Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Three thoughts for Christ the King Sunday...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for this week, Sunday November 21st, 2010. It is Christ the King Sunday and my reflections are grounded in an exploration of what that might mean for my community of faith. I am deeply indebted to the study and writing of those in the Girardian movement for this week's message as well as the on-line Biblical scholar Brian Stoffregen who offered an extended quote from Robert Capon. Given all the fullness of this week - births, deaths, weddings, funerals, hospitalization as well as practice for Thanksgiving Eve and buying a new car - I offer these notes without art or refinement. Sometimes that's just how it goes, yes?


In the life of the church – what we call the liturgical calendar – today is the last Sunday of the year. Next week, after our Thanksgiving we will celebrate the first Sunday in Advent – as this begins a new church year and a cycle of biblical readings and reflections. But today, Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the year for the Christian faith community.

• And like many conclusions and transitions, Christ the King Sunday invites us to consider both what we have made of this past year, as well as how we have matured as people choosing to live under the Lordship of Christ Jesus.

• Americans of every Christian denomination – Roman Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox – are not very comfortable with the challenge of Christ the King Sunday not only because we don’t know very much about kings, but also because so much of our culture is obsessed with bottom line thinking. We want what we want, when we want it, for the lowest possible price – and that is a very different perspective on life from the one presented to us this morning in the gospel.

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.”

So let me see if these ideas might help us unlock the power and promise of celebrating Christ the King Sunday in all its rich fullness, ok? Specifically, let’s…

• First, talk about how we as Americans in the 21st century might get our heads around the whole notion of Christ as King because that is just totally bewildering to most of us.

• Second, play with the biblical connection between today’s story of the thief on the cross who receives a promise of Paradise and the Parable of the Rich Fool who receives a very different response from the Lord.

• And third, consider what it might mean to embrace the notion that both the kingdom of God and paradise are less about places and more about a living relationship with God and God’s people.

Are you with me? Three thoughts about Christ the King Sunday – kings, promises and relationships – and let’s see where they take us.


When it comes to speaking of kings, let’s face it: we don't often think in terms of kings or kingdoms anymore. Sure, we might enjoy the history channel – or even that sassy TV show on Showtime called “The Tudors” – but that’s about it. And I don’t think that the PC way of talking about this day – calling it the "Reign of Christ" Sunday – helps a whole lot either. It just replaces one obscure word with another.

• So what is it that most of us talk about these days when it comes to our context? Could it be "culture"? Everything these days is about "culture," don’t you think?

• We talk about a culture that promotes bullying – or greed – or violence against women – or children – or men – or people of color – or gays and lesbians. We speak of a culture of poverty – or ignorance – so narcissism.

• So what would it mean to reframe today as the "Culture of Christ" Sunday? Isn’t that intriguing? What do you think would shape a culture grounded in Christ – any ideas?

I know that I have used this before – and I’m saying this aloud so that you don’t think I am totally forgetful – but here is one way of articulating what a culture of Christ might include:

Jesus says that in his society there is a new way for people to live: you show wisdom by trusting people, you handle leadership by serving, you handle offenders by forgiving, you handle money by sharing, you handle enemies by loving and you handle violence by suffering. In fact, you have a new attitude toward everything and everybody… because in the Jesus society you repent not by feeling bad, but by thinking different.

Our church covenant is also another articulation of what it might look like to live as a part of the culture of Christ:

We covenant with one another and God to gather as a community of faith in the spirit and presence of Jesus Christ. We own our brokenness and failings, confess them to God and trust that the Spirit of the Lord will bring us forgiveness and renewal. We seek to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. We promise to carry one another’s burdens, share the joys and sorrows of life together and do our part to strengthen this church. In grace, we ground ourselves in the insights of the Protestant Reformers and search for wisdom in the Scriptures, prayer, study and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We join others throughout the wider community in pursuit of justice and compassion for we understand that we have been called to be a light in the darkness and a source of hope to those in need. In the name of God. Amen.

Does that make sense to you? Is that a helpful way of reframing the importance of Christ the King Sunday?

A second thought has to do with comparing the way Jesus speaks about two very different people: the thief beside him on the cross and the rich fool from Luke 12: 13-21:

Someone out of the crowd said, "Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance." He replied, "Mister, what makes you think it's any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?" Speaking to the people, he went on, "Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot." Then he told them this story: "The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: 'What can I do? My barn isn't big enough for this harvest.' Then he said, 'Here's what I'll do: I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I'll gather in all my grain and goods, and I'll say to myself, Self, you've done well! You've got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!' "Just then God showed up and said, 'Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?' "That's what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God."

Biblical scholars have noted that both stories speak of the moment of death – but with very different endings:

• The rich fool basically has had just himself as his only dialogue partner throughout the parable until God intervenes with a word about his consequences for trying to be in charge of his own life. The thief on the cross, on the other hand, receives a promise of Paradise for coming into dialogue with Jesus and giving his life over to him. (Paul Nuechterlien and friends @

• Do you see where this is going? If we are filled with a culture of self – whether that is greed or selfishness or self-pity – than we are left empty. Like the Lord’s Prayer says, we will get as good as we have given; if we forgive others, we, too, will be forgiven. If we are open to Christ, however, then we will be filled.

• One writer was so bold to say that in the whole of the Passion Narrative, there is only one human being who realizes what’s really happening prior to the events of the resurrection. There is only one person, looking at Jesus on the cross, who does not see disaster. Tradition calls him Dimas. Luke calls him a thief.

It seems to me that these two contrasting stories make it clear the difference between a culture and life filled with self and a culture and life open to Christ – but what strikes you?

All of which brings me to my third thought having to do with the notion that both God’s kingdom and paradise are less about a place – in life or death – and more about a living relationship with God and God’s people. You see, for the thief on the cross…

Joining Jesus in paradise had nothing to do with dying. It had nothing to do with being raised from the dead. It had everything to do with seeing beyond the appearances to the truth, that God is victorious in the cross. It has everything to do with the thief’s realization that his own condemnation on the cross bore no relationship to his standing before God. In that moment, he became free. In that moment, he joined Jesus in paradise. We are called to make that same paradise a reality in this present moment, as Jesus did for Dimas. We are called to point to the reality of Jesus’ kingship in the here and now, not to point to it as some oft-promised reward for our perseverance. We can see beyond the lies of this world to the one beyond because we see the meaning of the cross. (Jeff Krantz and Michael Hardin @

Jesus tells him TODAY you will be with me in paradise. Pastor and biblical scholar, Brian Stoffregen, has observed that Luke uses that word – today – in a unique and important way:

• When the angels come to the shepherds they say: Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you (2:11)

• When Jesus preaches his first public sermon in his hometown synagogue – reading from the scroll of Isaiah about Jubilee and God’s justice – he says: Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. (4:21)

• When Jesus is out in the world and comes upon the little man, Zacchaeus the tax collector, in the tree, he says: I must stay at your house today. (19:5) and when the meal is over and Zacchaeus shares his bounty with the poor, Jesus goes on to say: Today salvation has come to this house (19:9)

• And now, to the thief beside him on the Cross, he says: I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. (23:43) (

What’s all this mean – any ideas? Most likely it has to do with seeing and encountering the truth of Jesus – not our fantasies or projections about the Messiah – but really seeing and embracing Jesus as the Son of God. The pastor, Robert Capon, presents a wonderful picture of our typical American Messiah – and it doesn't look much like Jesus on the cross.

The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman: "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It's Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way." If that isn't popular Christology, I'll eat my hat. Jesus -- gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than human insides -- bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven.

This story has got it all – including, just so you shouldn't miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane. You think that's funny? Don't laugh. The human race is, was and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. We don't want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: He claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It's not that we weren't looking for the Messiah; our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying."


Christ the King Sunday asks us to confront ourselves – not in guilt – but for clarity and discipleship sake by asking:

• In the past year, whose culture have you served more consistently? Christ’s or your own? Why do you think that is: is it easier – most satisfying – something you never thought of before?

• What difference does your faith in Jesus make – for you – and for others? Does it strengthen compassion and hope and justice? Or is your faith all otherworldly? Abstract? Selfish?

• And then what Messiah do you long for: a holy Arnold Schwarzenegger who rescues you from pain and gives you everything you desire; or, Jesus, who is most clearly identified sharing forgiveness and mercy from the Cross?

To confess Christ as King is NEVER easy, but it is the way to paradise today and always.


Black Pete said...

I struggle with the "King" concept here, because Jesus was a very human messiah to me: neither my king nor saviour. That said, I like your idea of a "culture of Christ"--it strikes me that being Christ-like is probably a dead-on analog to the Buddha nature. Either way, a very life-giving culture, indeed.

RJ said...

I totally get the conflict with king and savior in a traditional way; me, too. And at the same time struggle to embrace living into the spirit and grace of a Christ culture. Buddha-nature is an excellent analog for which I am grateful.

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