Today, on the last Sunday of our church year, we celebrate the Reign of Christ. And so I suppose it is appropriate that in the two readings that we heard this morning from the Gospel of Luke, we find the Story of a King, presented in three Acts.
Act One is The Prophecy.
Act Two is The Enthronement.
And the third and final Act is The Reign of the King.
So let us begin with Act One, The Prophecy.
The prophecy is spoken even before the king is born. Zechariah, the father of the one who will come to be known to us as John the Baptist, is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks this prophecy:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a Mighty Saviour for us in the house of his servant David.”
And hearing these words, the people surrounding Zechariah surely would have gasped and looked around quickly to make sure that there were no Roman soldiers close enough to overhear this prophecy. For these were dangerous times. The world already had a king who was known as the Mighty Saviour, and he was the Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, one of the most powerful men in all of history. To prophesy the coming of a new king, a new mighty saviour, one who would rescue the people from the hands of their enemies, this was a subversive and daring act of rebellion. It was also a prophecy that was bound to be misunderstood. For though the prophesied king was still in the womb of his mother, yet to be born, already he was seen as the chosen one, the Messiah, the one who would bear the hopes of his oppressed people. Their hope was for a mighty king, a new son of the great king David, one who would be stronger, greater, higher than any other, one who would liberate them from military and political oppression, one who would save them from the hands of all that hated them. He would be a Mighty Saviour. That was the prophecy.
End of Act One.
Act Two: The Enthronement
There is a moment when the reign of a new King begins, a moment, usually, of pomp and circumstance, and of celebration. Sometimes it follows the death of the old ruler. Sometimes it follows a decisive battle. Sometimes it follows an election. There are plans going on right now for the Inauguration in Washington. Powerful people line up to visit the one who will be President, acknowledging his victory, seeking positions of power for themselves. There will be a great celebration in January, a great feast with music and dancing and speeches. The new ruler will make his inaugural address which will set the tone for all that is to follow. Some of us who are older may remember the coronation of our own Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in 1952, a ceremony which took fourteen months to prepare. There was a great procession, there were guests and dignitaries from around the world, there were prayers and there was singing, and the Queen was seated on her throne and crowned.
The enthronement of the king in Luke’s story is different. There is a procession alright, but it is a tearful event, and it takes the one being crowned outside the city wall to the place called “The Skull”. There, the king is crucified with criminals on either side. They cast lots to divide his clothing. They scoff at him, they mock him, they hurl cruel insults. They hang an inscription over his head upon which was written, “This is the King of the Jews.” And they leave him to die.
The king was nailed to a cross. That was his throne.
That was the Enthronement.
End of Act Two.
Act Three: The Reign of Christ
And now that the king has been enthroned, his reign begins. It was not the reign that many had envisioned, that so many had hoped for when they had heard the prophecy some thirty years before. This was not what they expected a Mighty Saviour to look like.
They had wanted a king who was strong. What they saw was weakness. They had wanted a king who was powerful. What they saw was vulnerability.
One man, himself a criminal on a cross, he saw the king’s weakness and vulnerability, and decided to join in the taunting. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”
But the other criminal rebuked him, and turned to the king, and said “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And the king responds with the first words of his newly inaugurated reign: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
What strikes me most about these words is how personal and how immediate they are. Jesus speaks to the second criminal, one-on-one. He responds directly to the one who turns to him.
Often, too often I’m afraid, what we say about our religion and our faith, the words we use seem to be general and abstract, distant and impersonal. The phrases “Christ the King” and the “Reign of Christ” which we use on this Sunday often strike me as big and grandiose.
But the first words of Jesus’ reign are not big and grandiose. He doesn’t address the crowd, he makes no universal proclamation, he does not talk about past or future.
He speaks directly to the one who turns to him and says “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” It’s personal and it’s immediate.
And even though no one saw it coming, even though no one could have possibly imagined it, the prophecy has been fulfilled. This is the king who is the Mighty Saviour. The one who extends to us the tender mercy of our God. The one who gives light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. The one who guides our feet into the way of peace.
It is personal. God doesn’t just love humanity, God loves you. Jesus proclaims that love from his throne, which is the cross.
It is immediate. You don’t have to prove anything first. There are no rituals required. You don’t have to wait for heaven. It’s not about yesterday and it’s not about tomorrow. Salvation is now. Today.
Today, you will be with me. Salvation is first of all relational. Jesus is with us, in all the senses of the word. With us as a friend. With us as an advocate. With us in solidarity against all that opposes us. With us as comforter.
Salvation is relational. But it’s also redemptive. The criminal who knows that he has been justly condemned, who accepts that he is getting what he deserves for his deeds is in that surprising moment forgiven and reconciled with God, and deemed to be righteous before God; for that is what it means to be in Paradise.
Imagine yourself, for a second, as this second criminal, hanging on the cross beside Jesus. He is alone, acutely aware of his own failings and his looming fate. In that moment, he sees Jesus, sees at least something of the truth about Jesus, and turns to him. He doesn’t ask for much, he simply says to Jesus, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He’s not expecting an immediate response, his request is expressed in the future tense. He doesn’t ask for much, but like all of us I suppose, he doesn’t want to be simply forgotten, which is the likely fate that he anticipates for himself. Remember me . . .
And in response, Jesus speaks. His words are personal, powerful and immediate. They are the best possible news for one who is afraid of being forgotten and alone.
“Today, you will be with me.”
These are the words that inaugurate the reign of Christ. These are the words of our mighty Saviour. May you too know them to be true, for you, today.
Homily: Yr C Reign of Christ, Nov 20 2016, St. Albans
Readings: Jeremiah 23.1-6; Luke 1.68-79; Col 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43
Image by Diane Brennan