Reign of Christ
TEXT: Luke 23:33-43
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)
Every year, when “Christ the King Sunday” comes around, I find it very interesting to read—in publications and on the Internet—what other preachers have said on this day, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Many of them assume that their audience will have no idea at all of what a “king” is. For them, the main difficulty in preaching about “Christ the King” is that they figure nobody knows what royalty is all about.
Now, maybe that’s because—almost without exception—the preachers I read and hear on the Internet and in magazines are Americans. However, the folks in Canadian churches certainly do know about kings and queens, princes and princesses, and about how royal families work. Ignorance about royalty does not seem to be a difficulty that plagues us Canadians. We’ve had kings before. Then, for 70 years and seven months, we had a queen. And now we have a king again.
So, when we come to “Christ the King Sunday,” the concept of royalty is not foreign to us. We understand that the Sovereign is our Head of State—albeit represented in Ottawa by the Governor-General.
We get it. At least, we have a pretty good understanding of what earthly kings and queens are about. They represent a static sense of order—and they represent tradition. Because Charles the Third is our Sovereign, we can see ourselves as being part of a particular order of things. We have a system of government—and law—that is much more akin to the British system than to the American one. Not everybody in Canada likes that, but we all acknowledge that it is the case; and it is one of the distinctive things about being Canadian, which sets us apart from the other nations in the Americas. It is one thing about us which stays the same, which connects us to a centuries-old tradition. We are subjects of the British monarch, rather than the Spanish or Swedish or Danish one.
But here’s where perhaps we do have a problem. This understanding we have can prevent us from realizing what the New Testament means when it refers to Christ as being our “King.” Using the term “king” to describe Jesus can cause us to miss the whole point of the gospel because of the way “king” plays to that static sense of order. The New Testament writers, you see, meant something else. They were trying to convey a dynamic sense of God’s rule on earth.
Let me explain. The “Kingdom of God” (or the “Kingdom of heaven,” in Matthew) is not simply about replacing an earthly ruler with a heavenly one. In heralding the coming Kingdom of God, Jesus was not merely advocating a regime change. No. Jesus was announcing the advent of an entirely different way of being in relationship with each other and with God. It’s not simply the ruler that changes, but the entire realm in which we live.
This makes matters a little more complicated. The earliest Christian confession was, “Jesus is Lord.” If that proclamation simply meant giving our allegiance to a different ruler, then most of our lives could remain untouched. We could more or less conduct business as usual and conceive of faith as a largely private affair. But the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims represents a whole new reality where nothing is the same—not our relationships; not our rules; not our view of self or others; not our priorities or principles … nothing! Everything we thought we knew about kings and kingdoms, in fact, gets turned right on its head.
An entirely new reality, of course, is difficult for us to picture. I think that’s why—when Jesus wants to explain what the realm of God will be like—he speaks to us in parables. Parables do not pretend to correspond directly to reality. They are outrageous, exaggerated, humorous, and almost always have a hidden trap door—one that only drops open a little while after the telling. Parables come at reality sideways. They disrupt our sensibilities and overturn our conventions, in order to point to how it will be in the new realm and reign of God.
For example, do you remember the parable of the “labourers in the vineyard,” from chapter 20 of Matthew (20:1-16)? It’s a story about an audaciously generous employer who defies all conceptions of fair play by paying the same total amount to all his workers—those who have been working all day and those who have served just a few hours. That gives us a glimpse of the sort of king Christ is going to be. So does the story about the “prodigal son” in chapter 15 of Luke (15:11-32). Really, it’s a story about a father who humiliates himself again and again by running after both his wayward son and his self-righteous, angry one. And—also in Luke (10:25-37), in the parable of the “good Samaritan”—we get a hint of what will be expected of us in Christ’s kingdom, in this yarn about the wounded man who was ignored by the best and brightest, only to be cared for by the despised foreigner. These are only glimpses, to be sure, but they point out how different everything will be in God’s realm.
But you know, the gospel message is that the realm of God over which Christ is king is not lurking somewhere “out there.” It is already here among us, heralded by Christ’s preaching and demonstrated by his death and resurrection. Yes, some future consummation may await us—yet the new realm is also already here, in our very midst. That means, of course, that we presently live in both realms. We are citizens of this world and citizens of the Kingdom which Jesus has inaugurated.
Now, I don’t think it’s hard to understand why some want to push Jesus’ realm into the future, while others want to retreat from the one we’re in. Either extreme is simpler than trying to live in both worlds at once.
Much of our life is governed by the rules of this world, rules that—while they can be improved—will never fully usher in the justice, the equity, the shalom that God has promised. At the same time, having had a glimpse of the realm Jesus describes, we can never really be satisfied with the way things are.
Little wonder, then, that this understanding of “the Kingdom of God” has not taken hold. If we believe that Christian faith is not simply allegiance to a different sovereign—but, rather, is entrance into an entirely new realm—then, who knows what God will expect from us? No longer can we keep our faith a private affair and ignore the needs of our neighbour. No longer can we sing robust and rousing hymns about God’s glory and majesty and ignore the degradation of God’s good earth. No longer can we pray that “God’s Kingdom come” and yet manage our wealth as if it actually belonged to us—rather than as something entrusted to us. And no longer can we relegate the realm of God to a comfortably distant—or, for that matter, frighteningly near—future. The realm and rule of God is all around us, beckoning us to live by its vision and values—even now!
And this is where today’s reading from Luke comes in. Jesus is on the cross. It’s not exactly the first place you’d look for a king—but then again, with Jesus, nothing is ever quite what you would expect. He’s in between two criminals. One joins the soldiers and religious authorities who jeer at him. The other one, however, intervenes. He protests Jesus’ innocence, and asks that Jesus remember him when he comes into his kingdom.
It’s a humble request, when you think about it. He asks neither to be rescued from his plight nor avenged for his suffering. Rather, he wants only to be remembered—to not be forgotten. And how does Jesus respond? He exceeds the man’s wildest expectations, declaring that today, even now, he will enter with Jesus into paradise.
What sort of king is this, who welcomes a criminal into his realm and promises glory in the midst of agony? It is a king who refuses to conform to the expectations of this world. It is a king who will not be bound by this world’s vision of worthiness or by this world’s understanding of justice. It is a king who is not content to rule from afar, but rather comes to meet us in our weakness and in our need. It is a king who is willing to embrace all, to forgive all, to redeem all. Why? Because that is his deepest and truest nature.
It is, finally, our King, come to usher us into his Kingdom even as he implores us to recognize and make manifest that Kingdom already around us. This is our King, our crucified King—and he calls us to join with Christians of every time and every place in that most simple, yet profound, of prayers: “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Today, let’s make that our prayer, too:
Come, Lord Jesus.
Come into our lives, our city, our church.
Come, and bring your kingdom with you.