‘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. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; 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
Christ is King! That, brothers and sisters, is the most controversial, most radical statement that any person can ever make. Today, on the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, and the last Sunday of our liturgical year, we mark an occasion that we call Christ the King Sunday. While it is not an official high holy day in the Episcopal Church, it was created to be such a day by Pope Pius XI in 1925. The purpose was, as he said then, “that the faithful would gain strength and courage from the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies.” While it does not hold quite the same solemnity for us as it does for our Roman brothers and sisters, it is still a day we mark with great joy—which is why we wear white—as we mark the end of one church year and the start of the new one with the same bold proclamation: Christ is King!
Why would I say suggest that this is the most radical statement any of us can ever make? Because, simply put, if Christ is King, then it means nobody else is. If Christ is our Lord, our sovereign, the one to whom we owe our allegiance, our devotion, and our love, then there can be none other besides him. For the earliest Christians it meant that if Christ is King, Caesar is not. Down through the ages the same has been echoed. Whether in imperial colonies, totalitarian states, benevolent monarchies, or even democratic republics, if Christ is King, then the monarch, the dictator, the president, or the state is not. It’s not hard to see why a great many have lost their lives being bold enough to make this proclamation.
To be fair, if Jesus looks and functions like every other kind of ruler, then I suppose declaring, ‘Christ is King!’ wouldn’t be quite so radical or unsettling. When we behold images of Jesus like the Christus Rex in my congregation—which literally means, ‘Christ the King’—it’s not hard to imagine Jesus merely stepping into the place of an earthly authority; in fact, as Christianity spread throughout the world that is exactly what happened. In art Jesus was often depicted as a conquering warrior, beating down the forces of Satan under his feet; or as a monarch seated on a throne with a crown of jewels on his head, and a scepter in his hand, decked out in the finest royal garments. Especially in lands where Christianity became the dominant religion, Jesus merely took the place of whatever the sovereign of that land looked like.
Good Shepherd’s Christus Rex
Yet I am always struck by the fact that, on the day where we declare Christ to be our King, we are given no such images in our Gospel text. Instead of a throne we have a cross. Instead of a crown of jewels we have one of thorns. Instead of subjects praising and adoring the king we have soldiers, clergy, and passers-by mocking and deriding him; in fact, in the text the only ones who even acknowledge Jesus’ kingship are those who are openly mocking it. Let’s face it, this image doesn’t exactly fit any of our prescribed notions of kingship, does it? It IS a mockery. It’s a joke. A complete flipping of idea that the world has ever had about power. And the only one in the middle of all of this who manages to even begin to understand is a criminal.
A depiction by Vecellio of Jesus and the so-called "good criminal"
This exchange between Jesus and the other two men being crucified next to him is fascinating. It is only found in Luke’s version of the crucifixion story. The original Greek word used to describe them is kakourgos, literally meaning, ‘worker of evil.’ These were not robbers or thugs, these were seditionists, insurrectionists, those who, like Jesus, had spoken up against the tyranny of the empire. However, we can imagine their actions were much more militant than his. Still, in this moment we see what kind of king Jesus is and what qualities mark his kingdom. He pleads to God, “Father, forgive them!” on behalf of those mocking him and putting him to death. The first criminal joins in the derision, hearing Jesus’ words of forgivnenss and paying them no mind, as he is only interested in what Jesus can do for him now. The second, however, hears Jesus’ words as those of a king whose authority is like no other, and he seeks a place in such a kingdom, where the defining characteristic is pardon, not punishment, where even condemned criminals can be redeemed. He asks not for forgiveness or for eternal life. “Jesus,” he begs, “remember me.” And Jesus’ reply is that he will be with Jesus in this Paradise.
Here we see the two most consistent and challenging hallmarks of Jesus’ kingship: forgiveness and grace. He implores God to have mercy on those who are literally killing him. And moments later, when a criminal at the end of his life, possibly seeking some kind of last minute forgiveness—who knows whether he means it or not—asks Jesus to remember him, Jesus grants him that grace. He doesn’t tell him he needs to be baptized, and he doesn’t chastise him and make conditions based on his crimes. He simply tells him that he will be remembered, based on nothing that the criminal has done or earned. Forgiveness and grace: the foundations of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
And this, brothers and sisters, is why ‘Christ is King!’ is so controversial. Our king wears no fancy garments with a crown of jewels, but is naked and bears a crown of thorns. Our king reigns not in splendor on a throne, but in agony, nailed to a tree. Our king does not show his power through military might, but through forgiveness and grace. Our king makes a mockery out of the very idea of kingship, a final punchline to the setup long ago when the Israelite people told God they wanted a king, only for God to say no and for them to persist until God caved in. This is what they ended up with when all was said and done: a homeless, itinerant preacher of questionable birth who ate with treacherous tax collectors and told prostitutes and criminals that they were loved and forgiven before being put to death by the state for insurrection. What a joke.
Is this what we seek from a king? Is he really who we want? If we are bold enough to confess him, then we must also be bold enough to throw off whatever false sovereigns seek our allegiance, devotion, and love on a daily basis. If we are to confess him as king, then we must be ready and willing to live as citizens of his kingdom, to take up our own cross when necessary, to let forgiveness and grace be our defining characteristics. The Feast of Christ the King gives us a choice: will we live by the standards of the Kingdom of Christ, or the Kingdom of Humanity. As Preston Epps once wrote: the kingdom of humanity says assert yourself, the kingdom of Christ says humble yourself; the kingdom of humanity says retaliate, the kingdom of Christ says forgive; the kingdom of humanity says get and accumulate, the kingdom of Christ says give and share. So which kingdom will it be?
It is not an easy thing for us to declare that Christ is our king. It’s paradoxical. He’s a Messiah that saves others only by not saving himself; he is committed to a message of life abundant, even though it leads him to a brutal death; he demonstrates his authority and power, rescuing criminals, bullyish soldiers, and mocking religious leaders, by hanging powerless from the cross. To proclaim this guy as our king means living paradoxically ourselves, being in this world but not of it. It is the most controversial statement we will ever make, for it means no one else has our allegiance, devotion, and love, but I pray, brothers and sisters, that today and everyday, we may be so bold, so brave, so courageous, and so insane, as to proclaim with all that is in us: Christ is King!