First, a word about Christ the King Sunday. It is one of those special Sundays we mark on the church calendar, the way we mark Easter or Pentecost, but it’s probably not as familiar to most churchgoers.
Denominations that follow a lectionary added Christ the King Sunday in the early 20th century, so it’s a relative newcomer to the church calendar. It also can be called “Reign of Christ Sunday.” It went on the calendar during a time when there was a rise in anti-religious governments in the world, particularly in Mexico and Europe. The idea was to have a Sunday when the church blatantly emphasizes Christ’s rule over all worldly powers, regardless of what form they may take.
Therefore, it is appropriate on this day to emphasize Christ’s glory and divinity. We in particular celebrate Jesus Christ as being enthroned in heaven over all things.
Here’s what’s a little strange about Christ the King Sunday, which was Nov. 24. When we read the gospel text assigned to this day in 2013, we get no glorious image of heaven, no picture of the white-haired, flaming-eyed Christ of Revelation. We don’t even get an Easter-like resurrection story. Instead, we’re sent back to the crucifixion story in Luke. As we celebrate God’s reign, we’re asked to watch God die.
The trick to understanding this text and how it relates to the idea of Christ the King is to not fall into the trap set by those who arranged Jesus’ death on the cross. His execution between two criminals was a public relations move, an attempt to discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people who had watched his miracles and heard his talk of a restoring, forgiving, loving God who was above earthly powers, even superpower Rome. The sign over his head, “This is the King of the Jews,” was in place to mock Jesus and his claims.
Jesus did not counter any of this with worldly power. Quite the opposite; he allowed himself to be led to the slaughter, in the process demonstrating the gentle compassion that ultimately undoes all attempts to exercise power.
Bleeding and impaled—the pain had to be horrible—he never lashed out in anger. Instead, he cried out, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” The murder of the One True Innocent was chalked up to ignorance.
We’re reminded of real power, the gentle compassion that gradually undermines worldly power, like water slowly eroding rock. The world still struggles with this idea today. Even Christ’s church struggles with it. Too many times as a pastor, I’ve heard the words, “I can never forgive that” come out of the mouths of Christians following church conflict. And my heart breaks.
Even as blood poured from Christ’s wounds, grace continued to come forth, too, particularly in the interaction with the criminals crucified alongside Jesus. One criminal was bitter, unwilling to accept what was offered. But the other, despite his terrible suffering, held on to hope, to the idea that there still had to be something right in the world.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the criminal asked. It was a request for the future, perhaps rooted in his Jewish understanding of a resurrection to come one day. This good, innocent man next to him would likely stand with God, and perhaps Jesus would allow a criminal to stand near him at that time.
God’s grace is usually even greater than we can imagine, though. Jesus rooted his answer in the present. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In the statement, Jesus also reasserted his kingship. The word we translate as Paradise is a particular sort of word; it evoked an image of the tended garden outside a king’s throne room. It was the place where a king would walk with his closest friends in comfort and safety.
We worship as Christians today because Christ overcame worldly power with heavenly grace. He exercised a kind of power that lifts up the least rather than propping up the mighty. It is a power accessible to everyone.
It takes a broken and bleeding criminal and transports him into a heavenly garden. It takes tired, broken down sinners like you and me into an experience of grace and love in this life, and into the full, loving presence of God for all eternity in the life to come.
Finally, there is a ruler worth following.