Christ, King, Cross (sermon)

Proper 29C
Christ the King Sunday
Luke 23:33-43

Let us pray.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be faithful and fruitful in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

I confess: my first reaction when I read the gospel text for this week was, “Pastor Tom obviously copied down the wrong gospel reading for this week.”  Don’t get me wrong—I was charitable about it. I thought maybe Pastor Tom had gone to look up the lessons for Christ the King Sunday, you know…
…the Sunday when we celebrate God’s reign over all of us…
…the festival when we look forward to the end of the ages when Jesus will come to reign in the fullness of his glory…
…the day of white paraments and triumphal hymns about God’s majesty…

…and accidentally opened up to the table of readings for Lent instead.  Easy mistake.  Anyone could make it.

When I ran that reaction by the Roundtable Pulpit this week, I learned that I wasn’t alone.  We all had a similar reaction: some cognitive dissonance with using Luke’s account of the crucifixion to illustrate Jesus’ kingliness.  And that makes sense: as a culture, we have a very specific idea of what kingship looks like. Of what authority and power and rule look like.

And what’s more, we have no problem with transferring those cultural images of “kingship” onto Jesus.

You know what you don’t see when you Google images for “Christ the king?”  Jesus on the cross.  The cross just doesn’t fit into our collective imagination of Jesus as King.

And this isn’t just our reaction. Look at all the people who mocked Jesus in today’s gospel—the leaders, the soldiers, even one of the criminals who hung beside him.  “If you’re the king of the Jews, save yourself!” they say to Jesus.  Their message is clear: real power, real authority, wouldn’t allow itself to suffer crucifixion.  A real king wouldn’t be found anywhere near a cross, much less on one.

Even in America, where we haven’t historically embraced the idea of kings, we love the idea of a powerful Jesus.  We have to tweak that “king” imagery a little bit in the our American Christian imagination, though.  We don’t have kings here, but we have comic books.

I did not make this up.  Not only did I not have to make this up, I had a choice of images.  Robert Capon writes this description of Jesus in his book, Hunting the Divine Fox:

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s Superman!

Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way. Jesus — gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than‑human insides — bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven. It’s got it all — including, just so you shouldn’t miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane.

But all of this is exactly why brains smarter than mine chose this text to be read on Christ the King Sunday.

Trying to see Christ the King in the Jesus on the cross might cause a little trouble, but according to the apostle Paul, that’s exactly God’s point.  In 1 Corinthians Paul writes:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, … to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one* might boast in the presence of God.

God chose what is foolish in this world.  God put on flesh, and became fully human, and submitted to every part of that experience, even death.  And at the heart of our Christian proclamation is that becoming fully human and fully divine, even to the point of death on the cross, is God’s most profound act of self-revelation!

In other words, God isn’t revealed like this:

But in this:

And that rebels against every particle of common sense we have.  To pick up Robert Capon’s train of thought again:

The human race is, was and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. We don’t want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. …. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying.

The question for us on Christ the King Sunday is not “Is Jesus King?”  The question is, “Can you see Jesus as king when he stays on the cross until he is dead?”  Can we be like the thief who had faith enough to confess his own brokenness and then say to a dying man, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom?”

Matthias Grunewald: a Renaissance artist who was totally gross and totally awesome at the same time. This is a detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted for a monastery that specialized in hospital work, especially skin diseases.

Can you see Jesus as king in a picture like this?  If so, then you are what Martin Luther called a theologian of the cross—one who can look at a scene of violence and suffering and see the goodness of God.  Not the judgment of God—the goodness.  A theologian of the cross can let go of the trappings of glory—crowns, scepters, good works, brownie points, social advantage—and look for God instead where God seems most unlikely to be: in the blood of the cross.

If you can see God here, revealed in suffering—if you can call the crucified Jesus King—if you are a theologian of the cross—then you can see God everywhere.  Even—especially—in brokenness.  In towns leveled by typhoons or tsunamis.  In children scarred by abuse and outrage.  In the tears of women broken by cruelty.   You can look there and see, not that God has judged them, but that God walks with them, weeps with them, and redeems them.

The most powerful example I can think to show you what it looks like when a church is full of theologians of the cross is to point to this church in Colorado, the House for All Sinners and Saints, who after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, set up the stations of the cross using pictures from the destruction.

Click the image to see all the stations. They are incredible.

They did this in grief and mourning.  They did it in response to televangelists and church leaders who said that this happened to Haiti because somehow they deserved it. They did it because, looking into the horrific aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, they saw Jesus on the cross.

Seeing Christ the King on the cross allows us to say “God is here.  God is here.  God did not cause this, but God transforms this.  God is reigning throughout this.  God redeems this.”

Many look into this world and witness its pain and brokenness and say that because of such suffering, God cannot possibly be real.  How can God be all-good and all-powerful, and allow such awful things to happen?

In the face of suffering of such magnitude, the only answer I’m able to give is “I don’t know.”  But what we do know, what we are assured of, is that God is not absent from suffering.  We proclaim that our king is that same Jesus who hung on a cross and died, who inhabited a place of ultimate suffering for our sake.

We might not know the answer to why, but that doesn’t mean that we have no response to suffering.  We find it in our gospel today, when a dying criminal looks at a king on the cross, and has the foolishness, the audacity, and the faith to believe in God’s promise of redemption and renewal: “Jesus, remember us, when you come into your kingdom.”

Amen.

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