Today is Christ the King Sunday. I like to remind people that this is the youngest of our holy days – just a few years short of its hundredth birthday. It was instituted by Pope Pius the 11th in 1925, in the Roman Catholic Church, and spread to other churches from there. It was a direct response to World War I and the horror of seeing Christian citizens of majority Christian nations take up arms and slaughter one another. The holy day was intended as a reminder that for Christians, our primary citizenship is not that of any particular earthly nation, but of the kingdom of God. And as we heard last week, God’s holy realm is a place of peace: they shall not hurt or destroy on all My holy mountain!
The Gospel lessons for Christ the King Sunday are all chosen to highlight the paradoxical kingship of Christ, so different from the ways we usually see power and dominion exercised in this world. This year’s Christ the King Gospel brings us Jesus hanging on the cross, crucified as a criminal.
It’s so much the opposite of where a king should be that people are mocking him for it. Because what kind of king gets the death penalty, to die in shame and agony?
And what kind of Messiah – the long-promised Anointed One whom God will send to execute justice and righteousness in the land, in Jeremiah’s words – what kind of Messiah dies at the hand of the Roman occupying forces, instead of throwing them out and liberating his people?
It’s always a little startling to read this passage out of context. The Church usually reads about the Crucifixion in the context of Holy Week – on Palm Sunday or Good Friday. But I’ve come to welcome the opportunity to reflect on the scene on its own terms.
I’m able to notice different things about it when I’m not caught up in the trajectory of the Great Story of Holy Week, and to tune in to details that might bring new understandings, or new questions.
One of the things I think is really important to remind ourselves about, now and then, is that following this King – this one, the one hanging from a cross – should give a certain skepticism, a kind of critical distance, to our views of any human king, or president, principal, mayor, bishop, et cetera. Really, ANY leader – the ones we like as well as the ones we fear.
On Good Friday afternoon, every year, I invite kids here to walk the Stations of the Cross with me. And when we come to the eleventh Station, Jesus is Nailed to the Cross, I tell the kids a really important truth: Sometimes the people in charge are wrong.
Maybe they’re wrong because of a mistake or a failure. Maybe because their priorities or intentions are not good. Maybe they’re just exhausted or distracted or don’t have all the information they need.
But one way or another, sometimes, the people in authority – our leaders, teachers, principals, moms and dads, policemen, presidents – can be wrong.
We all know this is true; it’s just hard to admit to our kids. But it should be easy for us to remember, as Christians. Our God was executed as a criminal. We must be prepared to question our leaders and the structures of power in our time, holding them up to God’s standards of justice and mercy.
And let it be noted, please, that the leaders in Jesus’ day weren’t just wrong because they condemned and executed Jesus, the Son of God. They were wrong because they perpetuated a system that punished minor crimes with brutal public execution.
It’s not clear from the text whether the criminals crucified with Jesus were simple burglars or violent bandits. But it is clear in ancient sources that crucifixion was routinely used as the punishment for theft, fraud, and other non-violent crimes, especially when committed by those of low status, the socially and economically vulnerable.
The criminal justice system in Judea under Roman rule was wrong because it murdered people for minor crimes. The leaders of that time and place were unjust, because they created and reinforced a political and economic status quo that drove people into poverty and desperation, and then punished them harshly when they did the things that poor and desperate people sometimes do.
If that sounds familiar, it probably should. We execute a lot fewer people than the Romans did, but our criminal justice system routinely destroys lives for trivial reasons. And our system is most certainly weighted against those with fewer resources and opportunities – as well as against people of color. If you’d like to learn more about all that, Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy is a great place to start.
Reading this so-familiar story this year, I noticed something I hadn’t thought about before. There are two criminals crucified with Jesus, right? The first one joins in mocking Jesus because everybody says he’s a King and a Messiah, but look at him now! “Come on, Messiah, save us!”
The second criminal rebukes the first – “We have been condemned justly, and we are getting what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
I’ve always heard it preached and taught that the first criminal is wrong and the second criminal is right. But you know what? They’re both wrong.
The second criminal – no: the second person, who has been found guilty of a crime and condemned to death – the second person is wrong about what he deserves. Whatever he did that landed him on a cross at the Place of the Skull, he thinks he’s getting what he has coming to him. That he’s been condemned justly.
Look: Whether the death penalty is ever justified is something on which people of good conscience can disagree. Though I personally think it’s tough to make the case for it as a Christian, whose God was literally executed by the state.
But regardless: the second man here is almost certainly not some remorseless brutal killer. Maybe he’s a thief. Maybe he’s a political dissident. Maybe he committed fraud. Maybe he hurt somebody. Maybe he even killed somebody.
It does not follow that he deserves death.
And it’s a sign of his bondage to the regime of death that he believes this. And it’s a sign of our imprisonment to that same cruel master that we continue to accept this logic so readily.
I hope that when this man awakens in Christ’s presence in Paradise, he knows that he did not deserve to die. That his life and worth are so much more than the worst thing he’s ever done.
Did you notice that the word save occurs over and over again in this Gospel passage? Four times – uttered in mockery, each time. “He saved others; let him save himself is he is the Messiah of God.” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
That word “save” – sozo in Greek – it’s the root of the word that the church translates as salvation. This is core vocabulary for the New Testament. Save: rescue, deliver, free, help, heal, sustain, restore – all of that wrapped up in one word.
It’s the right word for this moment. But the people taunting him are pointing it in the wrong direction. Jesus will not save himself. The people mocking him think he’s powerless. “Save yourself!” is a joke because how could he? Look at him.
With the Gospel writers, we know better. We know he has chosen this. Could he have used divine power to step down off the cross? To cast himself into the arms of angels, as Satan tempted him to do, way back at the beginning? Maybe; or maybe he had laid down divine power and protection, as he turned his face towards this moment.
Regardless, it’s very clear from the Gospel accounts that Jesus chose not to resist this death. Chose, even, to walk towards it. Praying in the Garden, submitting his fears to God’s purposes. Rebuking his disciples for resisting his arrest. Silent when asked to speak in his own defense. As human, and as God, he gave himself over to this. Saving himself was never the point.
I don’t claim to understand the meaning, the power, of Jesus’ death on the cross. But I accept the mystery that something salvific, something saving, happens here.
There’s another important word in our Colossians text, in verse 19: Fulness. “In Jesus, all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell.” It’s easy to read right past it, but it turns out there’s a lot of theology packed into that word.
Fulness, pleroma in Greek, is used a number of times in the Epistles, the letters of the first Christians. So is its opposite, Kenoo, which means emptiness, inadequacy, incompleteness. Those words, dancing around each other, trace the outline of a theology of the cross: In this moment, the human part of Jesus empties himself (Phil 2:7), to make room for the fulness of God. His weakness makes room for God’s strength, his brokenness opens the way for God to restore and heal.
And early Christian leaders and teachers see in this a path of discipleship. They urge one another, especially in times of struggle and fear, to empty themselves. To let God’s fulness work in them. To trust, in the words of Paul, that whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:10)
We heard a hint of this in Jesus’ advice to the disciples in last week’s Gospel: “When you are arrested for your faith, make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Luke 21)
This idea of self-emptying is mystery and a challenge for me. When something is difficult, I tend to respond by trying to put more of myself into it. But I do believe – despite myself – that sometimes the wiser response would be to put less of myself in. To let my inadequacy, my weakness, my uncertainty drive me to a more profound openness to God. To serving God less like an independent contractor – and more like a musical instrument, or one of the tools I use in my jewelry workshop.
This is the paradoxical kingship of Jesus, of God on the cross. Following this Christ, serving this King, calls us to carry lightly any earthly loyalties or deferences which may mislead or distort. It calls us to freedom from our bondage to the logic of death and retributive justice. It calls us not to settle for saving ourselves, when others are suffering and struggling.
And it challenges us to find grace and possibility even in the moments when we feel like we have nothing to offer. For in this Kingdom, emptiness is fulfilled, brokenness can reconcile, and dying can lead to eternal life.