What are we celebrating in our observance of the Reign of Christ? The very words suggest magnificence and great power – the grandeur of a king whose rule exceeds all others.
Then why this gospel text?
These last few moments of Jesus’ life seem, at first, to run counter to all we might value in the world, let alone a royal ruling over it all.
To be with Jesus in this moment on the cross – as we celebrate his reign – invites us to consider the ways use of the language of royalty and ruling risks missing the whole point of the gospels, because of the way “king” or “ruler” might connote a fixed sense of order, rather than a dynamic sense of God’s action on earth.
The Reign of Christ, then, is not really about replacing an earthly ruler with a heavenly one. In the proclamation throughout Luke’s gospel that “the kingdom of God is near you” (and, in some interpretations, “within you”), Jesus is clearly not referring to regime change. (Isn’t THAT a relief!) Instead, he seems to be announcing something like potential – the potential that comes of an entirely different way of being in relationship with God and with each other. It’s not the ruler that changes, but the realm in which we live. To be with Jesus at this moment on the cross and to make it emblematic of his reign, means that everything we thought we knew about rulers and realms gets turned on its head.
And, an entirely new reality, of course, is difficult to conceptualize.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that the realm of God over which Christ is King is not lurking somewhere “out there”. Jesus tells us it’s in our very midst – even inside us. This means, then, that we live in both worlds.
It’s easy to imagine why some would want to push Jesus’ realm out of the heart and into the future somewhere. It might even have to do with retreating from the worldly world through which our hearts are moving. But there’s almost no way to escape the truth that we’re held in the tension – the paradox – of living in two worlds.
Much of our life is governed by the rules of this world – rules that, while they can and are often improved, will never fully shepherd into reality all the justice, mercy and joyful humility that God offers us.
But you know Jesus’ intention for the world has made a real impact upon you if you feel a sense of dissatisfaction (to put it mildly) with the way things are. If you feel moved to do something kind and compassionate – even joyful – in response to fear and hatred when they rise up around you, then you may have a genuine sense of what it is we celebrate today in the observance of Christ’s Reign.
Suddenly, our gospel passage makes more sense.
Jesus is on the cross – not the place you’d look for a king. But nothing is ever quite what you expect with Jesus. He’s in between two criminals; one who joins those who are taunting Jesus, and the other who intervenes – who notes Jesus’ innocence and humbly asks to be remembered when he comes into his kingdom. His kingdom – which is near – which is within.
As if to amplify the thief’s kingdom-speak – unwitting though it may have been – as if to recognize this man’s having been moved to kindness and compassion in response to fear and hatred, Jesus lifts his action up and exceeds the man’s wildest expectation, declaring that he will, today, be with Jesus in paradise.
Is that what the Reign of Christ is about? Welcoming a criminal into paradise? It must be. It must be about promising relief and release amid obvious agony.
This king does not conform to the expectations of the world. This king will not be governed by the world’s limited vision of worthiness or its abbreviated understanding of justice. What a powerful model for us in this day and age!
This is a king who is not content to rule from afar. It’s a part of God’s temperament to be intimately engaged with us – to move into the world through us, from inside us. This is the kind of ruler who embraces all and forgives all, because it is his truest and deepest nature. And it’s something to gladden our hearts.
As we move about this beautiful and delight-filled world – a world that, despite its beauty remains deeply fraught – as we live our lives searching for the light of Christ within and ways to let it shine without, I’ll admit to finding another kind of relief in today’s gospel moment. And it’s a relief that comes of being given a second chance.
When I read this passage, I noticed that not just forgiveness, but second chances abound here. Not only does Jesus forgive those who crucify him – the implication being both active participants and passive bystanders – they are given another opportunity to discover how his loving reign can live in their hearts. The thief, as we mentioned, also receives a second chance – is welcomed into paradise.
And more broadly, throughout Luke’s gospel, Peter and the disciples regularly err and are given ever-increasing opportunity to bring their ways into alignment with the Reign of Christ. Much the same can be said of the crowds who follow Jesus, at times admiring, at other times jeering – perhaps none representing a second, human, chance more powerfully than the centurion at the foot of the cross who, as Jesus breathes his last, proclaims, “Surely this man was innocent!”
All of this of course, falls under the great arc of Jesus’ ultimate representation of second chances that comes of his own resurrection. All these traces of our knowledge of him come together as a result, making his resurrection not about the coming reign of just another earthly ruler, but, instead, signifying the ushering in of an entirely new order – a world, an order, a reign, a kingdom characterized by the potential in each of us who are living out our own second chances. Our part in the new order is to bring about new ways of living in hope, grace, and above all love – the kind of love that never wearies of extending and receiving second chances.
I feel as if I’ve recently benefitted from Christ’s Reign of second chances. A couple of weeks ago I gave a sermon here in which I misspoke. I’ve come to realize it was a very significant misspeaking – egregious, even, in that I identified 9/11 and the Holocaust as the two greatest theodicy challenges. I’d meant to call them two of the greatest challenges, but that’s not how it came off the manuscript. Nonetheless, a number of people noticed, one, in particular finding the courage to take me rather energetically to task, and rightly so, about the kind of laxity in use of language that would permit even the suggestion that ranking the suffering of…well…any suffering – how drawing comparisons not only compounds the overall sense of violation, it is the antithesis of God’s intention for the world.
It was hard for me to hear and process this misstep. It runs deep. But even though there was genuine discomfort, I knew immediately that God was present. I found the moment to be a great gift – found it suspended in spirit much the same way this gospel passage today hangs before us in spirit – depicting pain and yet revealing powerfully triumphant love. I now have a second chance to draw on the love I’ve been shown, and in ways that will, hopefully, advance Jesus’ reign in the world.
Some of you know that I like to look at firsts and lasts in scripture. In Luke’s gospel Jesus’ first words are spoken in a beautifully resonant moment in his hometown synagogue. His very first words to other human beings are:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Throughout his earthly ministry in Luke’s gospel, he lives these words, but perhaps never more tenderly than in his vey last words to a human being – when he welcomes a thief into the arms of love – welcomes him, from the very apex of pain and torment.
Jesus’ words, and the spirit that moves through them, are the bearers of all the meaning we need to understand the Reign of Christ. Because they are the very things we need in our world today when we face fear and hatred in our midst.