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Reign of Christ Sunday, November 20, 2016 | 8:00 a.m.
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
It helps now and then to step back and take the long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. . . . We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. . . . We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders. . . . We are prophets of a future not our own.
Archbishop Oscar Romero
Today is the last Sunday of Ordinary Time in the church calendar. Ordinary time refers to that stretch of Sundays between Pentecost (which was on May 15) and Advent, which begins next Sunday. “Ordinary” means not that they’re plain, but that they are numbered.
“Reign of Christ” or “Christ the King” Sunday is another designation for the final installment of Ordinary Time. If you’re interested in things like this, Reign of Christ Sunday is a relatively modern innovation in the lectionary; it’s only since about 1925 that churches that use a lectionary have set aside this week for focusing our worship on Jesus as “King,” as one who reigns, one who rules, not only over the lives of the faithful but also over the life of the world.
It’s a day to pause, before plunging into a recitation of the Christ child’s expectation and birth, on the claim that came to be made for him and still is for us: Jesus is Lord. As one of our church’s worship books explains, “Christ reigns supreme. Christ’s truth judges falsehood. As the beginning and the end, Christ is the center of the universe, the ruler of all history, the judge of all people. In Christ all things began, and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. In the end, Christ will triumph over the forces of evil.”
And the place the lectionary sends us to glimpse Jesus’ lordship most fully is the cross and the story of the Christ child’s eventual death, a part of the story we mostly reserve for Lent and Good Friday.
So the reign of Christ is a paradox. We who proclaim “Jesus is Lord!” do so by pointing for evidence not to his triumph and victory but to his death.
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.
It’s told so quickly, almost abruptly: they crucified Jesus. That’s it. That’s it?
The Gospels spend pages upon pages narrating the week that led to this—the harassment in the temple, the arrest in the garden, the interrogation before the council, the trial before Pilate, then Herod, then Pilate again—but this, the actual ending, is surprisingly terse.
They. Crucified. Jesus.
No flourish. No blood, no nails, no cries. Just this: they crucified Jesus.
We’ve known this was coming, but we’re not really ready for it once it happens. So the reign of Christ breaks upon us in an instant, and all of the prophetic warnings, the parables, and the beatitudes have not prepared us for it. Even though it’s been intruding with some regularity—every leper healed, every sinner welcomed, every parable unfolded—it still, in this moment, catches us flat-footed, because the reign of Christ revealed in the death of Jesus of Nazareth is a mystery, and you are never fully prepared to enter a mystery.
You spend nine months fussing over names and scrutinizing car seats and then you have a baby and you’re like, “Wait. I’m a parent now? I’m not ready for this.”
You attack the college selection process, grind your way through the SATs and the common app, visit campuses, get your child’s acceptance letter, accompany her to orientation—and then you go back home without her, not quite ready for her to not be there every day.
You spend days, weeks even, with dad in hospice care, readying yourself to be without him and to let him go, and then he dies. And you realize you’re not ready. You could never have been ready.
It’s so mysterious. How can you be so prepared and yet so unprepared for the same thing? Jesus said over and over again that he was going to Jerusalem. They crucified Jesus in the twenty-third chapter; Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem and to force this outcome in chapter nine. We’ve been following Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel since February. I checked: every sermon I have preached since I arrived here nearly ten months ago has pointed out that this is where we are going.
And here we are. They crucified Jesus. Jesus is Lord. The reign of Christ is upon us.
We’re not ready.
It all unfolded in public, as the people stood by, watching. They weren’t ready either.
“The people” have been in view the whole time, even decades before. The messengers who announced the birth of the one now suspended between two criminals called it “good news of great joy for all the people.”
It was to The People that Jesus proclaimed his good news of sight to the blind, release to captives, the hungry filled with good things. He held The People spellbound with his teaching, and he has criticized The People as children for demanding signs from him. In The People’s presence he healed while The People praised God for it.
The People—a mass of need, of disappointment, of glory, of contradiction—surround Jesus so the authorities can’t get to him. Jesus stirs up The People. The guardians of law and order fear The People.
Now, though, The People stand by. Now The People only watch.
For many of them, this was not their doing. They didn’t want this, and they can’t do anything to stop it.
Others of them, though, surely did want this. Pilate called together the Chief Priests, the Elders, and “the people” and said, “This man has done nothing wrong. I’m going to release him.” Then they all shouted together, “Away with him!”
Now The People are united—standing by, watching. That’s not nothing. It’s not running away. It’s standing in the gap between the victim and the perpetrator. It’s witnessing to what is happening. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes. Yes, I was. The People were there.
The reign of God is revealing itself, and The People are standing by, watching.
An innocent person is condemned by a biased criminal justice system while we The People are standing by and watching.
Hate crimes against Muslims proliferate while we The People are standing by and watching.
The “moral” majority is implementing its agenda while we The People are standing by and watching.
With one eye on the powers that be and one eye on the mystery unfolding before us, we The People are standing by. We are watching.
And watching is not nothing. It’s not scoffing, at least. But I’ll be honest. I get the mocking.
Mockery is my pill of choice when someone out-of-the-ordinary upsets my stomach. I know I’m not alone in this: for months I reveled in snide commentary and ridicule of a person and a movement I didn’t like, a phenomenon that scared me and challenged some of my deeply held assumptions about our character as a country. Making fun of it was a far more comfortable way of dealing with it, and there was lots of material to work with: John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Weekend Update—I feasted at a buffet of mockery.
For the past twelve days I’ve been feeling food-poisoned by that buffet. I’m now trying to eliminate mockery from my diet. It’s beneath us now, I think. At least it’s not up to the challenge of the moment. Mockery may be an easier way of dealing with unpleasant realities, like a potential registry of Muslim citizens, but mockery is not up to the task of resisting such a thing.
Of course the other problem with mockery is that it blinds us to any virtue hiding in the object of our mockery. Sarcasm doesn’t know what to do with the claim that all of humanity is made in God’s image, and so it points and laughs.
The leaders—those scribes and Pharisees that have had their knickers in a twist of Jesus from the beginning—they’re openly making fun of him. They’ve won. He is no threat to them anymore. Anyone can see now that they were right and that any claims about this Jesus’ special status as The Chosen One, the Messiah, Savior, were greatly overblown. If he were any of those things he would save himself.
The reign of Christ is inaugurated in the dignified absorption of sinful human power. The People stand by and watch. But the religious leaders mock.
The establishment wins. The status quo prevails. Law and order are restored.
The leaders are the law, and the soldiers are the order. They’re mocking him too, but in their own way. They’re not Jewish, so the “Messiah” language doesn’t mean anything to them. They only know “King.” Like Caesar. Ruler, conqueror, military leader: that’s a king. This? This is weakness. This is failure. This is pathetic.
So they mock. They don’t see. They don’t understand. Between the people and the leaders and the soldiers, nobody seems to see and to grasp the reign of Christ, even as it is announcing itself in their midst.
Well, almost nobody.
Jesus has always been about that one outlier, the one that got away and that matters so much: the lost coin, the lost sheep. The prodigal. Zacchaeus the tax collector was hiding up a tree when Jesus sought him out and said, “I’m coming to your house today.” When he did that, the same leaders who mock him on the cross were scandalized, so he made it real simple for them: “Seeking and saving the lost is what I’m about,” he announced. “And today,” he added, winking at Zacchaeus, “salvation has come to this house.”
“Today” is the last word in this part of the story as well, as Jesus says to the other criminal crucified next to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Even on the cross, Jesus is seeking and saving the lost. Jesus is innocent. Pilate said as much three times, and this criminal names the same fact: “This man has done nothing wrong.” He is guiltless, and he refuses to save himself. But he will save one who is guilty. As he has been doing that all along.
One biblical commentator calls this criminal the first loyal subject of the Kingdom of God that Jesus has been preaching. Amidst a chorus of jeers, he calls to Jesus by name. As those in authority and those with power scoff at Jesus’ helplessness, this criminal asks to be remembered “when you come into your kingdom.”
And you know, even at this late hour and even with his lengthy rap sheet, he will find what he’s looking for, because the thing he’s looking for is also looking for him.
The reign of Christ is apparent only to the one who is lost. The people, at a safe and civilized remove, are standing by but don’t see it. The leaders and the soldiers are jeering and don’t see it. But the lost soul taking his lumps from the criminal justice system—only he rightly perceives what is really happening here: the kingdom is coming on earth as it is in heaven.
Those of us who take up the claim “Jesus is Lord” in our worship and in our lives are called to witness to the reign of Christ wherever we see it intruding on life as we know it.
And we do see it. Our vision is trained to see it in the places that still mirror what happened at the place called The Skull—where God still identifies with victims of violence, where religion and political power still conspire against the vulnerable, where convicts are still not beyond the reach of God’s mercy, where our ignorance as people still cannot outrun the mercy and the forgiveness of God. Amen.