Today’s sermon is posted on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
I’m always amazed at just how quickly November arrives. It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating Mardi Gras and preparing for Lent. Now, here we are at the end of the church year, once again celebrating the Feast of Christ the King. Well, celebrating might not be the best word to use here in Year C when our Gospel lesson comes from Good Friday. As we close out the church year and ponder what it means to call Jesus the King of kings and Lord of lords, this year, we do so with the stark reality of his death at the hands of Rome and the complicity of the Jewish leadership right in our faces. It makes me wonder, in light of Good Friday, is Jesus the kind of king we want, or the one we need?
Questions about Jesus’ kingship are particularly difficult to answer for us 21st century Americans because our understanding of kings and queens are based mostly on history books and British tabloids. While we might admire Queen Elizabeth II for her long reign in England, her monarchy is very different from the role of kings and queens historically. Her’s is a constitutional monarchy: she rules with the help of an elected Parliament and Prime Minister. This sort of power sharing has not always been the case. More common throughout history is the absolute monarchy, a situation in which the king or queen is the sole ruling authority in the land. In the Bible, we hear the story of Pharaoh in Egypt as an absolute monarch. Sol, David, Solomon and the other kings of Israel and Judah were the same. In Jesus’ time, Augustus and Tiberius, while technically Roman Emperors, served with the same sort of iron fist that we tend to think of with the absolute kingships of folks like Henry VIII of England and Louis XIV of France.
When the mocking soldiers called up to Jesus on the cross and said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” they had a particular image of kingship in mind. When the religious leaders laughed at Jesus and said, “If he is the Anointed One of God [a royal title if I’ve ever heard one] let him save himself” they had a particular image of kingship in mind. When one criminal derided Jesus and asked, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us” he had a particular image of kingship in mind. All these were expecting the King of the Jews, the Anointed One, the Messiah, to be a man of power, arriving with a great army who would overthrow Rome and bring about the peace that Jerusalem had lacked for so long. They expected a king like those they had known, men who ruled with power and might, horse and rider, sword and shield.
The truth of the matter is that Jesus was and is a different kind of king. That he was the King of the Jews, there is no doubt. He is the Messiah. He is the Anointed One of God, but his kingship is unlike anything the world has ever seen. His throne is not made of gold. It does not sit in the throne room of a palace built from marble, exotic woods, and precious metals. Instead, as Luke’s Passion Narrative so skillfully suggests, Jesus’ throne is two roughhewn wood planks, formed into the shape of a cross. He doesn’t sit on his throne in luxury, but rather hangs from it in agonizing pain. Yet from this throne, wearing a crown of thorns instead of gold, Jesus makes two royal proclamations.
The first comes immediately after he had been nailed to the cross and raised into the posture of his death. Jesus looked upon the crowd around him. He sees the soldiers, who have beaten him, ridiculed him, nailed him to a tree, and will cast lots for his clothing. He sees the religious leaders, who have lied under oath, conspired with one of his closest companions, worked for months to trap him in his own words, whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and now watch approvingly as he suffers for all the world to see. He sees the crowd that just a few days ago welcomed him to town as a king, laying palm branches and cloaks along the road as they shouted out praises; the same crowd that had just that morning cried out for the release of Barabbas and shouted down Herod with chants of “Crucify him! Crucify Him!” the same crowd that is now getting what they thought they wanted. Noticeably absent are his disciples, his closest followers, those who have seen his miracles, heard his teaching, and who first called him Messiah and Lord; they are hiding a safe distance away for fear that they might be next. To all of them, there on the hill called the skull and those cowering in fear far away, Jesus declares pardon, saying “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus’ first official act as the King upon his throne was to declare absolution to all those who played a role in his death. He forgives those who were actively involved like the soldiers, Pilate, and the Pharisees, and those who were passively involved like his disciples and the crowd. Jesus Christ, the King of kings, leads through forgiveness.
His second proclamation happens later in the day. After Jesus had hung there for hours under a sign that read “The King of the Jews,” one of the criminals being crucified beside him had the courage to ask for favor from his king. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” After hours of “if” statements, challenging Jesus to be the sort of king others wanted him to be, one man, convicted of a crime punishable by death on a cross, was willing to speak the truth. Jesus responds with his second royal proclamation, promising salvation to the thief who believed. “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus Christ will not be the type of king the world wants him to be, but instead, he is the king that we need him to be. A king who leads through forgiveness, and as his second proclamation makes clear, offers salvation to anyone who asks for it, even and maybe even especially those who are well outside the bounds of proper society.
In his final moments and in the face of a shocking amount of doubt and derision, Jesus was able to assert his kingship by welcoming this outsider, this criminal, into his kingdom based on only one criterion: faith. This unnamed criminal had faith that Jesus was the King of the Jews, and that was all he needed to gain entrance into the Kingdom
Jesus is certainly not the kind of king the world expected him to be. He led through forgiveness. He offered salvation to the criminals, tax collectors, and sinners. He refused to come down from the cross because he knew that the only way for him to exercise his kingship was through obedience unto death. By not saving himself, he saved the whole world, and made paradise available for everyone: male and female; Jew and Gentile; slave and free; just and unjust. From his throne of torture, Christ the King declares forgiveness for the whole world, setting us free from our bondage to sin to live and serve in his kingdom of love and compassion. Thanks be to God Jesus isn’t the sort of king the world wants, but is exactly the king we need. Amen.