Luke 23:33-43 Save Us from Ourselves
This is always an uncomfortable Sunday for the modern, North American Church to deal with. In many churches we have designated this particular Sunday, just before Advent, as “Stewardship Sunday,” a time when the preacher pulls out all the stops and preaches a rousing sermon to get everyone to pitch in a little more so that the short fall of offerings isn’t as bad as predicted when the church accounts are closed at the end of the year. Why is there discomfort when we talk about stewardship; the way in which we are spending not just our money, but our lives?
In more liturgical traditions, this Sunday is now called “Reign of Christ Sunday,” an appeasement to our modern sensibilities which make us reluctant to call today by its traditional name, “Christ the King” Sunday. There is, in the United Church, some theological discomfort around this concept with associations of domination and masculinity. If we are not totally uncomfortable, we could call it “The Sunday of Doom” as does the Swedish Lutheran Church. One could see why Church treasurers might relate to this as the Sunday of Doom. However, naming it “Chris the King” Sunday, we can see why today’s reading would be of Jesus on the cross with two thieves and the Romans mocking him as “King of the Jews”.
Back in the 1920s, Pope Pius XI, declared that the final Sunday of what is known as the church year, just before Advent and the beginning of the preparations for Christmas, should be called “Christ the King.” He did this because he was concerned about the rising secularism in Christianity. He was worried that Christians were focusing too much on material gains and pleasures of this world and not enough on what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God.” The point of this morning is to remind us that we are not the centre of the universe. Our natural inclination is to be self-serving, self-aggrandizing. We tend to forget that Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God; not in the future but that it is among us today. We are called to be citizens of that Kingdom, or realm, or new reality, which entails a shift from our ingrained self-thinking.
This Kingdom of God, or as Matthew called it the “Kingdom of Heaven,” is not about supplanting one earthly ruler with another. This is the mistake the Roman soldiers made when they tacked up the sign “King of the Jews.” In heralding the Kingdom, Jesus wasn’t advocating changing one ruler for another. Jesus was announcing the advent of an entirely different way of being in relationship with one another and with God. It is not the ruler that changes, but the realm in which we live that changes.
In the United Church, we talk much about our creed; well, we often boil it down to the phrase: “We are not alone. In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone.” The first creed that the earliest Christians had was quite simply Christos Kyrios – Christ is Lord. It didn’t mean just switching your allegiance from the emperor to a different leader. We all know that switching allegiance in this way doesn’t really affect us, It is like when we have a change in government, either provincially or federally, the change doesn’t really affect the way we live, there might be more or less taxes or more or less services; but as to the way we live, it is more or less business as usual. It seems in this way, faith can remain largely a private affair.
Christos Kyrios. When Jesus comes along proclaiming the Kingdom or the Realm of God, it is a whole new reality where nothing is the same. Not our relationships nor rules, not our view of self or others, not our priorities or principles, nothing. Everything we thought we knew about kings and kingdoms gets turned on its head.
Jesus knew that this is hard stuff for us to get our minds around. This is why he spoke so many times in parables; stories that seek to come at reality sideways. He tried to paint pictures of this realm by talking about a father who humiliated himself by running after both his wayward and his legalistic sons. Or the employer who defies all concepts of fair play by rewarding the same those who have worked all day as those who work just a few hours. We get a glimpse of what is expected of us in a story about a wounded man who is overlooked by the brightest and the best and tended to by a despised foreigner. Glimpses of what it is like. Just enough to let us know that everything in God’s Realm will be different.
Lest we think we can avoid this because it is in the future, Jesus believed that the Kingdom was here and now. It was permeating human reality. It is amongst us. The challenge is that we live in both worlds. We are citizens of both. We live our lives in dynamic tension between the two. You and I know how much of our lives are governed by the rules, concepts and understandings of this world and we know how wrong some of those are. When you catch a glimpse of this Kingdom that Jesus is talking about, it means that you can never again be satisfied with the status quo, with the way things are.
This is not a story filled with hope at this moment. Jesus is hanging on the cross. He has had a trial where he has been sentenced. The moment of doom. It was the custom for the Roman authorities at the Passover to release a prisoner. The crowd is given a choice. The release of Bar Abbas, a known murder, or Jesus? They clamour for Bar Abbas. Why release a known murderer? Because with a known murder you know what he is going to do, however terrible. But with Jesus? You just don’t know what these claims upon you that he makes are going to entail. The future is going to be different. Where is the hope here?
I want to close with some words from the Vermont theologian, Frederick Buechner. His words, for me, put this passage, and stewardship, the way I live my life into the coming days, into perspective. He writes in an excerpt called “Messiah” in his book Wishful Thinking:
WIE MAN’S MACHT, IST’S FALSCH is a crude German saying that means, freely translated, “Whatever people do, it turns out lousy.” The Russians throw out the czars and end up with Stalin. The Americans free their slaves so they can move out into the world as paupers.
Or take the Jews. The nation that God chooses to be the hope of the world becomes the stooge of the world. The nation of priests becomes a nation of international politicians so inept at playing one major power off against another that by the time they’re through, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Rome, all have a chance at wiping their feet on them-the cream of the population deported, the Temple destroyed, Jerusalem razed. The law of Moses becomes the legalism of the Pharisees, and “Can mortals be righteous before God?” becomes “Is it kosher to wear my dentures on the Sabbath?” The high priests sell out to the army of occupation. The Holy City turns into Miami Beach. Even God is fed up. Nobody knows all this better than the Jews know it. Who else has a Wailing Wall? Read the prophets.
Wie man’s macht, ist’s falsch. But the Jews went on hoping anyway, and beginning several centuries before the birth of Jesus, much of their hope took the form of an implausible dream that someday God would send them Somebody to make everything right. He was referred to as the Messiah, which means in Hebrew “the Anointed One;’ that is, the One anointed by God, as a king at his coronation is anointed, only for a bigger job. The Greek word for Messiah is “Christ.”
As far as I know, there is only one good reason for believing that he was who he said he was. One of the crooks he was strung up with put it this way: “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us” (Luke 23:39). Save us from whatever we need most to be saved from. Save us from each other. Save us from ourselves. Save us from death both beyond the grave and before.
If he is, he can. If he isn’t, he can’t. It may be that the only way in the world to find out is to give him the chance, whatever that involves. It may be just as simple and just as complicated as that.