Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
O Rex Gentium, King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save all humanity, whom you have fashioned from the dust of the earth.
One of my seminary professors, the Rev. Charlie Cook, was fond of supplementing the gospel of John, chapter 8, verse 32: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…but first it will make you STRANGE.”
Today is known as “Christ the King” Sunday, and so we remember our brothers and sisters in congregations in Kingsland and Valdosta, as well as other places, who keep their feast of title this day. And it is, above all, a Strange Feast. It is a relatively new feast, having only come into existence in 1925 at the direction of then-Pope Pius XI, as the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe.” The Book of Common Prayer 1979 does not use “Christ the King” as a title for this day, but the prayers and the lessons appointed for today are attentive to that theme.
We have trouble with the words of “king” and “kingdom” nowadays, and in this part of the world. We fought a revolution over 200 years ago to be free from monarchy; if we hear the language of kings and kingdoms most of us either tend to think of the British royal family, or a scene or character from a Disney movie. Neither of which are helpful in this context.
This morning’s gospel describes a scene of Jesus being called “the King” but in the most mocking, abusive way, as he hangs on the cross, in the company of criminals, on a public street corner for all to see. The political and religious power-structure of his time and place have done all they can to destroy him.
What sort of king is this?
Not the king that perhaps had been expected. Jeremiah, writing centuries before to the exiles in Babylon, clearly had a particular sort of person in mind, a descendant of King David of long ago, who would deal decisively with unjust and abusive and neglectful rulers (“shepherds”) of the people, and who would make a place of peace, justice, and safety for all over whom he should rule. And all would be as it was in the good old days.
By this criteria, Jesus isn’t much of a king, as kings go. He has no army to rally behind him; he has no courtiers to advise him; at this last, he has not even a friend nearby to comfort him. He is crucified as a troublemaker, a threat to the Pax Romana and the fragile balance of power in that time and place, a potential danger to those whose own positions in the social and political hierarchy were all-too-vulnerable. A strange king, indeed.
There, in humiliation and pain, moments from death, he is abused by those who look on and recognized by only one person. A stranger, one of the criminals crucified there that day, who knew himself by all reckoning to be outside society’s boundaries, deserving (at least in the eyes of those who judged him) of all that he was suffering—and he alone understands who Jesus is. He has become known in subsequent years as the Repentant Thief, but he’s not really all that repentant. He doesn’t ask for forgiveness for the things he has done—and we do not know what those might have been. He acknowledges those things indirectly, but only asks Jesus to “remember him.”
Remember me when you come into your kingdom.
He has no right to expect anything. But even so, he reaches out in hope of mercy.
He is like the tax collector in the temple back in chapter 18, who cannot even look up to heaven, but cries out for mercy. And whose cry for mercy is heard and answered.
He asks to be “remembered.” Not merely “called to mind as a recollection of a past event.” But re-membered, re-stored, re-newed, put back together in this kingdom—whatever sort of kingdom it may be—that he somehow believes that Jesus is capable of, even in that moment.
It is the same word, “remembered”, that Jesus speaks to his followers earlier, around the table at the last supper. “Do this in remembrance of me.” The criminal crucified with Jesus was not present for that final meal, but he is participating in its grace and power, without bread, without wine, but with the Host welcoming him to the banquet nonetheless.
This royal banquet, this welcome into the garden of abundance and refreshment (which is what Paradise originally meant, a watered garden) is promised to one who did not deserve it, had not earned it, could not pay for it, and yet somehow had just the tiny mustard-seed bit of faith enough to ask for it. And it was enough. For in Jesus, crucified and risen, there is always enough for those who ask—and even those who cannot ask.
And so the writer of the letter to the Colossians can speak joyfully, even exuberantly, of our being adopted into the family of God, given an “… inheritance of the saints in the light. He 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.”
This forgiveness of sins, this restoration of relationship between human beings and God, and between human beings and one another, is the gift of God in Christ. It is accomplished once-for-all in Christ; its full appearance is still yet to be fully revealed to us in this world. It is not accomplished by anything we do or refrain from doing; it is entirely God’s handiwork. We can welcome it into our hearts and lives, or we can refuse it—but even then, God does not have to take “No” for an answer.
The writer goes on: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
What was seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was not the whole story. “Just wait, there’s more!” In him All That Is, has its source and its sustenance. In him the resurrection and restoration of all the creation has begun. What his enemies intended as an instrument of shameful death becomes a symbol of forgiveness and mercy. “Father, forgive them: they do not know what they are doing.” Violence was not met with cursing or further violence; Jesus did not call down the wrath of God on his enemies. Even there, he asked good for them. The word of forgiveness, even there at the point of disaster and death, has the power to change everything. And it does.
It is not any kingdom that the world has ever understood, in the world’s terms. It looks strange, and weird, and wrong. Because in order to include all the strangeness and weirdness and wrongness of the universe, Jesus had to become part of that strange weird wrongness himself. Even to the point of death, so that no part of human experience would be omitted. He knew it all, so that he might know us all, so that all we are or ever shall be, might be known by and in him in the Resurrection. No one is left out; no one is left behind. All are lifted up into the fullness of this kingdom of God of which Jesus speaks.
We are, all of us, adopted into God’s family and household through God’s love revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; we have heard what that love looks like, through words calling for blessing and forgiveness even for those who would hurt or destroy us. This message Jesus preaches, this kingdom to which he directs his hearers, is indeed not like any kingdom we know in this world. It is STRANGE, and we are made STRANGE as citizens in it. Forgiveness for enemies; love for God above all things; love of neighbor as self. Giving of ourselves—time, talent, and treasure—in order to bless strangers and people we don’t know, whom we may never know.
Very strange citizens, following a very strange king.
The world does not know what to do with such people.
Never has, never will.
And yet it is these who have challenged and changed the world at every stage of history.
Called on the powers and principalities in every time and place:
to do justice, to love mercy, to walk in humility with God.
Called forth the broken, the hurting, the sick and the sad and the lost and the dead:
to walk in the light of God’s mercy and grace and abundant life.
Called upon God, to come and dwell among the people as leader and guide, protector and deliverer.
My brothers and sisters, may we be so strange, so fearlessly and joyfully strange.
Strange followers of our strange King.
May it be so for us.
May it be so among us.
This day, and always.