Monday, November 22, 2010

SERMON: Christ the King

The Three Crosses
by Pieter Pauwel Rubens (1620)
Date: November 21, 2010
Sermon Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

[Introduction] Today we celebrate the final Sunday of the liturgical year: Christ the King Sunday. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. A week from today, Christians will be able to say to one another, “Happy New Year!” and mean it. We Christians have our own calendar and celebrate our own feasts as a way of expressing the world’s deepest truth: Christ really is the King. He is king not only of our lives but of the whole world.

[Page 1] Turning to our readings today, we can see that this idea that Jesus is king is not what the world thought. Our passage from Luke’s Gospel begins with the clang, clang, clang of stakes being driven into wooden beams. The text says, “When 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” (Lk 23:33). As Jesus hangs naked on the cross with a crown of thorns on his head, those who crucified him stand around. They are the leaders of Jesus’ world. On the one side, there are the religious leaders of his nation. They, the shepherds of God’s people, scoff at Jesus: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” On the other side, there are the Roman soldiers. They, too, mock the bleeding Jesus: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even one of the criminals hanging beside Jesus derides the broken man: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” And, even though the sign above Jesus’ head reads “This is the King of the Jews,” there is no doubt in the gathered crowds’ minds that he is no such thing. The whole world is gathered around Jesus on the cross. From the lowest criminal to the highest religious and political authorities in Jesus’ world, the whole world rejects Jesus as king.

And it is not just the world we see that rejects Jesus. The forces of Evil are there as well, the things that St. Paul calls in today’s epistle “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers.” They, too, stand against the Holy One. In and through the Jewish and Roman authorities, Evil spits on Jesus and mocks him. Evil does its worst. From humans to the spiritual forces in the heavenly places, the whole world rejects Jesus as king. 

[Page 2] We live in a time very different from Jesus’ time, but some things stay the same. Our world still lives like Jesus is not the king.

One need only look at the 20th century to see intense and systematic brutality perpetrated by people just like you and me. The power of Evil is still strong in our world. It grasps us and points us in destructive directions. Our political and sometimes even our religious leaders lead us in paths not marked by peace. We ourselves find it easy to live as though Jesus was not the king, as if it was enough to come to this place, receive Communion, and go on our merry way. Even we, you and I, sometimes live like Jesus is not the king.

Why? I think it is because that we don’t think about it much. We are more used to Jesus the Prophet and the Priest than we are used to Jesus the King. Jesus the Prophet teaches us. We hear from his lips the Sermon on the Mount. We hear him telling us to call God “Abba, Father” like he did. He teaches us to love our neighbors and pray for those who persecute us. We are used to Jesus the Prophet.

We are also used to Jesus the Priest. He lays down his life for us. He sits at the Father’s right hand and prays for us. We rehearse Jesus’ priestly action every week during the Eucharist. He lays down his life so that we might live. We are used to Jesus the Priest.

But, Jesus the King? We struggle here. We are okay with Jesus the Prophet, because we can take what he says or leave it. We are okay with Jesus the Priest who saves us, because that only demands that we accept his love. Jesus the King is a different matter. The Kingly Jesus does not demand merely a part of our attention or merely warm feelings toward him. The Kingly Jesus demands our whole lives. 

The Roman Soldiers could not accept Jesus as King because they already had a king. We are the same. Their king was Caesar. Who is ours? The religious leaders could not accept Jesus as King because they had power that they wanted to protect. We are the same. Their power-base was the Temple. What is ours? The criminal next to Jesus on the cross could not accept Jesus as King because all he wanted to do was save his life. We are the same. We sometimes cannot accept Jesus as King because we have a life we want to save: our very own. 

And so we find ourselves around that cross, crying with the crowd of priests and soldiers and criminals, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”

[Page 3] Even though on that hill the whole world denied that Jesus is King, there is one person in our Gospel lesson that hopes for something different. When the criminal hanging next to Jesus derides him, the other speaks up: “‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’” The people surrounding the cross hear the words. All they can see is that there is an argument going on among the crosses. The second criminal calls the first to account, “Do you not fear God?” But then, the argument ends and the second criminal turns to Jesus. He says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’.” 

All three crosses are on the hill. They each carry a man. The cross in the centre carries a sign that reads, “This is the King of the Jews.” The man on that cross wears a crown. Though naked, he turns to the criminal with royal dignity and says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

And then something changes in the world. St. Paul’s words ring out, “through Jesus God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things . . . by making peace through the blood of his cross.” What was the moment before simply an instrument of death is suddenly transformed by Jesus into a royal throne. Dressed in the royal garments of humility and sacrifice, Jesus the King gives verdict for the criminal: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” And without saying another word, he also gives verdict for the whole world: “Behold, I make all things new.” Even though the leaders of the world rejected Jesus as King, Jesus shows them that even in death itself, he is the King for whom they had been waiting. It was precisely how St. Paul described it: “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” In Jesus the reconciling King, God was bringing the whole world, starting with this one criminal, back to himself. 

[Page 4] In Jesus the reconciling King, God IS bringing the world back to himself. You and I have the advantage of hindsight. We know that three days after Jesus’ death, God raised him from the dead. God would not let his Chosen One see decay, as the psalmist said. God vindicated Jesus’ Kingship once and for all. 

And Jesus continues his reign. The Bible tells us that after 40 days of living a resurrected life on the earth, he went with his body and soul into heaven. From there he rules heaven and earth. In heaven, his Kingship is undisputed. On earth, his reign is coming. In the meantime, he has left outposts of his kingdom’s citizens on the earth. Those outposts are the Church. In the Church, Jesus the King is reconciling the world to himself through the work his people do in the power of Jesus’ Holy Spirit. Christians, therefore, are Christ the King’s royal messengers.

There are two ways that we live as Christ’s royal messengers: worship and mission. In the first place, we worship Jesus because he is King. We worship him because, as St. Paul says, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” in him. We come here every week to meet the King of all Kings and the Lord of all Lords. Is it any wonder that we do so much bowing and kneeling in here? Every time we do that, we are acknowledging with our bodies, even if we sometimes forget in our hearts and minds, that Jesus is King. And when we kneel at the altar and cup our hands to receive the Bread and Wine, we join with the criminal in saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus, the King, responds, “You will be with me in paradise.”

Worshipping Jesus as King is not the end, though. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus the King gives a royal commission to go out into the world, to make disciples of all nations, to offer baptism and to teach all that Jesus commanded. Every baptized Christian has this royal commission. It is our life’s work. Some of us are called by this commission to be bishops, priests, or deacons. Others of us are called by this commission to bring a cup of cold water to the poor. And others of us, some of you present here today, are called by this commission to go out from your local parish bringing Jesus’ reconciling love to those  who need it the most. This is why in a few moments, we will commission our lay pastoral visitors. They have their job because Jesus is King. In a few moments, we will pray over them as a sign of Jesus’ royal commission for their work. And they will go out from here as ambassadors of God’s kingdom to all of us who are hurt, alone, weak, and in need of prayer.

Where is Jesus the King taking you? How is he calling you into worship and mission? Is it through baptism or confirmation? Is it through joining a small group or volunteering to read or pray in the service? Is it through finding a way to use your gifts to help those in need in our community? Whatever the specifics are for you, this is a fact: Jesus the King is calling you out of yourself into a fuller, deeper, more joyful life. May we each have the grace not only to come in and worship our Lord but also to go out into the world as the royal messengers of Jesus Christ the King.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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