completely voluntary, not something forced on him—that his royal character is most clearly revealed. Indeed, we can say that it is at the foot of the cross, and only at the foot of the cross, that we can know Christ as King.

As he hangs on the cross in voluntary vulnerability, Jesus demonstrates his kingship in three distinct royal acts, acts that only a sovereign can perform.

Jesus’ first royal act is to invoke forgiveness on those who are doing him harm. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” A true and good king loves his people more than he loves himself. Literally as he is being put to death, Jesus’ concern is with the spiritual—we might even say the psychological—welfare of those whose job it is to carry out the deed. When they look back later on what they’ve done to him, he doesn’t want them to be crippled by remorse. He wants them to experience the grace and liberation that come from being forgiven.

Jesus’ second royal act is to endure mocking. Matthew tells us that “the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” Then, the soldiers placed an inscription over his head that mockingly identified him as “The King of the Jews” after they themselves had ridiculed him by saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Yet, both these acts of ridicule serve only to shine a light on Jesus’ kingship. A true and good king cares not for his own pride, or his own reputation. Jesus knew he had work to accomplish that day, and that work involved dying. He could have called down legions of angels to rescue him and incinerate his tormenters. But he was focused on his royal duty, and wasn’t going to let a little mocking and derision deter him.

Jesus’ third royal act is to grant entrance into his kingdom to the penitent thief. Two criminals were crucified on either side of him. One joined in the mocking; the other expressed remorse, and pleaded, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Only a king can grant entrance into his kingdom. And a true and good king welcomes those who approach that kingdom in humility.

It is only as we walk the way of the cross that we know ourselves to have been “transferred”—as St Paul writes to the Colossians—transferred to the kingdom of Christ. Christ is King for us, we walk the way of the cross, inasmuch as we imitate him—which is to say, inasmuch as we become his disciples and follow him. We follow Christ when imitate his kingly behavior from the cross. We are disciples of Christ the King when we forgive those who are harming us, loving others more than we are concerned about our own welfare. We follow Christ the King as we courageously endure ridicule, particularly if it comes as a consequence of our faithful witness. We imitate Christ the King as we extend ourselves in welcome to those whose lives ours intersect with, not just writing a check or handing them a plate of food, but when we look them in the eye and take a genuine interest in them, seeing another human being for whom Christ the King died on the cross.

I can think of no better way to close than with one more snippet from the epistle to the Colossians:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, [20] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Amen.

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