Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done -- When you pray that each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, for what is it you are praying? How many times do you say the Lord’s Prayer each year? How much do you think about what you are actually praying?
As you have no doubt figured out by the change in colors, today is a bit different. Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. It is actually the last Sunday of the church year. Next week, we start Advent. The Feast is rather new to the Church. Pius XI created the feast back in the 1920’s as a way of protecting the world against rising secularism. The chief concern was that a number of anti-Christian dictatorships were spawning around the world. The Pope hoped that the rulers of nations would be reminded that the Church should be free, that they owed their power to Christ, and that the people in the pews would be strengthened in their faith. Looking around our parish, our community, our country, and the world, we can see just how effective this day was in protecting the world against that rising secularism.
I think it is also a challenge for those of us born in the United States. It is part of our DNA not to trust nor to tolerate kings. They had they chance and failed miserably, at least from our perspective, in the Revolutionary War that spawned our nation. Tom Bracket, the TEC Evangelical Officer that some of us met a couple years back at our diocesan convention, wondered aloud last week where our prophets have gone. I think part of the seeming loss of prophets is our efforts to democratize God. We don’t trust monarchs, and we don’t trust people who claim to speak for them. Most parishes operate by committee. I just returned from a meeting of the diocesan Board of Directors and the All Commissions’ Day. Convention was just a month ago, and we had to elect delegates to our General Convention. We have enshrined democracy in our ecclesial polity.
Understand that we have done that precisely because of those who have abrogated their responsibilities or proven that they were not speaking on behalf of God. Many monarchs became tyrants. Rather than ruling for the good of their subjects, they ruled for their own personal benefit. And for every pastor hard at work trying to lead his or her congregation into the ministries to which God calls them, it seems as if there is a Jim and Tammy Fay Baker, a Jimmy Swaggart, a Robert Tilton, Jack Schapp, a bishop who failed to oversee his clergy, or someone else to distract the country from some of the good work being done in our churches. Placing our faith in individuals almost always never works out well. They almost always begin to put their self-interests ahead of our own. Almost always.
Today we remind ourselves that there is One in Whom we should place all our trust, our Lord Christ. Today we remind ourselves that He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The world might not yet recognize that simple truth, but it will one day. Our reading from Luke might seem a bit out of place to you. Our reading about Jesus’ crucifixion seems more appropriate to Holy Week. Why do we read it now? Perhaps you remember the story of the two brothers, James and John, who ask Jesus to sit at His right hand and His left hand when He comes into His kingdom? Yes, I know Matthew says it was their mother who interceded with Jesus, but the question is the same. How does Jesus answer them? He asks a question after telling them they do not understand what they are requesting. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? Naturally, the brothers respond that they can. Jesus tells them that they will drink and be baptized, but the spots at His right and His left have already been prepared for others. James and John are, of course, disappointed; the other Apostles are mad, most likely because they did not think to request that honor for themselves. And Jesus instructs those who follow Him that He is a different kind of king that the Gentile kings with which they are familiar. There will be no lording over others in His kingdom; the greatest will be the ones serving the most.
Jesus has a number of counter-cultural teachings, but few are this absolutely crazy by worldly standards. Jesus is even re-ordering our understanding about power. How do we accumulate power in the world? In days past, we often resorted to brute force. Armies were used to determine who was more powerful. Brute force is still used in some cases, especially bullying, but we have “evolved” a bit. Nowadays, power is closely related to wealth. We notice that wealth in our country, despite our constitutional protections and claims to the contrary, that there are two legal systems and two educational systems and now two health care systems. Money gives us all kinds of advantages. We can get better defense in criminal or civil claims; we can get a better education; and we can get better doctors and health care. The poor can get a defender; the poor can get an education; the poor can get some health care. But does anyone really believe it is a level playing field blind to the trappings of wealth and power? And yet Jesus is insistent that serving others to the glory of God will be the hallmarks of greatness in His kingdom. Is He delusional near death?
Notice how a couple loose threads are nicely tied up here on the cross. I commented a moment ago how nearly all individuals will often disappoint us. Not Jesus, though. Jesus is near death. He has been beaten and cruised. He has been whipped and mocked. Now He is hanging on a cross awaiting His death as people mock Him. And the people who mock Him, though they do not know it, provide what amounts to a diabolical messianic temptation. If you are the Son of God . . . If you are the Messiah . . . Could Jesus save Himself? Absolutely. You and I can do little to change our human condition. When we hurt, we have to let the body’s healing powers work. When we are cut, we have to let the body heal. Were we imprisoned, we would have to let the legal system and time works their course, if we want to experience freedom. Jesus, though, as fully human and fully divine, could simply will Himself down. Or He could call upon the angels to slap the “you know what” out of the mockers’ mouths. How does He respond? He wills to remain on the Cross and see His effort through. More amazing, though, He prays another time to His Father. Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.
Can you imagine? Can you imagine the force of will required to stay on the Cross for our sakes? Can you imagine the compassion in Him for Him to be able to make intercession on behalf of you and me and those mockers, all of whom put Him to death?
And look a bit deeper at another loose thread. Jesus states that the spot at His right hand and His left hand have already been prepared. Notice anything about the positions of the thieves? He is in the middle. They are on His right hand and His left hand. Where does Jesus come into His kingdom? Right here on the Cross! That is why James and John cannot share this position of honor. He is to be crucified for their and all our sakes, but they still have work to do. They will be commanded to go into the world proclaiming His death and Resurrection and baptizing disciples into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit after that Easter experience.
These thieves, and their attitudes toward Jesus, also instruct us about the God Man whom we rightfully call Lord and Savior. Even though one shares in Jesus sentence of death, he chooses to mock Jesus. The other, though, recognizes Jesus’ wrong execution and His authority. He rebukes the other thief and then asks Jesus to remember Him when He comes into His kingdom. Like Pilate, who writes the inscription placed over Jesus’ cross, and the centurion, who testifies upon the world’s shuddering at Jesus’ death that He was the Son of God, a thief understands Jesus’ power and authority. And such is our Lord’s compassion that, even near the end of His life, He grants pardon to the one who seeks it and the assurance of eternal life. His last words are words of compassion and grace, testifying as to His true character, His true love for all in this world. And you and I are the beneficiaries of that character. You and I stand this day as redeemed, by virtue of His Cross. We have laid down our lives and asked Him for a share in His eternal kingdom, not unlike that request of the thief. And, just as He did with the thief, He has promised to raise us all to new life with Him! Maybe now you have a different understanding of that hymn, When I survey the wondrous cross?
With all due respect to those who would mock Pius for a seemingly futile effort to keep the forces of secularism at bay and even to those who, like Tom Wright, want to contend that Ascension Day is really Christ the King Day (I would argue that our Lord is crowned on Good Friday and seated upon His throne on Ascension Day--similar to how we consecrate bishops and then seat them at their cathedra), I find I like the reminder offered by focusing on the fact that Christ is king. As Americans, who tend to think of king or queen as a four-letter word, we are reminded that heaven will not be run by committee. We will have His mind, HIs eyes, His ears, and His understanding. We will be new creations in Him, and we will lovingly and joyfully embrace His will being done. We will be joyful and thankful servants of the King.
More importantly, though, we are reminded that He calls us to embrace a different kind of power. While the world will chase after the trappings it values, be it force of arms or physical strength or wealth or whatever, you and I called to give up those values and embrace our Lord’s. We are called to have compassion on those around us and to serve them in His Name. We are called to feed, to clothe, to teach, to care, to pray, to cry, to do whatever He gives us insight to see is needed that others might be drawn into His saving embrace. Yes, people might try and take advantage of our compassion. Yes, people may mock us for ignoring whatever the world currently values. Should we expect to be treated than our Lord? And here is the absolutely crazy thing, if He asks us, we can even lay down our life for the benefit of the other, confident that we will be restored to life, just as was our Lord and King! We can be a soldier, a first responder, a teacher, a doctor, or just a good samaritan. And we can make that ultimate sacrifice in His Name, certain that He possesses power even over death! That is the reminder this day, that we re subjects of a King who came not to be served but to serve, and who came not destroy lives, but redeem them! So, in the words of our hymnal, Rejoice the Lord is King! Your Lord and King adore! Rejoice, give thanks and sing, and triumph evermore.