A Different Kind of King
A Sermon on "Christ the King Sunday" (the last Sunday before Advent)
This past week, the royals, as they are sometimes called, were in the news. Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, is the man who will be the next King of England. Interviewed at his summer home, the castle of May, he talked about his sons, both of whom are in the military and one of whom, Harry, was making news of his own, with the announcement of his engagement to be married. Prince Charles also spoke of what he called "natural capital" and his urgent sense of our need to care for all of creation and to steward the gifts nature gives to our global economy. His deep and genuine concern for what our prayer book calls "this fragile earth, our island home" (p. 370); his love for his sons; his hope for the future - all of this struck me. This is a man who will be king of England on the death of Queen Elizabeth, his mother, a man who has survived the death of his wife, Princess Diana. This is a man who will be a different kind of king.
Jesus was also a different kind of king. But he wasn't just "concerned" about the world. He came to save and to heal the world. He came to proclaim God's love and forgiveness to all people. And he did this, one person at a time.
In today's familiar Gospel account (Luke 23:33-43) we hear the story of the end of Jesus' life on earth. A solitary figure, he hangs on the cross. But he is not alone. Two criminals are also crucified alongside him, one on his right and one on his left. And King Jesus speaks and does some things no one expects. "Father, forgive them," he prays in the midst of the pain of death. "They do not know what they are doing." It's true. The bystanders watching this drama don't know what they are doing. The scoffing leaders and the mocking soldiers don't know what they are doing. And one of the crucified criminals doesn't know what he is doing either. "Are you not the Messiah," the savior of the world? "Save yourself," he says, echoing the soldiers, and then adds, "and (save) us."
If we are honest, we will admit that, much of the time, we, too, don't know what we are doing or saying. We don't know how our behavior impacts the lives of others, for good or for ill. We don't know how the words we speak, or the ways in which we speak them can do lasting damage to someone else's soul. We don't stop to reflect. We don't respond appropriately. We just react. We just say things, without examining our motives or our feelings. Maybe we human beings just don't want to do the hard work to which Jesus calls us, the work of self-examination and repentance. Before we accuse others, we aren't ready or willing, so much of the time, to take a good look at ourselves.
But the second criminal does. He takes a look at his life at the end of his life. He speaks truth to the first criminal. "Do you not fear God? You are under the same sentence of condemnation." You are going to die, too, the second criminal says, just like me, just like Jesus. And then he speaks words to Jesus which have become the refrain of a chant from the community of Taize: "Jesus, remember me / when you come into your kingdom." Jesus is a different kind of king, ruling over a different kind of kingdom. It is, we might say, a kin(g)dom, a reign in which all men and women and children, all God's creation are kin to one another. Jesus comes, not just to be our king but also our kin. He even comes as a baby, showing us how to become brother and sister, siblings to one another.
Jesus was a different kind of king. He came "not to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:45). He challenged the unjust treatment of women. He preached the need for patience with children. He accused the religious leaders of his day of being narrow-minded and judgmental. His ministry was controversial, powerful, world-altering . . . and terribly threatening. And those whom he threatened the most condemned him to death. It's a startling, unexpected and even repulsive image of kinship and kindom, to see King Jesus up there on that cross, alongside his brothers in crucifixion, fellow human beings who just happen to be criminals. What a terrible way to make a point! And the point is this: no matter what our sin might be, no matter what we have done or left undone, we are forgiven - if we want to be, if we stop, look at and listen to Jesus. We may not be criminals. But we are all certainly sinners.
Today, Jesus is still forgiving and saving and healing the world. Jesus is still proclaiming God's love. He is still saying, "You are forgiven," one person at a time. Are you that one person today? Are you ready, willing and able to receive the love of God, the forgiveness of Jesus? Are you prepared for paradise?