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“What Kind of King?” – Sermon on Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday

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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.” – Luke 23:33-43

Today is Reign of Christ (also known as Christ the King) Sunday, the last Sunday in our church calendar year before we begin our journey through Advent as we expectantly wait for the coming of our Savior.

Now, many Christian leaders have struggled to know whether or not they should drop this feast or change its name. And I can understand why they live in this tension. King, Lord, ruler, reign, and kingdom are all titles that refer to worldly and often exclusive and oppressive governmental systems.

But – before we jump too quickly to writing these titles off or skipping out on the feast of Reign of Christ/Christ the King that we celebrate this morning – I think we might look at why Christ’s Lordship has been emphasized and why this feast was established and has been celebrated in the Church in the first place.

While the Church has upheld the belief that Christ is King and Lord throughout much of its history, Christ the King Sunday is actually very new to the church calendar. The first feast was instituted in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1920s and soon thereafter was celebrated by many other Christian traditions.  It was not only established in these traditions in response to the Church’s concern with the rise of secularism, which led many to deny that Christ was central to all parts of peoples’ lives.  But this feast was also instituted and began to be celebrated in a time when dictatorships were on the rise in Europe. And it was during this time, when many within the Church who rejected such dictatorships began to strongly reemphasize Christ’s Lordship over all things.

We can hear an example of this in the Barmen Declaration, a document that was written in Germany in 1934 by theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran Hans Asmussen. The document was a statement that refuted the dangerous teachings of the pro-Nazi “German Christian” movement, which glorified Hitler as a leader and – in the name of Christianity – justified his exclusionary and violent actions both inside and outside the Church during his early rise to power.

Part of the Barmen Declaration states:

“We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

‘Let us, however, speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together.’ (Eph. 4:15-16)

The Christian Church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and Sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the Church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing.”

You see, many churches and Christian leaders at this time reemphasized Christ’s Lordship as a means to oppose such oppressive worldly governmental systems. And for the churches that celebrated it, the feast of Christ the King became a reminder that it is Jesus Christ – and no other worldly leader – who has authority. It is the Kingdom of God – and no other worldly government – that reigns over the heavens and all the earth.

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And now, we hear a similar message as we celebrate Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday this morning. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from Jesus’ glorious power,” our author in Colossians urges us. “And may you be prepared to endure everything. 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 are created through him and for him. It is Jesus – himself – and no other worldly ruler – who is above and before all things. He is the beginning. Therefore, he must be placed first in everything.”

Yes, our Savior, the One whose coming into the world we will begin to prepare for this week, is indeed King of Kings and Lord of Lords, whose reign does not only last a few years, but lasts for all eternity.

Yes, it is Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ in whom Christians and our church institutions are to pledge our allegiance to.  And there is no time or part of our lives that is not subject to his reign…

But our Scriptures this morning remind us that this King and Lord is not the kind of ruler our world expects, celebrates, or uplifts. And our Gospel text in Luke shows us that our King and Lord is not the kind of leader who would have won an election… or even a popular vote.

Rather, here in Luke, we see a different kind of king in which we are to follow.

Here, in Luke, we see a king in the middle of a crucifixion scene. We see a king who is wearing a crown of thorns rather than a crown of jewels and gold. We see a king who is stripped down to his skin, bullied and spit upon, beaten and mocked for proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is not just for those on top, but rather it is a Kingdom for all.

We see a king who shows up in the midst of great suffering and fear. Who hangs on a cross between two criminals on death row – offering forgiveness and compassion to those who are most vulnerable and even to those who put him on the cross in the first place.

We see a king who chooses to save the entire world rather than to save himself.

And as we look at this crucifixion scene in Luke this morning, we are reminded that our king is one who brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives, gives sight to the blind, and lets the oppressed go free.

With his arms outstretched, we hear him crying out to us: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

And in his final breaths, we hear him reminding us: “Who is the greatest of all? Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

You see, for the one in whom we proclaim is Lord, the way to greatness is not to be first, but rather it is to put others first.

To live as servants, providing love and grace to those around us. To put the well-being and basic needs of others in front of our own wants, our sense of security, our concerns of offending others or being rejected, and our temptation to want to get ahead.

Our Lord’s path is not about climbing the social latter and befriending and caring for only those who have something to offer us.

Rather, Jesus’ path to greatness is servanthood and taking up our cross. For those of us who have been on the front-lines in our society, this path to greatness is putting ourselves last so that others who’ve been last can move into the front-lines. For all of us, this path to greatness is welcoming, embracing, loving, and walking alongside all who suffer, including and especially those whom the world deems as the last and the least.

 It is proclaiming that Jesus Christ is indeed King and Lord and in doing so, tearing down all walls that divide and speaking out against any and all forms of hate.

 You see, the thing is, we have a King and Lord who flipped the worldly systems of injustice upside down. We see that in and through his life, death, and resurrection he was radically transforming and redefining kingship. He was reigning in a kingdom of God that was nothing like the oppressive governmental systems of this world.

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And so today, on Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, we are being reminded of who exactly reigns in our lives, no matter what title we might give him. We are being called to boldly pledge our allegiance to Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ in all areas of our lives – no matter how difficult this might be. We are being asked to follow Jesus toward the cross, where he – our loving God who is with us in the flesh – performed a radical act of love that did and continues to trump hate.

Yes, Christ is King and Lord of all! So let us boldly and loudly proclaim it. Let us “testify [to it] in the midst of the sinful world.” “Let us speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together.”

And let us choose to follow Christ, our King and Lord, to the cross.

Amen.

 

 

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“From Palms to Passion” – Sermon for Palm Sunday for the Passion of Our Lord

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Palms Text: Matthew 21:1-11                     Passion Text: Matthew 26:14-27:66

 

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Well, it’s Palm Sunday for the Passion of our Lord. And it’s the beginning of Holy Week, which means we are finally coming to an end of the Lenten Season. I don’t know about you, but I am getting a little weary of wandering in the wilderness. This cold and snowy Chicago polar vortex went on way too long, and I’m definitely not looking forward to the snow that is predicted for tomorrow; I am sick and tired of soup dinners, somber reflections, and the practice of self-emptying; and – quite honestly, I am ready to get back to drinking the coffee that I gave up for Lent.

Give me Easter already!

And how many of us here wish we could have just gathered outside the chapel this morning for our great Palm Sunday procession, waving our palms, shouting joyful shouts of “Hosannas” to the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor…”

And then have called it a day…?

Or, I guess, for many of us, even called it a week… Until we come back next Sunday to celebrate the resurrection – and, of course, skip all that comes in between?

I think that author Anne Lamott puts into words what I – and so many others of us – feel as we begin this long, solemn Holy Week. She says:

“I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion. I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection. In fact, I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of the kids in our Sunday School, who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside the tomb; everlasting life and a basketful of chocolates. Now you’re talking!”

Isn’t this familiar? Isn’t it common for us to just avoid and skip over the cross?

Don’t we tend to avoid the suffering that is constantly dominating the headlines of our international, national, and local news? Don’t we tend to skip over the pain that is continuously taking over the lives of our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, and those we pass by as we walk to the train? And don’t we even sometimes tend to avoid the betrayals and persecution that we – ourselves – would have to experience if we did – in fact – speak out against injustices that marginalize the “least of these” in our society and sometimes even us?

I get it. I am with you. I am sick and tired of the wilderness and just want chocolate bunnies and Easter egg hunts. I want Hosannas, Alleluias, and new everlasting life.

And I especially want coffee!

And yet, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be resurrection people, living lives here and now that bring forth light into darkness and proclaim the promise of new life that comes with the resurrection to both our neighbors and ourselves.  And to avoid and skip over the pain and suffering of those around us and even within our own lives is to choose to not live into the resurrection.  It is making the choice to not accept and proclaim new everlasting life.  For we know that we cannot have and experience the resurrection and the promises that come with it without first experiencing what comes before it.

We cannot have the resurrection without first having the cross.

And so, for those of us who are here this morning – on Palm Sunday – wishing we could just hear about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then “call it a day,” I’m sorry to disappoint…

After waving palms and shouting and singing joyful “Hosannas,” we must suddenly take a quick turn and hear and accept what comes next on our journey… and what was once bright and joyfully loud becomes dark and eerily silent as we veil the cross in black and hear the long, dark readings about Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, persecution, and suffering as he slowly journeys – with a crown of thorns digging into his skull – toward the cross.

Those joyful shouts of “Hosannas” have now become angry shouts of “Crucify!”

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But this is life, isn’t it? There have and will be times in our lives when we think we are just about out of that wilderness; just about ready to see and experience new life… But just as we begin waving our palm branches and shouting “Hosanna! Salvation has come!” things unexpectedly take a downhill turn. Those we trust the most may turn on us and betray us, the crowds around us might spit on us and mock us, and what looks like our escape and release from captivity sometimes ends up being the very thing that captures us and leads us on our own painful journey on a dirty and bumpy road through Jerusalem.

But it is in these times when we need the cross the most. It is in these times when we realize that we – indeed – need a God who not only was resurrected, but who also walked a similar path. That we need a God who knows what it’s like to experience broken relationships, grieve the loss of loved ones, watch those closest to him look directly in the face of injustice, and be betrayed by friends and ridiculed by crowds. And when things get really dark, we need a God who knows what it is like to feel completely and utterly alone and abandoned – even by his own Father, even by God – to the point where he cried out in his final moments of anguish and pain: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

When we skip over and avoid the cross, we miss out on a God who knows and understands our pain, our suffering, and our doubts. We miss out on a God who is personal and who is near us. A God who is with us in the flesh, walking alongside us as we walk what may sometimes be a long, lonely road.

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But to skip out on the cross also causes us to miss out on a radical and bold Jesus we are all called to follow.

One of the reasons that we read the Passion texts (the texts about Jesus’ arrest, persecution, and suffering as he journeys to the cross) on the same day we celebrate Palm Sunday is because Palm Sunday is not an event we should separate from the rest of the events that occurred after it that led up to Jesus’ crucifixion.

In fact, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – the center of religious and political power that alienated and marginalized so many – was “the moment of dramatic confrontation,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it.  It was the inaugurating event and the beginning of a series of actions Jesus took that ultimately led him to his violent death.

And though riding in on a humble donkey and colt rather than on a chariot pulled by warhorses – as the worldly kings would have done as they began their kingdom ruling – Jesus entered Jerusalem boldly and loudly… In the name of the Lord, proclaiming a new Kingdom – the Kingdom of God – that would soon turn the unjust worldly empire upside down.

And it was his loud voice that angrily shouted as he turned over the tables in the temple after he entered Jerusalem and saw that the temple was being made into a den of robbers; a place where the religious leaders and the money changers were taking advantage of the poor.

It was his loud voice that cursed the religious leaders for placing heavy burdens on others that were hard to bear, for seeking honorable seats in banquets and synagogues and exalting themselves in public while exploiting the poor and the sick, and for publicly tithing expensive elements while neglecting justice, mercy, and faith.

It was his loud voice that preached that the greatest commandment is to love God fully and in doing so, to love ALL our neighbors as ourselves; that those who welcome, feed, clothe, and visit the least of these, do so for him and will be blessed, while those who do not do these things for one of the least of these, will be cursed.  It was his loud voice that declared that those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves will be humbled.

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Jesus was a rebel rouser. A troublemaker. He challenged the unjust and dehumanizing hierarchical political system that not only took over Rome but also dominated the way of the Temple.  And it was Jesus’ loud, subversive voice that shouted and proclaimed on behalf of the “least of these” that got him into trouble in the first place and led him to be silenced on the cross.

But – although those who nailed Jesus there did so to suppress him, after Jesus breathed his last breath, the temple curtain tore in two, the earth shook, and the rocks split.

Death did not have the final say that dark night.

And after three days, we will realize that Jesus’ voice was shouting and proclaiming louder than ever before as his broken and bloody body hung silently and still on the cross.

Brothers and sisters, when we skip over the cross, we miss out on the center of the Gospel. We miss out on a God who came to be with us in the flesh, walk alongside us in our darkest moments, and carry and release us from our heaviest sins and burdens; a God who came to advocate for all who have been dehumanized, to conquer death and bring about life, and to enter in a Kingdom here and now that will elevate the humble and humble the elevated…

A Kingdom that is brought forth on and through the cross.

So this Holy Week, let us not forget the cross. Let us choose this resurrection life and do so by following Jesus on his journey through Jerusalem, remembering – as we do – that Jesus is right alongside us as we take every step, guiding us on which way to go.  Because when we do, we might be overwhelmed at how much we really do need this loud, radical, and personal Jesus of the cross that we too often miss.

 


Related Articles:

 The Politics of Palm Sunday (Adam Erickson on ravenfoundation.org)

Palm-Powered Protest (Rev. Adam Copeland on adamjcopeland.com)

Palm Sunday Ponderings: Jesus and those in Need (Rev. Grace Ji-Sun Kim on gracejisunkim.wordpress.com)

Holy Week and the Importance of Weekday Christians (Rev. Emily C. Heath on Huffington Post)

Prepare the Way (Again) (Sermon from All Peoples Christian Church)