Sunday, November 21, 2010

Remember Me in Your Kingdom - A Homily for The Reign of Christ, Year C, 2010

Homily for the Reign of Christ, Year C, 2010
Sunday, November 21th, 2010
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Luke 23:33-43

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
--Luke 23:42

For those who have heard the old, old story again and again, the irony will not be lost on us. As Jesus is nailed to the cross and as it is lifted up, three successive taunts are hurled at him. With bystanders observing mutely, the leaders of the day mocked the Lord saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” Soldiers, having cast lots for his clothing, offered him sour wine and these words of ridicule, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And finally, even one of the thieves between whom he was crucified called out, “Are you not the messiah? Save yourself, and us!”

The irony of these taunts is so clear to us because we have the end of the story in sight, we know that while Jesus does indeed suffer death, death is not victorious over him. God indeed delivers his Son from the grave. Where soldiers, religious officials and bystanders mocked him because they thought they were seeing the colossal failure of his ministry culminating in his death, we know that quite the opposite is true: that the cross on which he was hung and that the death that he suffered were, in fact, victory for this cynical, hurting world.

An even deeper irony is revealed in our knowledge of the rest of the story: The so-called “bad thief,” the one who mocks Jesus, not only taunts the crucified Lord to save himself, but also to save him and the other criminal with whom he was crucified. We imagine these words being delivered with such hateful disdain and cynicism, and yet we note again the irony, that this act upon the cross will indeed be a saving act. Somehow, though, at least one character in the narrative can see through the fog of cynicism. The so-called “good thief” is the single person in this narrative with eyes to see, the one person who neither passively observes nor maliciously maligns; the one person who sees in this apparent defeat of the messiah, the fruit of redemption. Thus, he reprimands his companion and turns his eyes to his crucified Lord and mouths what were likely his final words, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It would be so, for our Lord proclaimed the words so many of us long to hear in all our human brokenness, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”


We all have images of God that are formed in our youth. While some have very gentle and loving images of God, I think it is true even amongst Church going folk that some of our images of God are less than healthy, and perhaps a bit skewed. Some of us have images of an angry God, or a punitive God, or a God who is watching over us waiting for us to make mistakes in order to punish us. Even if these are not our images of God, I am quite certain it is what many people outside the Church think of when they imagine the God of churchgoing people. Religious fanatics have not helped allay these stereotypes, but have fanned the flames of ignorance and intolerance. But whatever our image of God, I expect that from time-to-time, God will surprise us, smash that image and we will behold him (or her), in a new and splendid way. From time-to-time, God smashes the idols of the divine image we have imagined and gives us new eyes to see the divine glory. This is what happened on the hill known as the place of the skull.

If we recall those three derisions leveled at Jesus, they all contained one element, specifically, they asked, if he was indeed a king he should show great power and come down from the cross, destroy his oppressors and liberate his people. Should we cast our minds back to a certain moment of temptation in the desert at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we will realize that the image of God that people expected to see in Jesus has not changed that much. The temptations that Satan set before Jesus, to seize and demonstrate his power, and yes to even use his power to help others, are the same temptations he faces on the cross. He is tempted by the derisions of the onlookers in the same way he is tempted by Satan, to reveal himself in power. On the cross, when he fails to do so, he is mocked.
People had an expectation of what a messiah, what a king, would do and Jesus failed to, refused to, live up to those expectations. Thus, when God delivered him unto death and raised him on the third day, in an event of iconoclastic gentleness, God in Christ shattered the idol of people’s perception of who God is and how God should act. Instead of a warrior king who comes with sword and army, we meet the humble self-giving, self-effacing messiah. And it is he, in all his humility, who saves us. Irony of ironies.

Consider again, that moment outside Jerusalem, when amidst the waving of palm branches and excitement Jesus prepared to enter the holy city. Those who gathered around him were gathered for a political revolution. What did they get? - A messiah who handed himself over freely to the authorities to be crucified. God in Christ shatters the image of our expectations.

The culmination of the liturgical year is a moment in which we praise Christ as our King, as our Messiah. But do we know and understand what kind of king we serve; what sort of King we worship? History is littered by the stories of Kings who use their power to enslave people they are meant to serve and destroy the spirits of those whom they are meant to inspire. History is filled with kings, rulers and statesmen who have sent young men (and women) into battle for the most selfish of causes, and have left mothers widowed and children orphaned all in an insane lust for power. This is, for many, the image that comes to mind with the word “king.”

Sadly, for many such is the image of God. To many in the world, looking in from the outside at Christians (and other people of faith), we are perceived a religious fanatics who will sacrifice principles of gentleness and inclusivity to serve an angry God. And while there are those in all religions who serve such an image, they are most certainly wrongheaded, and if there are Christians who follow such an image of God, they have certainly misread the Gospel. For the Word of life that is set before us today, the Word that hangs on that cross proclaims something else; something very revolutionary, something very shattering, something very iconoclastic about God - namely that the one that has all power chooses not to exercise it. Rather, for the sake of his children, he joins them in their journey of life and death.

If he is the king, the messiah, if he is God, let him save himself and us, cries the “bad thief,” but by not saving himself, by not taking the crown of gold but receiving a crown of thorns, he puts his people before himself and saves them. In the Incarnation, God empties himself, assumes our humanity, suffers the worst that human beings can suffer, and separates himself from the font of his very essence, so that we might be drawn into the divine life. By making our human story his story, his divine story becomes our divine story. He joins us in the communion of earthly life, that we might join him in communion with the Father.

He is not a king who separates himself from us in palaces distant and lavish, but a king who joins us in the muck of life, in the pain of our own trials and disappointment. He draws not a sword against the enemy, but rather turns the heart of the enemy and makes the enemy his friend and redeems what his broken. He appoints a place in paradise for even the convicted thief. What then do we learn about the nature of God, about true kingship, about the king and messiah we worship and proclaim? That true kingship, and indeed all Christian leadership, is rooted in deepest humility and a love that burns even unto death. This is the nature of God and this is the life we drawn into by the cross of Christ: the life of humility, compassion, and love. To Christ our King, compassionate and kind, we ascribe our honour and love unto the end of the age. Lord Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.

C. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

No comments: