A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
November 24, 2013
Christ the King Sunday
Just a few hours ago, my daughter Catherine got up and went to church. It’s not that she’s such an early riser; it’s that she’s in Scotland this year, working on a master’s degree at the University of Aberdeen, and Scotland is five hours ahead of us. Catherine likes to go to church—she always has—and this morning she went to St. Machar’s Cathedral to sing with the university choir. I asked her how it went and do you know what she told me? On the Sunday before Thanksgiving the congregation didn’t sing “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” They didn’t sing “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing.” And they didn’t sing “Now Thank We All Our God.” If Catherine hadn’t known better she might have been offended.
But she does know better.
She’s a graduate student. She’s smart. She knows that Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. She even knows that one of the reasons we Americans give thanks is because of religious liberty—the freedom to worship as we please. Shucks, it’s why the Pilgrims came to America! They were English dissenters, who left a country where the king was in charge of the church so they could worship God without any government entanglement or interference. If you don’t like the government messing with your health care, just try letting them mess with your religion. (Imitating a government official) “Hello? Mrs. Farnsworth? Yes, this is the Federal Bureau of Ecclesiastical Accountability. Our records indicate that you’ve missed two out of the last four Sundays at church. What? You say that you were visiting your sick mother? Was that a pre-existing condition?” You see? You don’t want that. The Pilgrims had it—up to here! They wanted freedom so desperately that they started out from Holland on a leaky boat, and then turned around and traded it in for a tiny boat. They made a miserable six week crossing of the Atlantic and when they sighted land someone read aloud from Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord,” because so many of them had already made one. They barely made it to the New World, and even so half of them died before that first winter was over. When they gathered their crops the next fall they had a feast of Thanksgiving, and apparently invited their native American neighbors to join them, and that’s where our modern tradition got its start.
The Pilgrims came to America because they didn’t want the government interfering in their religion, because they had no king but God. The Baptists were right behind them, and the first Baptist church in America was founded by Roger Williams, a man who was deeply committed to the principle of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. He believed in something he called “soul freedom,” insisting that no civil authority could mandate what a person believed in his heart or how he worshiped. One of his spiritual descendants, James Dunn (who for twenty five years headed up the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs in Washington, DC), often echoes that sentiment by saying, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus gonna tell me what to believe!”
That’s a distinctively Baptist thing to say, and Dunn is distinctively Baptist, but the impulse goes back much further than that. In the early church converts to Christianity used to say “Jesus is Lord” as part of the baptism ritual. We still do it today, in this church, but in those days it meant something more. In those days people were expected to pledge allegiance to the Roman Empire and its emperor. They were expected to say, “Caesar is Lord!” acknowledging that he was in charge. But, when they were baptized, new believers said “Jesus is Lord,” which was a way of saying Caesar was not. He may have been in charge of the whole Roman Empire, but he wasn’t in charge of them—Jesus was—and nobody else was gonna tell them what to do.
On the Christian calendar today is known as “Christ the King Sunday.” It’s the last Sunday of the liturgical year, just before we start all over again with Advent. It’s an opportunity to gather up everything we’ve learned about Jesus in the past year, to bring all our wonder, love, and praise, and pile them before his throne. It’s an opportunity to pledge our ultimate allegiance to him once again, and to “crown him with many crowns.” Usually Christ the King Sunday comes after Thanksgiving, but this year it comes before. When I met with the worship planning team on Tuesday we acknowledged that that could be a problem: that even though we’re having a special Thanksgiving service this Tuesday night many people would come to worship today expecting to hear hymns of thanksgiving and a sermon focused on that theme. They wouldn’t be ready for Christ the King, and especially not for a Gospel reading about his crucifixion. But I’m thinking there is more connection between Thanksgiving and Christ the King than we may have previously imagined, and on this day we can thank God that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. While I could spend the rest of the sermon talking about all the ways in which Christ is king, I think I would rather talk about what kind of king Christ is, and the Gospel lesson from Luke 23 may be the perfect way to begin.
Listen for the word of the Lord:
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. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 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!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:33-43, NRSV).
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.
So, imagine that you haven’t heard this story before, that you are one of those people in the crowd who is standing by watching. You see three people hanging from crosses, dying. Two of them are criminals, and over their heads are the charges for which they are being executed. One of them may have been guilty of rebellion. The other may have been guilty of sedition. But you find yourself staring at that third man, the one in the middle, and over his head you see a placard that reads, “This is the King of the Jews.” You stare a long time before you realize that this is the charge against him: this man must have claimed to be king. And that’s why he’s dying on a cross. Because there was room for only one king in the Roman Empire, and that king was Caesar. The placard above this man’s head was a way of saying to the world, “This is what happens to insurrectionists, to people who try to take the Emperor’s place: they get nailed to a cross.” But suppose that while you’re standing there someone sidles up to you and says, “He really is a king, you know.” What? “He really is a king. He’s not the king of the Roman Empire; he’s the king of the world, the king of the universe! He’s God’s own son, and one day he will come back to claim his kingdom, but for now…look what they’ve done to him.” And you look, you look at that bleeding, dying man hanging there. A king? He’s like no king you’ve ever seen before.
And maybe that’s a good thing.
As I mentioned earlier, some of our spiritual ancestors came to this country because they were tired of kings, tired of them wanting to own everything and control everything—even the church. When we talk about Christ the King these days we don’t mean that he is like those earthly kings, and we don’t mean that his kingdom is like those earthly kingdoms; we mean that he is other than those earthly kings, and his kingdom is other than those earthly kingdoms. Preaching professor David Lose says, “The [kingdom] that Jesus proclaims represents a whole new reality where nothing is the same—not our relationships or rules, not our view of self or others, not our priorities or principles—nothing. Everything we thought we knew about kings and kingdoms, in fact, gets turned right on its head.”[i]
Today’s Gospel lesson is a case in point.
The Roman soldiers, after nailing Jesus to a cross and hanging that placard over his head, step back to admire their work. And that’s when Jesus says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” What kind of king is this, who forgives the ones who have sinned against him in unspeakable ways, who have hung him up to die? And what does it say to us about his ability to forgive our sins, even the most unspeakable of them? Because it’s not only his executioners he forgives. It’s the Jewish leaders who scoff at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” It’s the Roman soldiers who mock him and come up to him offering sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” It’s one of the criminals hanging there with him, who keeps on deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” “Father, forgive them,” Jesus sighs. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
But the other thief is not so forgiving.
He rebukes the first one, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he turns to Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” On Wednesday I was telling this story to some of our homeless neighbors who come here for showers. I said, “Did you notice that this thief calls Jesus by his first name? Usually people called him ‘Lord,’ ‘Master,’ ‘Teacher,’ ‘Rabbi,’ but there on the cross, as the two of them are dying, this thief calls him by his first name. He says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’” I paused for dramatic effect and in the silence that followed one of the men said, “Well, dying is very personal.” Only later did I realize what a profound statement that was. Here were the two of them dying together, like soldiers on a battlefield, sharing the most personal experience imaginable, when one of them says, “Jesus…remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Do you realize what a statement of faith that was? He could see Jesus. He could see that there wasn’t much life left in his body. And yet he was bold enough to ask, “Jesus, when all this is over; when you have breathed your last, and been taken down from that cross, and buried in a borrowed tomb; and when you one day rise from the dead, and stride forth into the morning light, and come into that kingdom your father promised you—remember me.” Did anybody else have that much faith in Jesus on that day? Did those disciples who had scattered in an effort to save their own skins? Did those women who looked on from a distance, weeping? Here was this man dying beside him, believing in him, and saying, “Jesus, remember me.” Some critics will say that the so-called “good thief” didn’t confess his sins. He didn’t repent, or say he was sorry, or ask Jesus to save him. Some sticklers will point out that he wasn’t baptized. But can you blame Jesus for welcoming him anyway? For looking on him, and loving him, and saying, “Today, you will be with me in paradise”?
I’m not sure what he meant by that, and I don’t really have time to get into it: to ask where Paradise is, and how you get there, and is it the same as Heaven? I’m not sure what Jesus meant when he said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” but don’t you love him for saying it? For promising that thief on the cross that wherever he was going, the two of them were going there together. It makes me want to ask, again: What kind of king is this, who forgives the people who nailed him to the cross, and welcomes unrepentant sinners into Paradise? It doesn’t sound like any other king I’ve ever heard of, and yet it is just the kind of king God wants to give the kingdom to. In today’s epistle lesson from Colossians we are reminded that Jesus is the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” This one, this bleeding, dying man…all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in him. He is unlike any king we have ever seen before, and thank God for that. This is the kind of king who might even remember us when he comes into his kingdom. And for that, on this Sunday before Thanksgiving,
I am thankful.
[i] David Lose, on the Working Preacher website (commentary from November 14, 2010).
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.