Monday, December 02, 2013

Christ the King?

Christ the King?
Lk 23:33-43[1]
  On this day when we remind ourselves of our faith that Christ reigns over us all, I can think of no more ironic way to do that than with a Gospel lesson that describes his death on the cross!  Kings don’t get dragged before their subjects, who throw all kinds of false accusations at them.  Kings don’t allow themselves to be spat upon and mocked and beaten.  Kings don’t wind up being executed by means of one of the cruelest punishments ever devised by humankind.  They are the ones who are usually doling out that kind of thing.  And on the rare occasion when a King or any other powerful person is publicly humiliated, that’s pretty much the end of it.  But here we are, on this Sunday when we celebrate our faith that Christ is reigning over us all, reading the “good news” of his death on the cross.
  The irony in this has raised questions since the day Jesus faced that ultimate test--especially for people who look at Jesus’ life and ask what he actually accomplished.  He gathered some disciples.  He stirred up the Jewish leadership.  And he got himself killed in the end.  And while he’s hanging there on that cross, vulnerable, showing all the weakness of humanity, some in the crowd ask the question that has been asked throughout the centuries: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (Lk 23:35).[2]  In the light of Jesus’ humiliating death, many have asked what a Jewish reformer from the First Century can do to make my life any better in the Twenty-First Century?  And many have concluded that a man who was executed as a common criminal may have had some fine ideals, but he really can’t do anything for us in this day and time.
  But that would be to miss some important signs that point us to the reign of Christ, even in this passage that apparently presents Jesus at his weakest.  One thing we need to notice is that in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems to know exactly what he’s doing and how it’s going to turn out.  Hanging on the cross, he has the presence of mind to respond to his hecklers by saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). And when Jesus dies, he simply says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). Jesus gives up his life calmly and intentionally.[3]
  But there’s another detail in this text that is easy to miss.  While Jesus is hanging on the cross, seemingly undergoing the ultimate humiliation, even one of the criminals who was hanging there with him cursed him for not being able to climb down from the cross and save them all. But the other one saw something that many of those who witnessed this event missed.  He saw that Jesus was who he had claimed to be, and that there truly was something about this man that set him apart.  And so he took an amazing step of faith: hanging there on a cross, he looked at Jesus and asked, “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42).  How or why he had the faith to see Jesus hanging on the cross and to believe that one day Jesus would indeed come into his reign, we may never know.  And Jesus’ response was astonishing, if you think about the circumstances.  There he was, having been beaten, having been humiliated by some of the Jewish leaders, having been strung up to die by the Roman empire.  And he said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43)![4] 
  If you think about it, there was nothing about the situation that would have made anybody believe such an incredible claim.  And yet Jesus made that claim: today you will be with me in Paradise.  The unnamed criminal leaves his request open: “when you come into your kingdom, remember me.”  He expresses faith, but he’s not pinning Jesus down to anything specific.  But Jesus makes that astonishing claim any way: “Today,” not at some indistinct point in the future.  “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”[5] 
  Despite the irony, I think it is ultimately fitting to remind ourselves that Christ reigns over us all with this story, because his death on the cross defined the way in which he exercises that reign.  As one of our confessions puts it, “He was the Lord who took the form of a servant; he perfected royal power in weakness. With no sword but the sword of righteousness, and no power but the power of love, Christ defeated sin, evil and death by reigning from the cross.”[6]  The reality is that the only way for Christ’s reign of true justice to be established in this world that is so filled with injustice was through the path of the cross.[7]  But his cross also led to his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God, where he was exalted, as St. Paul puts it, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Eph. 1:21).

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/24/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Paul D. Duke, “Calling Forth the Kingdom” The Christian Century (Nov. 8, 1995): 1043, “To be sure, the word ‘king’ flies all around him, but only as the punchline of a joke.”
[3] Eugene C. Kreider, “The Politics of God: The Way to the Cross,” Word & World 6 (Fall 1986): 461: “So the Messiah dies, but not an ignominious death. Jesus the Messiah of God, the Chosen One, dies as king whose way to the cross was the way of God's freedom and determination set in the world.”
[4] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 274: “Three times he has been mocked with , ‘Save yourself,’ ... . Here Jesus does save someone, and that the one who is saved is a dying criminal” is consistent with the way Jesus carried out his whole ministry. “In his own dying hour, Jesus continues his ministry: ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’ (19:10).”  Cf. also Duke, “Calling Forth the Kingom,” 1043: “With that utterance, the Sovereignty suddenly grows visible. It's as if the air around the naked Jesus trembles, revealing him wrapped in brilliant, regal light.”
[5] Cf. Duke, “Calling Forth The Kingdom,” 1043: “As requests go, ‘Remember me when . . .’ is modest; but Jesus replies with extravagant majesty. Sovereign of more than his petitioner can dream, he grants him the whole green garden of God.”
[6] The Study Catechism, question 41.  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 102, where he says that when we celebrate Christ as “king” it represents “the most radical reversal of the ideal of rule that can be conceived.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 110: “There are no miracles on the road of his passion. On the cross he dies in forsakenness by God and man. Or is this the greatest of all the miracles, the all-embracing healing? ‘He bore our sicknesses and took upon himself our pains … and through his wounds we are healed’ (Isa. 53:4, 5). This was how the gospels saw it. So Jesus heals not only through ‘power’ and ‘authority’ but also through his suffering and helplessness.”

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