When I first began looking at this text we were approaching Remembrance Sunday, and along with many others I watched as Her Majesty exercised some of the responsibilities of her office: in the Royal Albert Hall on the Saturday night and on the Sunday morning at the Cenotaph. I don’t know about you, but, state occasions apart – and not always then - royalty doesn’t have much of an impact on my daily life.
Nevertheless that theme of royalty stuck in my mind for this morning. When we come upon "Christ the King" in the church calendar, what are we to make of it? What does the metaphor of Christ as King mean in an age when, constitutional monarchies notwithstanding, we probably know more of fairy-tale, pampered royalty along the lines of Disney and Hans Christian Anderson?
On the other hand, depending on your cultural experiences, perhaps you associate royalty with despotic, distant, and exploitative leadership.
Remote or not, valued national asset or not as the modern monarchy might be, and, as an idea, contaminated by third world despots, conspiracy theories about Diana’s death, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, the State Opening of Parliament and Hello Magazine’s full colour edition on the latest Royal wedding, baptism or divorce, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if, Monarchist or Republican, we might not be a bit schizophrenic about the exact nature of monarchy!
Yet we are faced this morning with a passage deliberately chosen for this feast because of its royal theme: Jesus is referred to three times as King: by the soldiers at the cross, on the inscription nailed to the cross, and by the criminal asking to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom. Unless we live in one of the world’s three absolute monarchies, kings don’t mean much to us. Neither does calling Jesus our Prime Minister express what the Scriptures are talking about when they call Jesus a king. They are saying that he is the absolutely most important person in our lives.
Now there’s a challenge if ever I’ve heard one: Jesus as the most important person in my life – or not. Wow.
So, let’s remind ourselves of the context again: the opposition to Jesus has been building. Irritated by how the people love him, Jesus' enemies display their resistance to God's reign by their absolute ferocity. We’ve already heard in Chapter 20 that after "the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people". In Chapter 22, as Passover approached, we also heard how "The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people".
As Jesus now hangs dying, we, too, join the people who ironically hear the truth spoken in ignorant, sarcastic insults. "He saved others, let him save himself!" That, of course, is exactly the point of how Jesus is enacting God's reign of mercy, by not saving himself. But they are blind. Then they cite the heart of the Biblical story as accusations against Jesus: "If he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one."
The Romans were responsible for the inscription over Jesus' head: "This is the King of the Jews." and their soldiers mocked Jesus and all of Israel with this title. It was the title with which Pilate scorned Jesus and the title which King Herod Antipas desperately wanted for his own. The point of crucifixions was to humiliate "enemies of the Roman Order" in public displays of Roman clout, as if to say: "Look here, Judeans, this is the fate of all with pretensions to royal titles only Rome can award!" Ironically, the faithful know Jesus truly is the King of the Jews, but not because Rome said so. No, it is the title, "The Messiah of God" that carries the promise, because it is God who has chosen Jesus by anointing him with the Holy Spirit and with power. And God's "Messiah" or "King" exercises God's righteous reign of justice and mercy. So "the Messiah of God" is truly "the righteous one!"
Look ahead a few verses beyond this and notice in Luke's account how, when a Roman Centurion "saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, 'Certainly this man was innocent!'" Mark’s version has "Truly this man was God's Son". The Greek word that is translated "innocent" also means "righteous." Through the centuries, the Christian faithful have understood that the Centurion was not merely announcing they had executed an innocent person, but his words noted the ultimate defiance of God's reign, killing the righteous one, the Messiah of God.
Now this is a familiar story and, as we’ve seen, it is interwoven with royal references: king, Lord, reign, anointing and so on. But what are we to do with this passage now? I’m always reminded of the parable of the sower at this point in a sermon. How is each of us to respond to the passage, because it absolutely requires a response? Well, we’ve stood with the crowd as the events have unfolded but unlike the crowd we’ve the benefit of hindsight. We know what’s going to happen and we have some grasp of the theological implications of the sequence of events. Is the seed of this passage going to land on stony ground or is it going to land on the good ground and grow and flourish. At the end of that parable Jesus warned his listeners, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” That’s a constant challenge when we hear the gospel, however familiar the passage might be.
At the start I speculated whether such a familiar story would yield up new insights. It did for me and I’d like to share that with you.
My thought of the Kingship of Jesus focused on the royal quality of mercy, particularly as applied to the royal prerogative of the pardon. Let’s think for a moment of the two who were crucified with Jesus: one joins with the crowd and the religious authorities to insult and denigrate Jesus while the other asks for mercy, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
What was it that the penitent saw at that moment? Hardly Jesus in his glory, orb and sceptre in hand as he sat on his throne. We need to remember that this man saw Jesus at his lowest and most wretched: his glory had been ebbing away in Gethsemane and again before Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate; but it had now reached the utmost low-water mark. Stripped of his garments, and nailed to the cross, he was mocked by the local branch of rent-a-mob, and was dying in agony. Yet, while in that condition, emptied of all his glory, hung up as a spectacle of shame and on the verge of death, he achieved this marvellous deed of grace.
I don’t know about you but I’ve been desensitised to the utter awfulness of the crucifixion by its very familiarity. It wasn’t until I saw Mel Gibson’s excoriating film The Passion of the Christ that the true horror of it set in: it leaves nothing to the imagination in its graphic portrayal of Christ’s last hours. It was truly shocking and for me - despite the disgust - all the better for it. I needed to be reminded what Jesus went through.
However, for me, what makes this event memorable doesn’t just lie in the weakness of Christ at this moment of grace but that the criminal being crucified alongside him could perceive it. It is the fact that the dying man could see the Kingship of Jesus before his eyes. Put yourself in the place of the criminal who did not have the benefit of theological hindsight. Do you think at that point that you could perceive the Kingship of Jesus? Could you readily believe him to be the King of glory, who would soon come to his kingdom? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have. It was a very impressive faith which, at such a moment, could believe in Jesus as Lord and King.
And this is, surely, all the more remarkable because the man was in great pain himself, and at the point of death. It is not easy to exercise confidence in someone else when he is in as bad a state as you are.
I’ve no doubt that there are many in this congregation who have experienced significant suffering – disappointment, illness, bereavement and so on - and one of the things you’ll no doubt be able to warn those here who have yet to go through it is that when we are the subjects of acute suffering it is not easy to exhibit that level of faith we believe we possess at other times. Even so, this man, suffering as he did, and seeing Jesus in the same state, still believed and gained eternal life: it’s worthwhile remembering that this man who was Jesus's last companion on earth was his first companion in the Kingdom of God.
We need to be more like that man!
One of the great temptations for many Christians is to prefer a sugar coated Christianity – Christianity-Lite if you like, to accept the gift of salvation the King offers certainly, while eliminating the implications of this great call to discipleship. Our greatest temptation is that the cares and routines of this life can become more important than the Kingship of Jesus. Remember today’s passage is telling us that Jesus should be the most important thing in our lives. And so the business of family, friends, jobs, homes and hobbies – our own personal familiar routines - get in the way of our discipleship and therefore of Jesus’ mission to bring his kingdom closer.
I was going to say: our challenge as disciples is to join Jesus in his mission to bring the Kingdom of God closer, but actually, to extend the idea of Kingship, perhaps it would be good for a while to consider ourselves not so much as disciples of Jesus but as Subjects of the King. So our challenge as subjects of that King is to join him in his mission to bring the kingdom of God closer. Nothing more, nothing less. We follow Jesus not just as Saviour and King, but also as Role Model. We do it because he did it. That’s the challenge but I’m not coming with answers. If only! I have to face that same challenge and there’s a little passage from Philippians that exhorts us, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. I have to do it and you have to do it and there aren’t any answers because each of us is different. The prophet Micah put it very succinctly, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”. If we want generic guidelines to begin to work out our own salvation and bring God’s Kingdom closer, we could do a lot worse than to listen to Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”. If we are acting justly and loving mercy it will inform our politics, our attitudes, our motivations. We need to be in the vanguard following our role model. What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say? What would Jesus think? How would Jesus respond? It’s not trite at all: it’s the challenge.
Where do you stand on the issue of the international aid budget? On poverty? On human sexuality? On race, immigration and asylum seekers? On crime and punishment and so on? Why do you think the way you do on those topics? Has that view been shaped the values of our society and the news media or by Jesus’ values?
The man dying beside Jesus could have gone along with the crowd. How easy that would have been. He was surrounded by scoffers: it’s easy to swim with the current and hard to go against the stream. This man heard the priests, in their ignorance and pride, ridicule Jesus and the crowd join in. The other criminal was caught up in this mood and he scorned Jesus too. How easy it would have been to have gone with the flow, but his faith was not affected by his surroundings. He is a model for our discipleship.
In Matthews Gospel Jesus tells the story of the sheep and the goats and he concludes: What you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me… and whatever you did not do for the least of these you did not do for me. That is Jesus’ Kingdom in practice. How are we measuring up?
It is the Kingship of Jesus that allows us to be his disciples and it is not a despotic Kingship but a benign Kingship that gives us the responsibility and the freedom to join him in bringing that Kingdom to others.