Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King | Proper 29 | Luke 23:33-43
What makes a good king? Michael Jackson was the king of pop, but Elvis will always be the king of rock. Both were gifted musicians and exceptional entertainers. They received their titles because of their ability to make music in their respective genre. They made plenty of money but never had any real power per se. Brandy and I have recently began watching Game of Thrones. Btw, this sermon is brought to you by the fine folks at HBO. “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” The kings of Westeros were awful. They ranged from simply “not particularly good” at best to downright psychotic. And when a king died, there was fighting amongst those with a claim to the throne. Not always did an heir win out because they had the best claim. Sometimes it was because they had the support of the strongest house with the most money or greatest army. Hence the title “Game of Thrones.” So, what about real people with real power. I’d like to think that our leaders today are chosen because they have the right skills for the job. But more and more choosing leaders seems to become little more than a popularity contest. Which celebrity can outshine or perhaps cast more shade on their opponent? But this is how we have been doing things for at least as long as I can remember. When picking someone for teams at recess, we were more likely to pick our friends before those that could actually contribute to the good of team. Hopefully, you were lucky and your friend was really good at whatever game you were playing. But the consequences of many of life’s choices so very seldom work out so favorably.
In today’s gospel reading, we skip forward in Luke’s gospel to Jesus’ crucifixion, but not a far cry from last week’s apocalyptic Jesus. Jesus is referred to as a King in today’s passage, but this isn’t a title of honor. The soldiers were making fun of Jesus referring to him in this way. It wasn’t enough that they stripped him naked and nailed him to a cross. They found it necessary to ridicule him further and disgrace him with words. But I imagine after all he had been through their verbal assault really didn’t make that big of a difference in the grand scheme of things. One of the criminals crucified alongside Jesus joined in taunting Jesus by sarcastically asking Jesus to save himself and to save them as well. But the other criminal corrected his associate by pointing out that they had earned their punishment. According to this criminal, they deserved what they got, but he recognized that Jesus had done nothing to warrant his sentence. Unlike the criminals, Jesus was actually innocent.
The second criminal, after setting the other straight, asks Jesus for only one thing. He doesn’t ask to be spared. He doesn’t ask for a miracle. He simply asks Jesus to remember him when Jesus makes it to his kingdom. What that criminal had done with his humble request was to proclaim Jesus as king. Who does a kingdom belong to if not the king? And for his proclamation, the criminal received assurance that he would indeed join Jesus in paradise. That criminal would remain there hanging from his cross beside Jesus, but this wouldn’t be the end of his story. The criminal couldn’t escape death, but death wouldn’t have victory over him either. His present suffering would eventually end and he would take his place in God’s kingdom where there was no more pain. Whatever wrong turn he had taken in his life, but the love of God still found him. He encountered it in a most unexpected place with an unexpected person. His salvation came at his own execution from a fellow condemned man.
Jesus was not unpopular. In fact, he was very popular with the oppressed and down-trodden. He was popular with the sick and the outcast. He proclaimed to them a kingdom that would bring about balance in the order of things – a kingdom where the low would be lifted and the high would be brought down. This made him very unpopular with those in power. Afraid of losing their power, they plotted to have him killed. And they carried out their plan with great success. Jesus could’ve avoided the cross. By all rights, he could’ve elevated himself above all others. Noone has ever or will ever have a better claim of righteousness. But he put his life into the hands of the world and instead of accepting him and glorifying him, they killed him. Through his actions, Jesus committed the ultimate act of love by laying down his life not only for his followers but for those that persecuted him, and even those that executed him. He could’ve saved himself at any point, but instead he chose to sacrifice himself. Afterward, he returned to his kingdom from which he came. He waits now to be reunited with each and every one of us, not as a ruler of a nation or even the world but as king of the entire universe. Amen.
Fr. Donald K. Holland