On the final Sunday of the church year we come to Christ the King Sunday and our understanding of what God’s kingdom looks like, what are its characteristics.
Scripture: Luke 23: 33-43
I know, we are on the doorstep of Advent and Christmas is quickly approaching. How many days are left? Please don’t tell me, you’ll cause my anxiety to spike. However, this isn’t the reading we are expecting on the doorstep of Advent.
This is an Easter reading, literally. The lectionary has delivered us a passage we might read on Good Friday. But here we are on the last Sunday of the church year, Advent is next week, and we are reading about Christ’s death.
What’s happening here?
Today, in the church calendar is Christ the King Sunday and the lectionary has chosen a challenging passage from Luke’s gospel. Perhaps not challenging in its own right, read in the proper context of Good Friday, but challenging because of the season we are reading it in. It doesn’t make sense to us, we aren’t expecting it and we might be wondering what we should do with it.
If Christ is the King, as we proclaim then it only makes sense that we read a passage that speaks to this understanding of Christ. It only makes sense that we read a passage that talks about God’s kingdom and this passage does that powerfully though we need to peel the layers back a bit to see how things are working. This passage requires us to consider the entirety of the gospel, not just these verses.
While kings and kingdoms are still a small part of the world we live in, the language doesn’t always translate fully into our modern context. Rather than a king, we have democratically elected party, which also votes on its leader. That’s our system in a nutshell and most democratic nations have something similar. That makes it weird to talk about kings and kingdoms, but here we are.
The passage operates on the innocence of Jesus. The fact that he has been crucified, as a common criminal, when no real identifiable charge has been brought against him. He’s certainly annoyed the religious elites, the ruling Jewish king Herod, and perhaps to some extent the Romans who occupy the land. However, Jesus hasn’t done anything criminal in the eyes of the law.
He’s taught in synagogues and the temple, he’s clarified the law, he’s healed on and off the sabbath, he’s advocated for a better economic system through the sharing of resources. Nothing illegal, but all of it together has rattled the establishment and threatened the status quo. It’s argued he’s broken religious laws, such as healing on the Sabbath, but nothing that warrants a death sentence.
Yet this is the result that Jesus encounters, a death sentence encouraged by the Jewish authorities and carried out by the Roman state. This is the context that leads up to the reading we have this morning which finds Jesus praying for those who torment him and then crucified between two criminals as a criminal himself.
While hanging on the cross, one criminal ridicules Jesus, the other criminal rebukes the first for his words and the proclaims Jesus innocent. Jesus responds by saying, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” We think we know what Jesus means when he says that. We might call to mind our vision of heaven and what that might look like. Maybe it’s a city in the clouds with pearly gates, green field where everyone resides in harmony. However, maybe its more than that. If we are going to be serious about scripture, then we need to ask of the gospel, what does it say paradise or God’s kingdom will look like? We can’t read the text in isolation and then apply a response that pleases us. We need to ask of Luke, what have you told me about God’s kingdom? We can’t read the passage in isolation.
Luke references the kingdom throughout his gospel account. But what does the word gospel mean? In his book Say to this Mountain, Ched Myers writes, “Gospel was a term associated with Roman propaganda. News of a military victory on the far-flung frontiers of the Pax Romana, of the accession to power of a new emperor, was trumpeted as glad tidings throughout the empire … In contrast, Mark [and other gospel accounts] offers decidedly non-imperial good news about Jesus…” (Myers, Ched Say to this Mountain: Mark’s Story of Disciples, 1996 p.5). Luke and the other gospel writes co-opt this very Roman, very imperial word and subvert it to mean something else. In chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel Jesus encourages the crowds to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. What might that good news be? Again, Luke tells us what that good news is so we don’t have to make it up.
In the first sermon that Jesus delivers, also in chapter 4, Jesus tells us what the kingdom looks like when he reads from Isaiah:
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 favor (Luke 4: 18-19).
Debra Mumford writes, “The kingdom of God for Jesus was a world where those on the bottom of society in His day would find liberation from the systems and structures that bind them. Those who were captive, like the two criminals with whom he was crucified, would be released.” (Debra Mumford – Commentary on Luke 23:33-43 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary)
We pray thy kingdom come, on earth as it in heaven. That’s the kingdom, not so much a place we go as much as a place we are trying to create.
That moment where Jesus hung on the cross, a criminals in the eyes of Rome, hung between two other criminals, that moment was a holy moment. It was a moment when another individual was made aware of how the kingdom works and what it looks like. The kingdom is about grace and mercy as much as anything else. That criminal didn’t enter the kingdom when he died, it isn’t about him going to heaven. He entered the kingdom when Jesus spoke those words of welcome, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” When Jesus, while dying, offered words of comfort, grace, and mercy. The kingdom of God is a place and it exists in the here and now.
Reflecting on her father, a retired Lutheran pastor, Karoline Lewis writes, “He was confident in his faith, but never overly demonstrative about it. Rather, he lived as a citizen of the kingdom he knew to be true—a kingdom of forgiveness and reconciliation; a kingdom of acceptance and belonging; a kingdom of righteousness and blessedness for all. To claim Christ as King means to live as if you believe it to be true.” (Karoline Lewis – A Holy Kingdom – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary)
Karoline goes on to reflect about how that promise “Today you will be with me in paradise” was true for her dad. Not that he or she doubt that. Her father didn’t live so that paradise would be his, he lived so that paradise might be for others. A better world full of justice and mercy. Our call, as followers of Christ, is to create that paradise, a world of grace and mercy, and invite others to live that way. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
Donate to St. Andrew's
Thank you for visiting St. Andrew’s. It’s our prayer that this sermon was helpful to your walk of faith. We would ask you to prayerful consider donating to the mission of St. Andrew’s. You can make an online donation through our website.