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How Christ Is King -- Luke 23:33-43 (Christ the King Sunday)

“Christ the King Sunday” – We have lots of images and names that we use when we talk about Jesus – Teacher, Savior, Emmanuel, Word, Wisdom, Son of God, the Human One, Alpha and Omega, Beloved. Of all the names that we have for Jesus, “King” – or “Christ the King” – is not one that you’re likely to hear a whole lot in progressive Christian churches like ours. And there are reasons for that.


“King” is an inherently masculine term. For far too long in Christianity, God and Christ have been imaged almost exclusively as male. In our worship, we want everyone to see themselves reflected in the image of God – across the full spectrum of gender – You are made in the image of God – whoever you are – so we do our best to use expansive and inclusive language for God – not language that is exclusively male.


“King” also carries with it a sense of hierarchy – of what we have been calling for the last few weeks “power over.” Kings are monarchs. And warmakers. And oppressors. In Jesus’ day and throughout history, really up until recent times, kings have exercised power overthe common folks – sometimes absolute power – and often through brute force – violence – and war.


Particularly with that sense of inherent power-over, using the word “King” for Jesus – in a Christian church that is aligned with the dominant culture – can be dangerous. Let me unpack that a bit. If a church already has a good bit of power-over – in a nation or a culture – if it’s part of the dominant culture – then saying that Jesus is King runs the risk of reinforcing that power-over and reinforcing the systems of domination. When those who already have some type of socio-economic power say “Christ Is King,” it can mean Christ Is King and on our side, at the expense of others, and most importantly, at the expense of the vulnerable.


Nations have said that to other nations in times of war – Christ is King and on our side, not yours! And millions have died. That type of theology has been used to justify things like “Manifest Destiny” – where white colonizers said, “Christ is King and he is calling us to move west and take the land from the people living there.” It is at work even now in white nationalist movements in this country – or any movement that claims American exceptionalism and power in the name of Jesus. We ought to be careful.


When I did a little research on “Christ the King Sunday,” I thought I would be saying to you that this is something we have celebrated since the early church – that it’s an ancient tradition like Advent or Lent. But, what I found is that “Christ the King Sunday” only dates back to 1925. Pope Pius XI declared it in the aftermath of World War I and with the rise of Mussolini. Interestingly, it was for reasons similar to what I’ve just laid out.[1] He looked around at the scorched earth that the kings of the world had left in the bloody trenches of WWI – and he established Christ the King Sunday so that we might remember that Christ -- the Prince of Peace – is King over every other king – and most of all over our warring madness.


For someone like me – who is white and American – it is healthy to be careful about how I – about how we – claim that Christ is King.


And, a couple of years ago, a good friend of mine invited me to reconsider my aversion to names like “King” for Jesus – to open it up a bit – particularly when we think of our life in multi-cultural community. The friend is Professor Yolanda Norton – professor of Hebrew scriptures at SFTS – and H. Eugene Farlough Chair of Black Church Studies. At the beginning of Black History Month two years ago, Professor Norton led a teach-in in chapel – focusing on how some words for God that white progressives avoid – are actually vital and essential in a Black Church context. One of the things she said was basically this: Folks who have been oppressed need to know that Jesus is King – that Jesus is king over every King – that Jesus is King over every power of oppression in the world. When we say Christ the King, with that in mind, we confess and affirm that Christ the King is at work now, coming to destroy every power that oppresses, and that Christ the King will be victorious in that work of liberation. We affirm that Christ the King is turning the world rightside up by dismantling every system of oppression and setting the whole world free.


All that is true. And then, we come to this morning’s scripture – the Scripture assigned this year for Christ the King Sunday – and we find Christ the King, hanging on the cross – and this Scripture speaks one more word about how Christ is King.


For the past four weeks, we’ve been thinking about how Jesus is turning the world rightside up. We’ve been travelling with Jesus as he has made his way to Jerusalem – as he’s made his way to the cross. We’ve watched as Jesus has gathered at table outcasts and sinners and tax collectors – as he’s denounced every system of power-over – as he has told his disciples to get ready for hard times – to get ready to testify and to persevere. And the powers of his day have reacted – the religious and the Roman leaders – they have had him arrested – he’s been convicted on trumped up charges – he’s been handed over to be crucified – beaten and mocked. And here we find Jesus on the cross.


They come to the hill called the Skull, and they crucify him with two criminals – two wrongdoers – one on his right, one on his left. The people just stand by and watch.

· The religious leaders ridicule him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself.”

· The soldiers mock him: “Aren’t you the King of the Jews? Save yourself.”

· Even one of the wrongdoers hanging with him reviles him, saying, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself, and us!”

They hang a sign over him that says: “King of the Jews.” And it’s clear – that what they are saying in their sadistic sarcasm is, “This is not what a king looks like.”


But then the second guy hanging there with Jesus speaks. He looks at the first guy – And the second guy says, “Stop. Just stop. Have you no shame? We’re here because of things we did. This guy is suffering all that we are – and he’s done nothing wrong. Just stop.” And then he turns to Jesus and says, “Jesus. Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus says, “Truly I tell you [actually in the Greek – that “truly I tell you” is the word Amen] – Jesus says, “Amen, I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise.”


We say that Jesus enters into the whole of human life with us – that he experiences in his life, all that we experience in ours – all the joys, all the hurts, all the sorrows. And here we have it. Jesus suffering with us. This moment with Jesus and the guy dying on the cross next to them – as they suffer together.


And notice first what the guy does – (and you may notice that I’m not calling him a criminal because I’ve become quite fond of him as I’ve worked with this scripture this week) – but this guy, dying on the cross with Jesus, turns to the first guy who is attacking Jesus, and he says, Stop. Just stop. He interrupts the violence. The violence here is non-stop – the religious leaders, the soldier, the first guy on the cross – but this second guy says stop. Hanging on a cross with Jesus, he stands between Jesus and the next blow.

And then he turns to Jesus, and he says, “Jesus” – he calls Jesus by name. While the rest of everybody is taunting Jesus, reviling him – this guy dignifies Jesus and calls him by name.


And then, this guy dying with Jesus on the cross, he sees Jesus – suffering on the cross – as someone who has a kingdom. And so he says, “Jesus, Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And that “Remember me” – in the Greek it has this sense of “bring me to mind” – “bring me to God’s mind” – or, I might say, “Hold me close in God’s heart.” He says, “Jesus, Remember me,” and Jesus says, “Amen.”


Dr. Howard Thurman writes in his book –Jesus and the Disinherited– that we can’t fully understand the life and teachings of Jesus if we don’t understand Jesus’ life first and foremost as a life lived for everyone whose back is up against the wall.[2] Thurman points out that Jesus was not a person who had any socio-economic power in his world, and his story is not written for our places of powerfulness. Thurman puts it like this: Jesus was a poor Jewish peasant. He had no power – certainly no power in the world of the Roman Empire. If a Roman soldier had pushed Jesus down into a ditch, he would have been just another poor Jewish peasant in a ditch.[3]


Jesus is King by crawling down into the deepest ditches of our world – into the deepest ditches of our lives – and abiding with us there. And that’s what we have here. Jesus and this guy – suffering together on the cross. Just the two of them – as the world around them scoffs and mocks and reviles and crucifies them.


And, together:

they say no to violence;

they see each other as fully human;

and they hold each other close in God’s heart

-- as the guy looks to Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus says, “Amen.”


The thing about these Good Friday stories is that we read them in 2019, knowing that the story goes on – we come to the cross – but we know – as did the folks who wrote them down – that Resurrection is right around the corner.


But as I was sitting with this Scripture this week, a question struck me and it struck me hard, and it is this: What if this is all there was? This moment on the cross. What if the camera stopped rolling here? What if the scribe put down her pen and closed the book here – in this moment on the cross? What if this is all there was? Would it be enough?

Well, I don’t know if it would be enough.

But it would be good.


It would be good, and kind, and decent, and loving, and tender, and merciful, full of grace and truth.


In a world of suffering, swirling with all manner of evil and violence, where so much around is so very bad, what we have here in this Scripture is this moment of goodness. Two people – one of them God – suffering in the fullness of their humanity – taking up for each other, seeing each other, and holding each other close in God’s heart. This moment of goodness in the midst of our deepest sorry, holding its breath and waiting, hoping for resurrection. It is a glimpse of how Christ is king.


Christ the King is turning the world rightside up by finding for each of us a place at the table.


Christ the King is turning the world rightside up by dismantling every power-over – every power in this world that pushes us down or holds us back.


Christ the King is turning the world rightside up by giving us voice to testify, and a story to tell, of where we see God’s liberating grace in the world.


And Christ the King is turning the world rightside up by crawling down into the ditch with us – into the fullness of our lives – by standing with everyone whose back is up against the wall.


I don’t know you well enough yet to know what the deep ditches in your life are. The pain, the ache. I know mine.


This Scripture says to us that in every part of life – including our deepest hurt – Jesus is present with us fully and completely, so that when we say, “Jesus remember me – Jesus hold me close in God’s heart – when you come into your kingdom.” The word we hear from Jesus is this: Amen.


To our prayer, from the ditch, from the cross, Jesus says, “Amen. May it be so for you and for me and for the whole world.”


© Scott Clark, 2019. All rights reserved.


[1]See QUAS PRIMAS, Encyclical of Pope Pius XI(1925), http://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_11121925_quas-primas.html; and UBI ARCANO DEI CONSILIO, Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ (1922), https://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19221223_ubi-arcano-dei-consilio.html Please note that, while these papal documents describe the kingdom of Christ in terms of peace, I find parts of them problematic, particularly as they suggest a power in the Church that resembles at times the power of worldly nations and kings.

[2]Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, Abingdon Press, 1949, pp. 11-35.

[3]Ibid., p. 31.

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