Sermon: Longer than all earthly empires

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Reign of Christ, 25 November 2022

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Luke 23:33-43

‘[T]he leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’

Today, the last Sunday in the church’s year, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. We end the liturgical year on a high, acknowledging that Christ rules the world. And yet the Gospel reading for the day comes from the story of the Passion. We celebrate the Reign of Christ by reading about Jesus’ final moments on the cross before his death. This is necessary. We as human beings have such a tendency to respect power, to admire strength, to appreciate success, to celebrate wealth and influence. If you think that you are beyond such temptations, ask yourself: are you excited to meet your favourite footballer, or actor, or author? Have you ever been sad at the death of a public figure whom you have never met in person? Have you found yourself defending a politician against criticism simply because they are from ‘your side’ of politics? In my case, I confess, I get a fillip whenever a ‘blue tick’ author or journalist or comedian follows me on Twitter. I am not immune from valuing the famous more than the anonymous.

When we celebrate ‘Christ the King’ we need the immediate reminder that Jesus is not a king as the world recognises them. Jesus did not exercise power in the way today’s world leaders do. While armies have gone to war in his name, people have been divided from each other on the basis of their faith in him, and in many times and places Christianity has been imposed on people with violence and coercion, all of that has been a perversion of Jesus’ kingship. In today’s reading we see Jesus as king continuing to do what he has done throughout his earthly life: forgiving others; bringing salvation through relationship with God; inviting the outcast and the sinner to join him at the banquet. This is kingship as Jesus models it, and it reminds us that ‘Christian nationalism’ as it is currently growing in the United States is an absolute and utter heresy.

Refugee Jesus

The Christ of Maryknoll by Robert Lentz

The Romans used crucifixion to kill people because it was so very public; it warned witnesses not to commit crimes against Rome. As a means of death, it added shame and slow pain to execution. All the gospels tell us that the shame of his death included mocking by those surrounding Jesus. Three times in today’s reading Jesus is mocked by different groups as a useless messiah. The leaders scoff at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers mock him, saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ And one of the criminals derides him and says, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ Their mocking reveals that they do not understand the sort of king that Jesus is. They are looking for a king who exercises coercive power, who imposes his will on others. That is not the sort of Messiah that God has sent them.

Those mocking Jesus also see salvation as purely physical. Jesus saving himself, they believe, would be coming down from the cross. They are unable to see that it is just because Jesus’ ministry is to save others that he cannot save himself from death. Jesus ‘saves himself’ by choosing to die in obedience to God, by crying out, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,’ and breathing his last. Jesus’ death on the cross is also his exaltation into glory.

In the model prayer that he taught his disciples, Jesus had told them to pray: ‘And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.’ (Luke 11:4) Now on the cross Jesus puts this instruction into practice, exercising once again the ministry of forgiveness that he has offered throughout his life. This is a particularly Lukan emphasis, none of the other gospels mentions it, but it is consistent with the way Luke has shown us Jesus living his life. In the Sermon on the Plain and in his gift of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus showed his disciples what it meant to follow him. Now the Teacher models for his students the forgiveness they are called to exercise.

Only Luke tells us the story of the repentant criminal who recognises Jesus’ innocence and asks Jesus to remember him. For the last time in his earthly life, Jesus brings salvation to a repentant sinner. It is fascinating to ponder what it was that this criminal saw that led him to say, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’. The criminal is on the cross, about to die. Surely the only salvation in which he could possibly be interested would be to be saved from death. And there would be no way that someone being crucified beside him could possibly ever have a kingdom in this world. And yet, like the tax-collector in the story that Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax-collector, (Luke 18:9-14) the criminal recognises his own sin, recognises in Jesus a king and, rather than asking to be saved from death, asks for mercy, for the relationship with God that saves. And this criminal finds salvation. Jesus replies to him: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ The criminal recognises that salvation does not mean being saved from physical death. Salvation means being with Jesus in death as well as in life. The kingdom of which Jesus is king will be like the banquet in Jesus’ parable. The poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame are invited. In Jesus’ dying hours we see one last work of salvation, as a criminal is invited to the feast, too.

Throughout the Passion, whenever Jesus is asked whether he is the Son of God or King of the Jews, he refuses to answer. This is because Jesus is not the sort of Messiah that he is accused of being, not a political Messiah. Luke reminds us that the kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world. Jesus’ way of ruling is in contrast with the rule of the Herods and Pilates and emperors of his and our day. But Jesus’ kingship is still a reign. It is not that Jesus is not exercising power. The point is that his way of exercising power, his reign, is different.

The people of Israel were looking for a Messiah to liberate them from Rome, and from the very beginning Jesus’ reign was indeed about liberation. We saw it in the response to news of his birth: in Mary’s Magnificat; in the prophecy of Zechariah at the birth of John the Baptist; in the praise of Simeon when he held the baby Jesus in his arms in the Temple. We saw this theme of liberation in Jesus’ manifesto at the beginning of his ministry, when he quoted from Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4:18-19) The theme of liberation has been constant throughout Luke’s gospel. That is not a question. What is in question is how that liberation will happen. It is not to happen through violence. It is not to happen through exclusion. Liberation will come through love; salvation through a relationship with God. This has been the message of Luke’s gospel from the very beginning, and on this last Sunday in the Year of Luke we hear the message again. In Jesus’ kingdom, those who were scared and scattered are gathered in; in the words of Prophet Jeremiah, ‘they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing’.

Liberation through all-encompassing, utterly inclusive, love. Power through gentleness, acceptance, and humility. In this world of violence and exclusion proclaiming such things might seem utterly naïve. And yet the reign of Christ has lasted longer than any of the empires of the world. Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire, which lasted for between 500 and 1000 years, depending on how it is defined. The British Empire, the reason that most of us are living here on this land, lasted four hundred years. Jesus was executed as a common criminal almost two thousand years ago and yet here we are, millennia later, on the other side of the world, trying our best to live as citizens of his realm. We acknowledge and follow Jesus, the one executed by empire on a cross, as the only ruler to whom we owe complete loyalty. All the different elements of our lives exist under his judgement. Given his message of love and liberation, this can only be a good thing, for us and for the world. Amen.

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