The Last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ the King Sunday – November 21, 2010
Jeremiah 23:1-6 – Canticle 16 – Colossians 1:11-20 – Luke 23:33-43
In the Roman world in which Jesus lived, to declare anyone other than Caesar as king constituted treason! The concept of a religious king, a savior, someone who was not concerned with material kingship, didn’t exist. Anyone called “King of the Jews” was a threat to the throne and that could not be tolerated. And so they crucified him, this king.
Crucifixion is an excruciating death! The one being crucified is fastened by ropes or nails to a cross. Jesus was nailed to a cross, his hands, and probably his feet as well. There was a horn-like projection which the crucified straddled. That took most of the weight and stopped the nails from tearing through the flesh.
The bones of a man crucified about the same time as Jesus indicate the legs may have been bent and twisted in such way to allow one nail to penetrate through both ankles as it attached to the cross. Such contortion would have added to the agony. Crucifixion was a slow and painful death.
However, the New Testament does not focus on what Jesus endured but on the significance of his death.
There are two others crucified with Jesus. Luke simply calls them criminals, while Matthew and Mark say they are thieves. The three are brought to a place called The Skull where Jesus is placed between the two criminals. Even in his death he is in the midst of sinners.
Throughout history, a king was the central symbol of the social system. His prime function was the establishment and maintenance of order throughout the kingdom. The king was viewed as either a god or anointed by God. There have been some good kings and some very bad kings. And sometimes there have been some good kings who have done some very bad things. A king had the authority to dismiss crimes, to set the accused free, to pass judgment.
We have never had a monarchy in this country, which we brag about from time to time. Yet we are fascinated with the throne of England. I guess that says a lot about our own heritage and DNA. We say we don’t want a king. However, we are consistently setting up our elected officials, chosen by us, to be our “kingly” models. Every four years we suffer the indignation of an election fraught with character assassinations, promises, pledges, half-truths and non-truths, to elect a leader. And then over and over we find ourselves disappointed in the election results or in the performance of the elected. Therefore we struggle with the image of a “good king.” Only when enough time has passed are we able to properly evaluate the performance of any leader and conclude the value we have received.
At the end of every presidency the person sitting on that “throne” has the right, the legal right, to pardon whomever he or she chooses. It is a privilege given to be exercised with great care. It is a privilege extended to kings and Jesus is labeled, “King of the Jews.” As he hangs there on this wooden cross, nails driven in his hands and feet, a crown of thorns pressed upon his brow, blood dripping from his bruised body, he is watching as they cast lots for his clothing. Some are jeering him, scoffing at him to save himself. “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”
The good king responds, “Father, forgive them…” Forgive them. Pardon them. Who is this man that he is able to ask forgiveness for those who have just inflicted on him great bodily harm? He is Christ the King. He is our king.
Even from the cross Jesus is teaching us about forgiveness. He has been teaching us all year long about forgiving. Sometimes without words but just in the way he has behaved.
Jesus never blamed anyone!
When the young blind man was made to see again, the question was asked, “Whose fault was it that he was born blind?”
When the prodigal son came home, Jesus didn’t ask why he left?
When the woman at the well was healed of her sins, Jesus didn’t ask her why she had had so many men in her life.
Mocked, ridiculed, spat upon, jeered, Jesus did as he had taught: he turned the other check. He continued to forgive.
I have read stories of unbelievable forgiveness! For instance, Marietta Jaeger, whose daughter, Susie, was abducted at the age of seven during a family camping trip in Montana. For over a year afterwards, the family knew nothing of Susie’s whereabouts. Shortly before the one-year anniversary of Susie’s disappearance, Marietta stated to the press that she wanted to speak with the person who had taken her child. On the anniversary date, she received a call from a young man who taunted her by asking, “So what do you want to talk to me about?”
During the year following Susie’s disappearance, Marietta had struggled to balance her rage against her belief in the need for forgiveness. Her immediate response to the young man was to ask how he was feeling, since his actions must have placed a heavy burden on his soul. Her caring words disarmed him, and he broke down in tears on the phone. He subsequently spoke with Marietta for over an hour, revealing details about himself and the crime that ultimately allowed the case to be solved.
Despite her family’s tragedy, she remains committed to forgiveness.
What about the Amish family who was traveling along the road when a car of teenagers passed by. The boys laughed and ridiculed the Amish family for their attire and outdated mode of travel. The boys found such pleasure in the mocking they turned their car around for another go at the Amish family. Only this time one of them threw a rock at the carriage hitting the baby carried by his mother. The baby died from a head wound. The teenager was convicted and sent to prison. Well, on a regular basis it was the Amish family who visited that teenager in prison. That’s forgiveness.
Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been different. We cannot change the past and the future is yet to be lived, but if we can make a difference in the present, that’s the best gift we can give ourselves.
Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian woman who survived a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust, said, “Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you.”
Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (NIV) Matthew 18:21-22
Sometimes it just isn’t easy to forgive and in carrying around that unforgiving package we lose our real selves, the self we are intended to be. I know about forgiveness because I have been forgiven.
We celebrate today as Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday of this liturgical year. Beginning next Sunday we enter into the new year, Year A of the lectionary, Year one of the Daily Office, the First Sunday of Advent, the time of preparation for the coming of Christ as a child; a time of expectation and anticipation; perhaps a time to unburden ourselves by practicing forgiveness.
Thursday of this week is Thanksgiving, which kicks off the holiday season of celebration. It is time where we tend to gather with family and friends, some we like better than others. Holidays don’t always bring out the best in us. In fact, sometimes it is quite the opposite, and what is intended to be a wonderful time around a table is anything but wonderful. There are no scripts for us to hand out to each party present. We have to live with improvisation, bring what it may.
Look again at the cross where Jesus is hanging. Arms stretched out, open to receive even us, sinners alike. We are pardoned for what we have done and what we have left undone. Pardoned by this king.
Jesus was crucified with criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Jesus doesn’t blame anyone. No, he says, “Forgive them!”