Now, on to more appropriate conversations in this holiday season, like…the crucifixion! Bet you didn’t see that one coming! That is right, we are reading the story of the crucifixion this Sunday.
As strange as it sounds, it is incredibly important for us to be reading the crucifixion story this Sunday, even if that does seem a bit out of place. As we are preparing for Thanksgiving, and as we bring the torture of the election season to a close, perhaps the last thing you want to be thinking about is the brutal death of our King, Jesus Christ. However, there is a very good reason that the lectionary chooses Luke’s version of the crucifixion story for us to contemplate this week. It is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church calendar year. We begin anew in two weeks with the beginning of advent. So this Sunday, the last Sunday, is the Sunday that we remember where all this is leading us. The end of one story, but the beginning of a new and much more important story.
What is important to keep in mind is what we mean when we talk about Christ as “King.” One easy temptation is to dust off the trumpets, polish the crown, and build up the throne. Frankly, that is what the church has a history of doing on this particular Sunday. We play those big booming organ tunes filled with pomp and grandeur and we celebrate the Lordship of Christ. There is one little problem with that though—Christ’s reign was not ushered in with trumpets, but the moans of dying men who had been tortured to death and the jeers of heartless crowds. Christ’s reign was not ushered in with jewels and finery, but with nails and a crown of thorns. Christ’s reign was not ushered in with a kingly throne, but a cross.
I know, serious downer, but this is so important for us to keep our perspective on what we are actually talking about. On numerous occasions this past year, I have announced from the pulpit that Luke’s understanding of the Kingdom was not some post-earthly plain with harps and halos, but an understanding of a different way for us to live our life in the here and now. When Christ proclaimed the kingdom in Luke’s gospel, he was proclaiming an ever present reality and way of seeing the world, and a way of being in the world that is foreign to most of us. Christ’s kingdom is present in the ways that we give up the pursuits of the misguided desires of this world, and instead embrace loving community. Christ’s kingdom is all around us, but it means giving up our definitions of power, of strength, of meaning, of wealth, of what is important, of how we keep ourselves safe, and even of salvation. Christ’s kingdom is accessible to all, all the time, but it means we have to transform our understanding of what it is to be a part of the Kingdom of God. It is incredibly hard for us to do that—perhaps harder now than ever before, given the relative luxury that we live in. However, the benefits of doing so are unbelievable.
The scene in Luke this week features Christ hanging between two criminals—likely those guilty of treason and sedition against the Roman Empire. As one criminal turns to Jesus and professes a powerful kind of faith, Jesus reassures him that today he is with Jesus in paradise. Really?!? Seriously?!? Paradise on a cross. That is a powerful shift in perspective to be able to see the kingdom from that vantage point. Isn’t that a remarkable promise? That even in the depths of despair; our worst moments; the times where we feel alone and tormented; at our very worst, we can still find ourselves with Christ in paradise. Now that is the kind of King and Reign that I can get behind. That is true power. That is true meaning. That is true love.
This ought to come as quite the contrast to the world that we see around us and the promises therein. As we usher in a new political regime, it might be helpful for us to remember what real power looks like—the vulnerability of the cross. As we usher in a new President, it might be helpful for us to remember who is really in charge, and who indeed, has the promise of what a real kingdom looks like.
That is why it is so utterly important for us to be talking about the crucifixion right now. We, once again, have lost sight of what it is to be a true leader (we certainly lose track of that every four years, but probably more often than that!). Before we begin the advent season of preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ the King, in the form of a child, we must be reminded of where all this is going to lead. Let us also remember something else though—the crucifixion may be the story in which we end the church calendar year, but we know full well that the crucifixion is not the end of the story. The crucifixion leads us to the beginning of a new story. The story of resurrection. The story of new life. The story of a different kind of life to which we are all now called to live. A life with Christ as our King. A life where King Jesus turns the values of the world on their head, and offers us new life through the valley of the shadow of death.