Christ the Crucified King
Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year, Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King Sunday is a glorious day, a day when we celebrate Christ reigning in triumph over a kingdom of peace and love and justice. Today is a Second Coming kind of day, but without any of the bad stuff that we sometimes associate with it. If you think about our readings from last Sunday, today continues our reading from Isaiah about new heavens and a new earth full of joy and delight.
But that’s not what our Gospel reading sounds like. Our Gospel reading describes Jesus being crucified. If anything, it is a parody of kingship. Over Jesus’ head is the mocking inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.” Roman soldiers pile on, telling Jesus, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” So-called leaders and even one of the thieves being crucified with Jesus express their contempt for him, too. It’s all horrible. Surely this is NOT what kingship looks like.
Of all the possible readings from the Gospel of Luke, why this one on this day? Why crucifixion on Christ the King Sunday?
Colossians gives us a clue. The last sentence of our passage says “through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Jesus’ moment of humiliation and torment on the cross may look like total defeat. But in fact Christ’s crucifixion means the reconciliation of all things to God. It is total victory. What we see in the story of the cross is Christ’s victory over the powers of evil and sin and suffering. Despite what it looks like at first, Jesus on the cross is indeed Christ the King.
In order to make some sense of that paradox, think of Christ’s crucifixion as God ambushing the forces of evil.
I think back to my childhood. One of my favorite board games was based on World War Two. It was a long and complicated game, so not many people would play it with me. That was all right. I played by myself, taking turns being Germany and England and the US and the other major combatants. One happy result of playing a lot when no one else I knew played almost ever, was that I could win every time I convinced someone to play with me.
My preferred victim was my brother. He was younger than I, and he trusted me. He was already at a big disadvantage because I played so much more. But just to be on the safe side, I never taught him all the rules. At key moments, I could unveil another rule to my great advantage. A lot of times I was telling the truth, but I could make something up if need be. Looking back, I know why people didn’t like playing this game with me!
My favorite move, especially against my brother, was the ambush. I would advance a weak force. Roby would respond with a stronger force, defeat my troops, and advance into my territory. Probably he sometimes thought he was going to win. I would smile a mean smile. Then I’d bring in forces from either side, surround his army, and annihilate it. That never got old.
I don’t want to downplay the very real tragedy and suffering of the cross. Faithful and courageous as he was, even Jesus struggled with it.
But for today, think of the crucifixion as God’s ambush of evil.
At the cross, people who had opposed Jesus for his entire ministry thought they had won. He was dying. His disciples were scattered and terrified. Jesus’ opponents knew that his movement was dead, and they celebrated their apparent victory by mocking Jesus. We can imagine all the forces of evil gloating.
But what they thought was their victory was in fact their defeat. On the cross, Christ’s mission was fulfilled. On the cross, the reconciliation of the world was happening. On the cross, evil and sin and suffering lost.
On the cross, God incarnate won, and won big.
Christ’s victory, revealed and perfected in his resurrection, shocked even his closest disciples. But that’s just because they never understood who Jesus really was. Jesus’ battle with the forces of evil, even more Jesus’ running battle with the religious leadership of his day, was a total mismatch from the beginning, even if no one could see it.
On one side, you have the religious leadership of Jerusalem, supported when need be by the Roman army. That seems like a powerful combination. But on the other side, you have Christ, “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation…..In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The bad guys never stood a chance. Who or what could stand against God incarnate? Who or what could stand against one capable of making his own crucifixion a triumph of reconciliation and love?
Jesus was king, even on the cross. And by winning on the cross, by ruling from the cross, Jesus showed that NOTHING could stand against God’s almighty love.
We glimpse Jesus’ victory even in our Gospel reading. From the cross, Jesus welcomes into paradise a thief getting crucified right beside him. That is the king welcoming a new subject into his kingdom.
And, like everything else in the Bible, this is not just good news for them way back then. This is good news for us, today. Jesus’ victory and Jesus’ rule ripples out from the cross, across the globe and through the centuries, all the way to Agawam in the year 2022. The blood on the cross that made peace, the blood that reconciled all things to God, continues to make peace and to reconcile.
Listen one more time to Colossians, and hear Paul speaking not just to first-century Christians, but directly to you. God “has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. [God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” That is an incredible thing to hear! Christ won on the cross, and we get to share in Christ’s victory.
Colossians also gives us a clue as to what Christ’s victory means for how we should live. Paul tells us that in Christ “all things hold together.”
It was not obvious, when those words were written that things were in fact holding together. It is not obvious now either.
But Paul could see beneath the forces of violence and chaos to the deeper reality of God, and of Christ in whom all things really do hold together. God’s love is a kind of gravitational force, constantly drawing us all together. Human sin is our effort to resist that love, to pull away from God and from each other. Terrible things can happen when people reject God’s love, and fail to act in love ourselves.
But on this Christ the King Sunday, we affirm again that God’s love wins in the end, that Christ does rule, that we share in Christ’s victory. We share in Christ’s victory when we commit ourselves to lives of love, to joining with Christ in a union that continues to ripple out in space and time, eventually to include all people and all of creation.
And so I give thanks for Christ our King, the good news of Christ’s omnipotent love, and the invitation for us to love in response. In Christ’s name. Amen.
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Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan