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. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Well, here we are at the Feast of Christ the King which finishes the liturgical year: next week we start Advent, so it seems really strange that today we have as our Gospel passage an extract of the Passion Narrative, chosen for this week, though, because of its emphasis on the Kingship of Jesus. We might do well to begin with a look at what the word "king" means. Though we often hear in Luke's Gospel about the "reign of God" or the "kingdom of God," and though Jesus is often called "Lord," the title of "king" is given him only in the accounts of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the way to his passion.
Later, as his passion was beginning, Luke says that the elders of the people, the chief priests, and the scribes brought him before Pilate. They brought charges against him, saying, We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Messiah, a king . Then, Pilate asked him, 'Are you the king of the Jews?' He said to him in reply, 'You say so'.
The whole account of the Passion points toward the coming of God's kingdom. When the hour came, he took his place at table with the apostles. He said to them, 'I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you, I shall not eat it [again] until there is fulfilment in the kingdom of God.' Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and said, 'Take this and share it among yourselves; for I tell you that from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.
Then, as the apostles were quarrelling about which of them should be regarded as the greatest, Jesus said to them: The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them and those who are in authority over them are addressed as 'Benefactors'; but among you it shall not be so. And he added: I am among you as the one who serves. It is you who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.
Clearly, Jesus, according to Luke, intended to emphasize the radical difference between his kingship and that of the lords of this world who desire power, honour, or wealth. Nothing could point up the contrast more strongly than the crucifixion, the account of which we read today.
As today's passage continues, we hear those familiar words of the thief: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. First of all, did the man know that the name "Jesus" means "God saves"? We will never know and it really doesn't matter because, by addressing Jesus as he does in the last moments of his life, he is the model of all those who in anguish and distress at the moment of death utter, in an ultimate leap of faith and hope, the name from which comes salvation: Jesus.
Then he says remember me. It is an appeal to the living and present God, with the assurance that he desires and has the power to save. On the lips of one condemned to death by human justice, it is the striking prayer of assurance that despite one's confessed sins, God will save.
In his response to the thief's request, Jesus tells him, Today you will be with me in paradise. Luke insists on the "today" of salvation. In a few weeks, we will hear the words, For today in the city of David a saviour has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord, which is the good news announced to the shepherds at Bethlehem. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus, in the synagogue of his hometown in Nazareth, having read the passage from the prophet Isaiah that announces a year of favour from the Lord, proclaimed: Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing". At the house of Zacchaeus, who promised to give half his belongings to the poor and make reparation to anyone whom he had cheated, Jesus declared, Today salvation has come to this house.
So what does all of this mean to us? We noted earlier that Christ's kingdom has nothing to do with power, honour or wealth. If that is so, then what is it all about anyway? Well, if we look at the verse which immediately precedes where the gospel picks up today, we will hear Christ's first words from the cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. And then in our passage today, the soldiers taunt him with the words, If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself. This is the whole point of Christ's life on earth: he became one like us, not to save himself, but to save us and to enable us, as he said at the Last Supper, to eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.
In essence, Christ's life on earth was lived for others. He relinquished his self to live for others. We are called upon to do the same. Especially as we enter upon another season of Christmas buying frenzy, we need to constantly remind ourselves about where our true values should be. In a world where the culture seems mainly to be "Look out for number one, Christ has shown us the way to true happiness, and it doesn't come from anything in this world.
It is worth noting, too, that the Gospels in general don’t seem all that interested in Heaven and Hell. Neither did the early church Fathers. When the Bible talks about the Kingdom of God, the trend for quite some time now has been to understand it as The Kingdom of God … on Earth: God’s sovereign rule breaking through into the here and now.
If we think the question is “Am I going to Heaven? Will I be saved?” the Gospels seem to be suggesting that we have missed the point. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laments that many people will call him Lord, but only those who act upon his ethical teachings can be his true followers. That’s quite a different answer to the question. What you're seeking is probably not pie in the sky, but, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, pie in the here and now. So maybe the question rightly asked is not “what happens at the end of things?” but more like “what am I supposed to be doing right now? What does Jesus want me to do? To be? How will my life be different if Christ is King?”
Of course, at the time Luke’s biography of Jesus is set this was a really pertinent question because of the ongoing theological and political debate about who really was THE LORD. Was it the God of the Hebrews, Jehovah, YHWH, or was it the Emperor in Rome? Well, those days are long gone but the question remains, certainly theological and yes, political too: who is the Lord? Jesus or something else offered and affirmed by modern culture? The usual things people elevate as gods - power and influence, wealth, celebrity and fame - are subsumed in the Kingdom of God by the supreme values of service, love, self-sacrifice, and faithful community. Life in God's Kingdom is not about self-promotion, it's about renunciation: it's about little actions, often little anonymous actions. Life in God's Kingdom is not about what we have or who we are, it's about what we do. It's not about what the world values, but what God values.
This isn’t a revolutionary idea: in the Old Testament book of Micah we read, This is what the Lord requires of you: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. The message is this: if we love God, if our values are God-values instead of the world's values, if Christ actually is King, then we will love as God loves, give as God gives, forgive as God forgives. If our values are God-values, we can't help but live as Christ taught and in doing so we bring the kingdom of God closer. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told how he would like to be remembered, and in doing so, he zeroed in on that ultimate question: If Christ is King, what does that mean? If Christ is ruler over our lives, Dr. King told his audience, then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than my trying to feed the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than that I visited those in prison. If Christ is Lord, then my being TIME magazine's " Man of the Year” is less important than that I tried to love extravagantly, dangerously, with all my being.
Perhaps the feast of Christ the King is just the right time for a personal spiritual audit: if we were to take a snapshot of our lives now how are we doing? Ezekiel put it rather well, This is the sin of Sodom: she had pride, plenty of food, and comfortable security, but didn't support the poor and needy. Now that’s not what many Christians will tell us the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is all about but they’ve clearly got it wrong if we accept what Ezekiel is telling us. So in our personal audit perhaps we should be asking ourselves where we are on the true Sodom scale of personal ethics.
How are things going to end? What happens after we die? I don't know, and neither do you. But we do know the shape of the story a loving God is writing. If Christ is King, we know Jesus waits at the end of that story, that he will see us, and know us, and that if we have done what he taught us, he will claim us as his own.
Our prayers for ourselves today should include the petition that as we continue to grow to spiritual maturity we become the sort of Christians who care for the poor and the needy, the outcast and the marginalised, not because of fear of judgement and our place in the afterlife but because it is the Christlike way to behave. It is the way of Christ the King.
And, I have to say, that is question and answer enough for me.