The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Last Sunday after Pentecost
Today is the last Sunday of the Church Year, our annual day to declare, “God Wins!” We’ve reached the end – the summit. We proclaim Christ is King over all creation. But the image of Jesus the King hanging and dying on a cross between two thugs is a bit ironic. You might think you’ve come into a Good Friday service of worship. To the world and its powers our side is not looking so good. Our King is in trouble.
All Jesus does is to preach love and forgives sins, heals the sick, and reclaims the lost for God’s sake. Somehow that threatens religious professionals. So they tell Rome he wants a throne. He’s a threat? Romans used public crucifixions to deter insurrectionists. Bodies hung on crosses for days as grim reminders of what can happen if you won’t stay in your place. But Jesus kept saying his kingdom is not of this world. He never even claimed he was a king. He just brings God’s reign near. Rulers ask him what he means. He tells them they won’t know this kingdom when they see it – probably not the best thing to tell them.
So here he hangs dying. The clergy demand he prove his credentials: “You saved. If you’re God’s anointed King, save yourself.” Roman soldiers join the taunts: “King of the Jews, save yourself.” Even one dying thief gives him grief: “If you’re Messiah, you’d better start saving us quickly.” Jesus says nothing. And this is the king we proclaim this day – king over a kingdom no one can see?
How is it that religious and political leaders are so blind to what God is doing? Would we fault them? How would they know he is a king sent from God when he can’t save himself or anyone else? How is it that any of us can make the leap from seeing a dead man declared to be the King of Creation?
For God’s reign to come in us and among us, we’ll need to suspend assumptions about kings and kingdoms. That takes humility. God’s reign doesn’t operate like the ones in which we normally live. Everyone seems so sure they have Jesus figured out. He won’t act like a Messiah they expect. He’s not going to wage war on enemies, stir up a revolution against Rome, and stake out his throne over the earth. People who have all the answers and are so certain they know God’s mind, should scare us. They get hostile and violent if they don’t get their way. They taunt and crucify Jesus. Now, they may not be bad people. They think they’re doing right. Self-righteousness and cocksure certainty blind us to God’s intrusions in this world. Humility saves us from such ignorance. Is it possible they – or we – can be wrong? The story alerts us to exercise care.
Humility and also forgiveness are marks for living under God’s reign. Jesus forgives these who cause his suffering and death, and he even says: “They don’t know what they do.” Jesus forgives our ignorance – our presumptions to know truth and act on it. He forgives his enemies and those who kill him. And he expects us to do the same if we choose to live in God’s reign. Some try to act forgiving, merciful, loving and kind. It’s hard to sustain. When we don’t get results we want, we can revert back to Caesar’s rule – violence, passive-aggressive behaviors, and punishment. That’s life in earthly kingdoms, but not God’s reign. That doesn’t make sense to earthly powers and kingdoms. Humility precedes the power of forgiveness – to ask forgiveness and give forgiveness that indicates in which kingdom we live.
One thief, humbled and repentant asks Jesus to remember him, not save him from suffering and death. He knows what he needs. He sees in Jesus what others don’t. For simply asking to be remembered when Jesus’ kingdom comes, a pretty crazy request given their situation, Jesus promises he’ll join him in Paradise that day. Paradise is more than afterlife with God in heaven. Paradise was the place humanity left to live apart and alienated from God. Sin and alienation, brokenness and pain are marks of Caesar’s world. But in Jesus, Eden’s state has suddenly returned. That’s what this kingdom from above does – Jesus heals and restores that which is broken. So as you and I can in humility – forgive, love, restore and heal that’s God’s reign, and Jesus rules our lives. Jesus is a king in whom God reaches to reclaim what has been lost, not with force, but by invitation. God’s already restored us. Some just haven’t found their way into God’s reign, yet. One day they will.
God’s reign – ubiquitous, a reign we don’t readily see, only invite; a reign where we humbly relinquish certainty and control so we can cling to the certainty of God; a reign where the power of forgiveness, love, inclusion drive out the weaker powers of domination, hatred, and violence; a reign where God vindicates the victim and death is no more.
Herod, Pilate, Caesar, the good religious leaders of Jerusalem and all their minions actually got it right. Jesus is a revolutionary and a threat who supplants kings and kingdoms of this world. Those who taunted and crucified Jesus just didn’t think big enough. They merely called him, “The King of the Jews.” He’s more. As Paul says to the Colossians, Jesus transforms and transfers us from earthly kingdoms and darkness into a kingdom of redemption and forgiveness of sins. Rulers fail to see their thrones, powers, kings and dominions have been created through him. Earthly kingdoms come and go. But here we are today – maybe because we do believe God’s reign is forever. If that’s so, welcome to the reign where Christ is King. And as Paul proclaims: one day every knee will bow, and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Count on it.
Today – soar confidently. Pull out the stops and rejoice mightily. God wins – that’s the good news. Enjoy it while you can. Next week we get plunged into the darkness of waiting, stuck to live with Caesar while we await Jesus’ coming. Welcome to Advent!