By The Rev. Sherry Deets
27 Pentecost, Proper 29 – November 24, 2013
So, this is the last Sunday in the church season of Pentecost and it is called Christ the King Sunday. The Biblical titles of Jesus Son of God, Messiah, and King have been so thoroughly absorbed as words for church and worship that their simple, earthly force is largely lost. Jesus’ crucifixion, however, did not occur on an altar between two candles, but outside the city between two convicts on a dismal executioner’s hill, called “The Skull.” The Gospel is the story of how Jesus, the Messiah of God, brought God’s reign of justice and mercy to earth, and Luke’s account presents the crucified Messiah enacting God’s reign, surrounded by mocking, brutal violence.
Using the term “king” to describe Jesus threatens to miss the whole point of the gospel because of the way “king” plays to a static sense of order rather than a dynamic sense of God’s rule on earth. The kingdom of God is not simply about supplanting an earthly ruler with a heavenly one. In proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, Jesus was not advocating regime change. Rather, Jesus was announcing the advent of an entirely different way of being in relationship with each other and with God. It’s not the ruler that changes, but the realm in which we live.
This makes matters a little more complicated. If proclaiming Christos Kyrios — “Christ is Lord,” the earliest Christian confession — meant simply giving our allegiance to a different ruler, then most of our lives could remain untouched. As long as we didn’t swear allegiance to some Caesar or king, that is, we could more or less conduct business as usual and conceive of faith as a largely private affair. But the kingdom — or, maybe better, realm — of God that Jesus proclaims represents a whole new reality where nothing is the same — not our relationships or rules, not our view of self or others, not our priorities or principles — nothing. Everything we thought we knew about kings and kingdoms, in fact, gets turned right on its head.
An entirely new reality, of course, is difficult to conceptualize. I think that’s probably why Jesus gives greatest expression to what the realm of God will be like through parables. Parables don’t pretend to correspond to reality directly. They are regularly outrageous, exaggerated, humorous, and almost always have a hidden trap door that only drops open a little while after the telling. Parables get at reality sideways, disrupting our sensibilities and overturning our conventions in order to point to how it will be in the new realm and reign of God.
So we get a glimpse of the kind of king Christ will be in the story of the audaciously, even offensively generous employer who defies all conceptions of fair play by paying both those who have been working all day and those who labored just a few hours the same. We get some sense of shape of the new “relational calculus” that will be operative in this realm in the tale of the father who humiliates himself again and again by running after both this wayward and legalistic sons. We get a hint of what will be expected of us in the yarn about the wounded man overlooked by the best and brightest only to be tended by the despised foreigner. Glimpses only, perhaps, but enough to know that everything in the realm of God will be different.
Further, the realm of God over which Christ is king is not lurking somewhere “out there.” It is already here among us, proclaimed by Christ’s preaching and made manifest in his death and resurrection. Yes, some future consummation may await us, yet the new realm is also already here, in our very midst. That means, of course, that we presently live in both realms, citizens of this world and citizens of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated. I can understand why some would push Jesus’ realm into the future while others would retreat from the one we’re in. Either extreme is simpler than holding — and living in — the tension, the paradox, of living in two worlds. Much of our life is governed by the rules of this world, rules that while they can be improved will never fully usher in the justice, the equity, the shalom that God has promised. At the same time, having had a glimpse of the realm Jesus describes, we can never be satisfied with the way things are, never deterred from emulating, even actualizing, the kingdom of God in our midst.
Little wonder, then, that this understanding of “the kingdom of God” hasn’t taken hold. If we believe that Christian faith isn’t just allegiance to a different sovereign but rather is entrance into an entirely new realm, then who knows what God will expect from us. No longer can we keep our faith a private affair and ignore the need of our neighbor. No longer can we sing robust and rousing hymns about God’s glory and majesty and ignore the plight of God’s good earth. No longer can we pray that God’s kingdom come and yet manage our wealth as if it actually belonged — rather than was entrusted — to us. And no longer can we relegate the realm of God to a comfortably distant — or for that matter frighteningly near — future. The realm and rule of God is all around us, beckoning us to live by its vision and values even now.
Which is where today’s reading from Luke comes in. Jesus is on the cross. It’s not the place you’d look for a king, but then again, nothing is ever quite what you expect with Jesus. He’s in between two criminals. One joins the soldiers and religious authorities who jeer him. The other, however, intervenes, protests Jesus innocence, and asks that Jesus remember him when he comes into his kingdom. It’s a humble request, when you think about it. He asks neither to be rescued from this plight nor revenged for his suffering. Rather, he wants only to be remembered, to not be forgotten. And how does Jesus respond? He exceeds even the criminal’s wildest expectations, declaring that today, even now, he would enter with Jesus into paradise.
What kind of king is this, who welcomes a criminal into his realm and promises relief and release amid obvious agony? It is a king who refuses to conform to the expectations of this world, who will be governed neither by its limited vision of worthiness nor its truncated understanding of justice. It is a king who is not content to rule from afar, but rather comes to meet us in our weakness and need. It is a king willing to embrace all, forgive all, redeem all, because that is his deepest and truest nature. It is, finally, our king, come to usher us into his kingdom even as he implores us to recognize and make more manifest that kingdom already around us.
From birth through death, and from resurrection to life eternal, Jesus is with us holding all things together as we pray come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
(Sermon based on the writing of David Lose – Working Preacher)
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