They crucified Jesus there with the criminals. They scoffed at him, they mocked him, they gave him vinegar to drink.
What kind of king is this? What kind of reign of Christ does this pitiful scene promise us? We might rather have a king seated on his throne in glory, surrounded by angels, sorting sheep from goats.
The Feast of Christ the King—the Reign of Christ—is a relatively new feast, proclaimed by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It came about in response to Mussolini’s fascism, and to the emergence of nationalist movements throughout Europe after the first world war. The Feast of Christ the King offered a politically fragile world the assurance of Christ as the ruler who defies all other rulers.
So where is the triumph? Where is the reassurance? What kind of king is this?
This Sunday, we have quite a different gospel. We see Jesus at his most vulnerable, his followers confused and scattered. We are face to face with the irony of Christ’s kingship, the irony that it is this Christ—this vulnerable and wounded Jesus—that we follow as our king, our ruler and guide. This Christ is the one under whose most gracious rule we, who are divided and enslaved by sin, will be liberated and united.
There’s nothing like a presidential campaign year to remind us how divided we are, nothing like another slew of mass shootings to remind us that we are enslaved by sin. Nothing like a series of hateful white supremacist threats on a university campus to remind us how much we need the Reign of Christ. To say nothing of the lack of consensus in our country and around the world about creation care, and our own responsibility for climate change.
It is appropriate in a world so divided and enslaved by sin that we close the Church year with Christ at his most vulnerable.
If the Reign of Christ is Christ on the cross, what does today’s gospel say to us about how we are to embody Christ in this sinful and broken world? How do we participate in God’s most gracious rule?
Jesus is scoffed by the religious leaders of his day, and mocked, taunted even, by soldiers of the Roman empire. They ridicule him with the very titles his followers have used for him: savior, king, and Messiah. They remind us of the thread of doubt that appears in several places in the gospel, the doubt that a Christ who suffers and dies can actually be the Messiah. To all of this scoffing and mocking, Jesus prays: “Forgive them, Father: they do not know what they are doing.” This vulnerable, suffering Christ includes in his forgiving embrace those whose own pride and misplaced allegiance makes them behave particularly badly. (We all know people like that. Perhaps we’ve been people like that.)
We more fully participate in the Reign of Christ when we engage the scoffers and mockers of our time. We can engage them in prayer. We can invite them into conversation. (Some of you may have such conversations in the coming holiday week.) We can also take—and share—small concrete actions in the world to protest gun violence, to reduce fossil fuel consumption, to combat hate with love. Our work is to do that not just in here, but out there, in how we shop, how we travel, how we engage those with whom we disagree, even in how we eat and where our food comes from. The kingdom is God’s, and it is here. Our work is to embody it in how we live into the love and the hope Christ offers us.
We more fully participate in the Reign of Christ by spending time with one another reflecting on our own vulnerabilities and our longing, rather than being glued to a screen or ranting about the state of the world. Seriously, when was the last time you sat with a friend, maybe someone from church, and said: “This what I long for. This is what I pray for. This is what hurts me. This is what I hope for in the kingdom of God.”
The interaction of Jesus with the criminal on the cross illustrates the crazy hope with which we, too, are to live into the Reign of Christ. Jesus remember me, when you come in to your kingdom. This criminal sees through the misery of the present moment and the misery of his own past in order to ask for something utterly implausible. Today you will be with me in paradise, Jesus says. Just as implausible. Today you will be made whole—re-membered. Jesus makes vulnerability holy.
There are so many reasons we use bread instead of wafers at communion. Each of you who loves our communion bread probably has your own reasons. The body of Christ should remind us of all that is nourishing. But another reason I love using the loaves we use is that we break the bread. Each
of you receives a piece of broken bread. Every time we have Eucharist together, we enter into Christ’s brokenness, and we take that brokenness into ourselves. (Some places priest will break wafer as he or she puts it in your hand. I like our bread better, but that little snap of brokenness is important.) At the same time that we take Christ’s brokenness as our own, we can take the criminal’s hope for the Kingdom as our own.
The hope of the criminal, as vulnerable as Jesus, can be ours. How will we express our own wildly implausible hope?
When we pray “Your Kingdom come on earth” in church every Sunday or perhaps many times throughout each week, think about what it is we’re praying for. You could do worse than have this be your Advent meditation. Maybe just meditate on that phrase. (As an aside…5PM setting…) What kingdom do we pray for, and what grace of embodying it, what small action will we do to inhabit the kingdom right now, this day, this week, this year? What expression of hope can we offer to make the Reign of Christ real, on earth?