A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King

by Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector

Luke 23:33-43

No matter how you voted in the presidential election 12 days ago, these days it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the flurry of activity surrounding the president-elect’s Manhattan residence, Trump Tower. The building itself is stunning: 68 all-glass stories, with the name Trump emblazoned across and throughout, a five-story atrium and 60-foot waterfall in the lobby, and gold and marble detailing from top to bottom. Outside, media from all over the world jockey for space with supporters, protesters, police, and people who want to shop at Gucci and Tiffany. Limousines and motorcades deposit VIP visitors, from past and present mayors of New York to the Prime Minister of Japan, from loyal supporters to former detractors. Inside, the president-elect and his advisors field phone calls and messages from world leaders, government representatives, and celebrities, as they meet to do the very important job of choosing who will run our government in the days and weeks and years to come. The President of the United States is the most powerful position in the world, and every aspect of the unfolding transition to President-elect Trump seems to emphasize that.

What a striking contrast to the other leader we celebrate today! Today is the last Sunday in the church year before the new church year begins with Advent next Sunday. It’s known as Christ the King Sunday because it celebrates the reign of Christ for all eternity. It reminds us, as Matt noted last week, that as Christians, our hope ultimately rests in a power above and beyond this world.

So what does that hope look like? Well, at first glance, not very hopeful. This time last week, Jesus was speaking to crowds in the Temple. Now he hangs on a cross in a place that is so barren and grim that it’s called The Skull.  Religious leaders scoff at him, Roman soldiers mock him, and one of the criminals who hangs next to him derides him. This time last week, who expected that this is where we’d be? This is a passion gospel, one we’re used to hearing on Good Friday, after preparing for all of Lent to hear it. We don’t expect it here: post-election, pre-Thanksgiving, almost Advent.

Unexpected and out of order…and yet, isn’t this what happens to all of us? Life—and death—occur unexpectedly and out of order. We’re organized, we have plans, this year we had polls, our lives are unfolding in certain predictable ways. But then something happens, and everything changes in an instant. The body that we’ve faithfully fed and exercised betrays us. The person whom we assumed would always be there walks out the door. The job that seems ideal is eliminated. An accident, a crime, or a diagnosis suddenly turns our world upside down.

Whatever the extent to which he expected it, Jesus’s world is turned upside down by the relentlessness of those who pursue him and the betrayal of those whom he trusts. But Jesus never gives in to the temptation to use his authority in the ways that the world has come to expect. From the beginning of his ministry, when he refuses the devil’s temptations to use his power for earthly gain, to the end, when he declines to save himself from crucifixion, he embodies an awareness that the kingdom of God has a glory and power set apart from the way riches and influence are customarily wielded in this world. Jesus understands that worldly power and wealth are not gifts that require God’s intervention; people seem to acquire those pretty effectively on their own. Instead, Jesus champions the poor and powerless, forgives and heals indiscriminately, and comforts those who follow him—an assurance of God’s faithfulness now and in the world to come, wherever and under whatever circumstances we may find ourselves.

And Jesus prays. At first, he does so in the wilderness and deserted places, and indeed that continues for the rest of his life on earth. But his disciples notice his practice of prayer, and they ask him to teach them how to pray.

  • The version that is recorded in Luke’s gospel is short and to the point: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” [11:2-4]
  • The night of his betrayal, when Jesus is not yet fully accepting of the fate that awaits him, the disciples are witnesses to his prayerful example, when he expresses his anguish by praying. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me,” he says, and as he gathers strength from that prayer, “yet not my will but yours be done.” [22:42]
  • And then he is where we find him this morning, on the cross, deserted by the people who have followed him and ridiculed by those who have been threatened by him. Yet once again, he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” [23:34]

The criminal who asks Jesus to remember him hears that prayer and recognizes that what is taking place is not what it seems. It seems as if those who had set themselves against Jesus have triumphed. It seems as if the crucifixion will be the end of the story. It seems as if Jesus will soon be dead, no longer a threat to the order that the Jewish authorities and Roman rulers have fought to establish and maintain. But in the horror and finality of what seems to be taking place, that one criminal recognizes the power inherent in Jesus’s prayer.

“Remember me,” he says to Jesus. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Somehow this criminal—who likely had never met Jesus until their fates were intertwined—recognizes something other than defeat and disgrace in Jesus’s fate, and his own. Despite crushing evidence to the contrary, he sees the promise of that the man hanging on the cross next to him improbably offers. “Truly, I tell you, you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus assures him. And in that brief exchange at the very end of the two men’s earthly lives, we, too, receive a bold promise: that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and overwhelming odds, whether we are perpetrators or victims, there is something more. This is what hope looks like.

“Remember me.” It is essentially the prayer of so many people to whom Jesus brought health and healing throughout his earthly ministry. Those who were beside themselves because they or someone they loved—a child, a relative, a friend—was sick or dying. “Remember me.” Those who were hungry and gathered by the thousands to be fed. “Remember me.” Those who were outcasts because of situations beyond their control, like lepers, and people with demons, and Samaritans. “Remember me.” Adulterers and tax collectors. “Remember me.” And Jesus remembers them, every single one. He heals them and those they love. He feeds them. He calls them as his disciples. He dies alongside them. There is no situation too devastating for him not to remember.

“Remember me.” It’s our own fragile assertion that all is not as it appears to be, that illness and heartbreak, evil and destruction will not ultimately triumph, that earthly goods and power are not the last word. “Remember me.” It is a prayer born in the hope that we are not alone in the belief that, if God is indeed restoring all things in his well-beloved Son, we are included. There is something beyond death; there is strength, not weakness, in opening ourselves to it; and it can transform our lives on this earth even as it promises life in the hereafter.

On the church calendar, we have reached an end, the end of another year. It comes too quickly for many of us and not soon enough for others. We may feel unprepared for what follows, whether our own lives are in turmoil, or simply marked by an undercurrent of unease. But the unexpected appearance of the crucifixion in today’s gospel is not so much the dire warning that it first appears, but the promise of what is to come. There will be new birth, and Christ will come again. And that is a hope above and beyond this world.