Sunday sermon from November 24, 2013
Text: Luke 23:33-43
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
If you've been counting along, you know that today could be the Thirty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Anybody who knew that without looking gets a sticker. But instead, this is the Sunday in our Christian life together that we call Christ the King Sunday. It's the last Sunday of the liturgical year: next week, believe it or not, we begin Advent, which also begins the year again. We start the year by expecting the birth of Jesus in that lowly manger and we finish it off by exalting him as Lord on High, and then we start over. But I will submit that Christ the King Sunday is something of a difficult thing to wrap our heads around. It feels kind of like the church equivalent of a Hallmark Holiday. Unlike Advent or Easter, we don't really have a good story to tell for this one, and it's not like we don't worship Jesus as a King throughout our calendar year. Heck, as you may have already noticed, the hymns for Christ the King Sunday are all shared in our hymnal with Ascension Sunday, six weeks after Easter -- basically they're all the hymns where Jesus is up high somewhere. Frankly, it's not obvious why this Sunday even exists on the church calendar, except that perhaps we wanted to finish off the year with something more specific than just another Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Of course, the other reason that it's hard to wrap our heads around Christ the King Sunday is that we just don't like kings very much, a fact I was reminded of time and again this week during our national remembrances of Abraham Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg and then, of course, of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The two men are separated by a century and yet consistently yoked together in our historical memory: one, a big-government Republican; the other, a fiscally-conservative Democrat, both beloved in death and yet frequently demonized in life. Now, of course, Lincoln is the picture of Presidential wisdom, a man who guided the country through its darkest days and abolished its most abhorrent institution, but in his life he was in many circles a tyrant, the president of a country built on the principle of self-determination who launched a war against states who sought to exercise that principle. Throughout the south they called him the worst name they could think of. They called him King Lincoln. And don't let's get started on Kennedy and Camelot.
But even if we claim not to like kings very much, it hasn't stopped us from arguing about these two American kings during these occasions of remembrance. We ask: does JFK deserve his legacy as the patron president of civil rights, or is his halo really an effect of the sympathetic electoral landslide that gave LBJ all the capital he needed to pass through the Voting Rights Act? Overseas, does he deserve to be considered the instigator of American involvement in Vietnam, or, given a full term in office, would he have changed direction and avoided the long course of affairs that bound our country to that war for the next decade? If he hadn't died, what would he have done? And even now, for a country whose polarization still has its deep roots in the war Lincoln oversaw, it seems this week that we find ourselves asking again for his wisdom, asking the question made so much more potent in our imagination by the fact that dead men can't answer it: if he were here now, this country being such as it is, what would Lincoln do? These two men are the closest thing to kings that we have, a fact that drove their contemporaries to distraction. Depending on who you ask, in their day actual Lincoln or actual Kennedy were tyrants, dictators, fascists, tearing apart the foundation of the country; these days, in death, they're just philosophical constructs, ideas, political paradigms, prisms through which to view all the plagues of the modern age, and they drive us to fascination. It's the difference between being Lincoln the man and Lincoln the idea, between being Kennedy the man and Kennedy the idea. It seems the burden of Kingship around here is to be scorned and unloved in life but in death endlessly petitioned.
But if you wanted American political history you could have stayed home for Meet the Press. So let's talk about Jesus the man and Jesus the idea. That's the tension at the heart of our text this morning, a haunting text for Christ the King Sunday, the section from Luke's Gospel in which the soldiers mock him as King of the Jews and in which it is also inscribed over his crucified body, "King of the Jews." And the only difference here is that Jesus isn't even dead yet and already everybody in the story is too stuck on Jesus the idea to pay any attention at all to Jesus the man. The Romans, of course, think he's a King, which is to day, they think the's the leader of a political movement, the leader of an organized attempt at recreating the Jewish nation-state that has been subordinate to some conquering power almost since the moment that Israel went into exile 500 years beforehand. Rome thinks he's a King - that's why they give him the sign - but Rome has no interest in a Jewish King, because what kind of empire would it be if they let their conquered foes go around having Kings. Rome likes to supply its own political leadership, thank you very much; it's the imperial excuse for why Jesus is up on that cross in the first place, because Rome has this idea of what Jesus has become: a political rabble-rouser, maybe a military organizer, certainly a figure of Jewish national and historic interest. Rome's going to kill him off just like they would kill of any other rebel running around under the guise of kingship: not because of who he is, but because of the idea of who he might be.
And lest you begin to suspect that Rome is the singular bad guy in the story, let's remember that the Jews on the scene don't act with any more faithful sense of the moment. No, they're the ones screaming, "Well, if you're really the Messiah, just take yourself down off that cross. You can just save yourself, right?" Now Jesus is every bit as much of a Messiah as he is a King. It's an old Jewish word meaning savior, and in Jewish history it's bound up with being the one who will liberate the people from bondage much as Moses had done so long ago. For hundreds of years the Jews had been waiting for and expecting the coming of this Messiah, just like the ones they used to know; it's like in their hands the word "Messiah" has become this small box and there was a time when all they wanted to do was fit Jesus inside that box and make him into the Messiah of their dreams and expectations but it just wouldn't fit. Their Messiah wouldn't have said such uncomfortable things about wealth and power. TheirMessiah would never have thrown the lenders out of the temple. Their Messiah would never have gone and gotten himself caught like that. So just like Rome isn't wrong to think of Jesus as a King, the Jews here aren't wrong to think of him as a Messiah; it's just that both groups are so plagued by the idea of who Jesus might be and nobody is paying any real attention, any close attention, any faithful attention to who he actually is.
And I know that it sounds like I'm pillorying these characters, the Jews mocking him and the Romans stringing him up, I know it sounds like I'm angry at their misperception. And maybe I am, a bit - it's hard to read about this decisive moment and not be a bit angry at the people who were there on the scene. But to be honest, mostly I just feel sorry for them. I really do, the Jews and Romans both in this scene. They are witnesses to the singular event of history; they have in their presence the son of God as he gives his life for the redemption of all things; they are standing before the cross whereupon God decisively showed his unfailing love for all creation, including them, and they can't see it for what it is. It's like they've got blinders on where the words "King" or "Messiah" have been carved out of the black; they can only see in the shape of their expectations. They can't see the love. They can't see the redemption. They're so busy measuring Jesus against their expectations of what a King or a Messiah should be that they miss the miracle of what he actually is, the miracle of what he actually does.
Which means I feel sorry for us, too, because I think we too get so caught up in the idea of Jesus that we miss the miracle of the actual Jesus. Now, our expectations might run a bit different. We might not be the like Romans, on the lookout for a political revolutionary. We might not be like the Jews, on the lookout for a national savior. We expect the Jesus contained in the pages of this book, the idea of Jesus handed down generation to generation, teased and twisted and misplaced and misconstrued. We trot out the idea of Jesus to settle arguments or justify our agendas; in short, we treat Jesus like just another dead president, a nice guy from history whose ideas might be helpful if we can figure out what to do with them. No, our expectation is that we're on the lookout for nothing at all. We're not waiting for Jesus to show up; we're expecting him not to. But the power of the Gospel is that the real Jesus isn't contained in the words of this book. The real Jesus isn't contained by the events of this story. That's the promise embodied in the criminal's prayer at the end of this text, "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom." When you come into YOUR Kingdom - a declaration that Jesus's Kingdom is something bigger, something more vast, something more cosmic in scope than any of our expectations can contain, but even more importantly a promise that Jesus's work won't end with the end of this story. No, the real Jesus, far in excess of our ideas and our expectations, the real Jesus, dead on that cross, buried in the tomb, will rise again to keep working for his creation. The real Jesus isn't contained in the pages of this book because the real Jesus has been working alongside us long after its words were chiseled into stone. I wonder if we could stop looking for the living among the dead? I wonder if we could stop trying to tease his corpse for answers and instead simply listen for him to speak? In short, I wonder if we could stop asking "What would Jesus do?," and instead start asking "What is Jesus doing?"
I'm sure you've heard the phrase. Its acronym spread like wildfire over the past few decades in youth groups in churches all around the country, often carved on wristbands as WWJD. It never made it to my youth group but I have many friends for whom it was no small part of their adolescence, this worn reminder that in all of the contexts of growing up, in all of the temptations of growing up, they were to invoke the moral example of Jesus and do accordingly. And even though the phrase gets associated these days with a pretty evangelical strand of Christianity, its origins actually come from the progressive mainline churches of the turn-of-the-last-century, when Christians were urged to consider What Jesus Would Do as they encountered the real questions of poverty and inequality and injustice that preoccupied the early Progressive era. And certainly we could all do much worse that to hold the idea of Jesus out for ourselves as an example of how to be in this world. Surely there are worse heroes.
But there's a danger in the question, because we're not really asking Jesus. We're just asking our own projected idea of Jesus. Tim Stafford says that when we ask "What Would Jesus Do?" we just end up asking "What would I do if I were a better person?" And to be honest I can't imagine carrying that around on my wrist. In my imagination it feels like being handcuffed by the reminder that I'm not good enough, that I'm not kind enough, that I'm not wise enough, it feels like living in the shadow of who I'm supposed to be instead of being freed to live as I am by grace. But the fundamental problem is that it's too small a question. We ask "What Would Jesus Do," implying that what we mean is "What Would Jesus Do if He Were Here," but the gracious and powerful truth of the resurrection is that Jesus is here, loving us as we are. Jesus is here, working for us as we are. Jesus is here, not binding us by the wrist but rather embracing us in his arms. The real question of the Christian life is not "What Would Jesus Do" but rather "What Is Jesus Doing," and the answer is simple: Jesus is here, loving you, loving us, working through all of us for the redemption of all things.
Friends, this is the Gospel of Christ the King Sunday. Of course the day itself is a bit of a invention. A bit of a projection. It's not the anniversary of anything, it might as well be just another Sunday in ordinary time. But remember that Christ is not King just because we take a day to announce it. He's not the King of our expectations nor is he King according to our expectations. Rather he is the living, breathing God set loose upon creation, with mercy, with grace, and with love, thanks be to God.