Christ the Kingc, November 24, 2013

November 25, 2013

The Royal Treatment
Luke 23:33-43
33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

It’s on Christ the King Sunday that I often feel compelled to point out the difference between the secular calendar and the liturgical calendar because in the church world, today is the last day of the year. I’ve never known of any large new liturgical year’s parties happening, but tomorrow will be the first day of year a in the three year cycle. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent – which is when we begin a new examination of the life, the teachings, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Clearly there is an element of dissonance between these two calendars. What we generally think of as the holiday season comes at the end of the calendar year, but the events that gave rise to those same holidays are rooted in the story that comes at the beginning of the religious year.

And I know many of you are wondering why we have read the story of the crucifixion on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Many of us have our turkeys thawing in the refrigerator and here we’re confronted with an incredibly unappetizing story. I’m not unaware of the distasteful nature of our story, and I suppose I could have found a more pleasing text, but I decided to go with the suggested reading for today because of this shocking contrast. I’m sorry to be holding up a portrayal of pain and suffering as we prepare for our ritual feasts, but that’s the nature of the beast we call discipleship.

There is disharmony between the way our society is organized and the way God’s kingdom is and will be. And while the image of a Thanksgiving feast is more appealing than Jesus dying on a cross, I dare say there is more to nourishment in the crucifixion story than there is in a Butterball Turkey. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with enjoying the opportunity to eat, drink, and be merry with friends and family. I enjoy reverie as much as anyone, but I crave paradise, and that’s what I hear Jesus talking about as he is hanging on the cross.

We’re dealing with some incredible contrasts today. The timing of the church calendar is off, and the image of the suffering Christ is the opposite of the images on the advertisements that are coming at us from every direction and device. Being a follower of Christ is a tough journey – make no mistake about that.

You notice that we baptized Michael before we read the scripture this morning. That was no accident. He probably would have proceeded with the sacrament after this sermon, but I didn’t really want to take a chance on that. Following Christ is a brutal journey if you take it seriously, but it’s hard to turn your back on the offer of Paradise.

So bear with me as we take a closer look at the way this world tends to deal with the bearers of truth. There’s a lot of pain in this story, but we won’t dwell on it too long, and then we can go enjoy our potluck dinner. That’s not exactly a journey in to paradise, but it’s a bit of an appetizer.

This world is generally ruled in a way that doesn’t take in to account the will of God, and this is so clearly revealed in the story of the crucifixion. The One who most clearly revealed the true nature of God’s will, ended up tortured, taunted, and killed, and he wasn’t just a victim of the political establishment of the day. The leaders of his own faith community were a part of the conspiracy to have him killed. There is a clear tension between the way power is generally used in this world and the way Jesus used his own power.

Jesus was taunted by individuals from three different directions to use his power to get himself down from the cross. First the religious leaders suggested that he could get himself down if he truly was the messiah. The soldiers then taunt him by telling him to get himself down if he truly is the King of the Jews, and finally one of the criminals derides him for not saving all of them if he was the messiah. Jesus would change the world, but he wouldn’t do it in the usual way. His power would be revealed through love and not through force. This king of ours didn’t function as an ordinary king. This is both good and bad news for us.

The good news is that Jesus did overcome the power of death. Those that sought to squelch his message and eliminate his presence were ultimately unsuccessful. The truth that Jesus spoke and embodied was not destroyed by the efforts of those who were out to protect their own designs and agendas. Jesus was not only the king of the Jews – he would become the king of all creation, but this status would only come about after his death. And the bad news is that the enemies of our King are still intact.

I think it’s probably only in the church that we talk about having a king, and there’s a reason for that. The people who originally organized the United States were intent upon not having a King. They had not had a good experience with the King of England, so we don’t have a king, but I think we all have a sense of what it means to treat someone in a royal fashion – even though it can mean very opposite things. It can be a good thing to be treated in a royal manner, but it can also be a bad thing. Someone who is treated to a royal amount of something is not necessarily the beneficiary of something good. The word royal has come to mean an excessive amount of something, and that was certainly the case with Jesus.

We may not know what it would have meant for the Jews to have had an actual king, but we do understand that Jesus was subjected to a royal amount of pain. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to experience some of that royal trouble if we follow the call of our king.

Many of you have heard about the United Methodist pastor in Pennsylvania who was charged with violating the statute in our Book of Discipline that prohibits pastors from presiding over the marriage of a same-sex couple. Over six years ago, Rev. Frank Schaeffer was asked by his son to conduct his wedding. Just prior to the statute of limitations running out on that disciplinary violation charges were filed against Rev. Shaeffer by the son of the former music minister of Rev. Shaeffer’s church. You might say the charges were filed in retaliation to the dismissal of the music minister, and in the course of the trial the pastor was found guilty of the charge.

Rev. Shaeffer didn’t deny that he had conducted the wedding, nor did he express regret over the act. He didn’t want this trial, but he has embraced it as an opportunity to express his conviction that our denominational policy is unjust. He has been suspended for 30 days, but he will have his credentials removed if he decides to further violate the rules. Harold Hughes has created some fact sheets about the trial if you want to know more details and how you might get involved or be in support. You’ll find them in the Narthex or grab Harold and ask him about it.

I don’t know how this particular situation is going to play out, but you can anticipate hearing about more such trials. Unfortunately we have this policy within our rules that doesn’t recognize the equality of all people, and it’s not going to get fixed easily or quickly. I hate that there will be more people tried, found guilty, and defrocked before this policy will be reversed, but I know that this will be the case.

I don’t plan to be one of those people. It would make some news if I were to resist this policy in that fashion, I think I would feel some solidarity with Christ to be brought to trial for a just cause, but at this point I believe I can be a better advocate for justice with my credential in tact. This may be some rationalization on my part, but this is how I feel.

I’m also not unaware of what it means when Jesus asks us to pick up our cross and follow him. My study group is currently reading The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was pretty clear to him what it meant for him to follow Christ during the period of Nazi Germany. He didn’t spell out the details of his calling in that book, but one of the most striking lines I’ve read in that book is where he says, When Christ calls a person, he bids them to come and die. Bonhoeffer did in fact lose his life in resistance to Hitler’s policies. And while I don’t think he meant that we are all to die in a perfectly literal sense, I think Christ calls us to live with more concern for the kingdom of God than we do for our own little empires. And this is a radical departure from what we are lured to do by the lesser gods of this world.

I wish I could say Christ has called for us to take care of ourselves without concern for the truth or anyone else, but I know you know better than this. There are these powerful struggles that go on within our church, within our families, within our cities, and within our world that call for us to be advocates of truth and practitioners of love. I don’t think Jesus would call for any of us to uncritically give ourselves to any cause or action without understanding why or to what end it will produce, but we don’t need to think this path of discipleship is painless or easy. People who stand up for truth and resist evil will almost always experience some of that same royal treatment that Jesus received. But it is the avenue to paradise.

It’s hard to know what to say about this reality Jesus called paradise. But I see that it doesn’t exclude honest criminals, and I’m happy to know that. I know that I fall short of living with perfect obedience to the call of Christ, but I also know better than to give Christ a hard time for not giving me what I want, which is what that other criminal chose to do, and we really don’t know what came of him. I also know that Christ continues to be present in the lives of people of faith who suffer because of their convictions. And when we suffer with Christ in this world I believe we are already taking a step in to paradise. To abide with Christ is to abide in Paradise, and we have all been invited to join that holy community that resists evil and oppression in whatever forms it presents itself, and to embrace love in the manner that Jesus so graciously and sacrificially showed us to do.

Thanks be to God for this invitation and opportunity to join with him in Paradise.


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