Adjusting Our Expectations

(Luke 23:33-43)

Well, today is Reign of Christ Sunday, sometimes also known as Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday in the Christian year. Lot of celebration on Reign of Christ Sunday. In a world in which everything seems always to be up in the air, this particular Sunday reminds us that God has a different world in mind from the one we currently inhabit—a world in which Jesus reigns and not Caesar.

As we prepare for Advent next week, this Sunday helps remind us what sort of messiah we’re going to be watching for during that season of preparation in Advent. When I hear king, I immediately begin conjuring up images of silk-clad royalty, parading through throngs of devoted subjects. Pictures of the “Iron Throne” flash before my mind’s eye. Triumphant. Bold. In control.

Which, of course, is what makes this passage from Luke today so jarring. You pick up the Gospel on Reign of Christ Sunday and you expect something a little more . . . I don’t know . . . royal. A little pomp and circumstance—maybe the triumphal entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday—something.

But you sure don’t expect this—Jesus nailed to the executioner’s tree between two revolutionaries at the top of a Jewish garbage heap. Almost everybody present is making fun of him—the leaders, the soldiers, one of the criminals. What do they say?

Essentially, everybody’s questioning his right to rule. “If you’re really the king, save yourself.” And I can understand how they might be confused. After all, in the present scene Jesus doesn’t look particularly regal.

The irony of this situation, of course, is intensified by Luke’s inclusion of the little detail of the inscription hanging over Jesus head on the cross: “This is the King of the Jews.”

The very inscription Pilate places over Jesus’ head on the cross indicates, not that Pilate was being a sarcastic smart-aleck, but that Pilate condemned Jesus to death as a political revolutionary. Oscar Cullmann suggests that “what we have here is a standard procedure, obligatory among the Romans in the case of the passing of a death sentence: the grounds of the verdict had to be posted on the cross… This titulus states a purely political crime: King of the Jews.”

The whole scene is described by Luke in such a way as to contrast conventional understandings of authority with Jesus’ understanding of authority.

What does everyone present at the crucifixion see?

From the perspective of the observers, they see a skinny little naked guy strapped to the electric chair, who’s been convicted as a political subversive, because there’s a presumption that he has designs on leading an armed revolt against the occupying Romans, in an attempt to overthrow the oppressors, and bring strength and dignity back to the children of God.

If political/military know-how is what you expect out of a king, then the mockery of Jesus is understandable. How is this guy going to lead anybody anywhere, let alone into battle—strapped as he is to a tree and all?

King of the Jews, indeed. What kind of kingdom plans the inauguration day festivities for the gas chamber?

See what I mean? This Gospel lesson from Luke makes no apparent sense for Reign of Christ Sunday . . . unless, of course, your understanding of kings and kingdoms is weird. Given the way the world thinks about the establishment of ruling authority, Luke’s understanding of authority looks idiosyncratic—at best—and downright dumb—at worst.

And yet, maybe there’s something to this upside down view of Christ’s reign.

When the leaders, the soldiers, and the criminal say, “If you are who you say you are, then save yourself,” Luke is subtly recalling for us Jesus’ first appearance on the scene at the inauguration of his ministry some three years prior.

All the way back in chapter four, Luke shows us Jesus, still dripping wet from his baptism, fresh from his 40 day encounter with Ol’ Scratch out in the wilderness, standing up in the synagogue in Nazareth reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. After he finished interpreting what he’d read, the people were amazed and said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

By way of response, Jesus utters a strange-sounding proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!”

“Doctor, cure yourself!” is one of the first things Jesus says at the beginning of his public ministry. Luke recalls this scene for us in our Gospel for this morning, helping to frame the shape of Jesus’ ministry, by putting similar words on the lips of perhaps some of those same leaders from that first encounter in the synagogue back in Luke 4. The soldiers also taunt Jesus about the trouble his reign has run into. Even one of the criminals at the last act of his public ministry is looking for the truth: “If you’re the Messiah, save yourself…at least get us out of here.”

In Luke, the admonition has gone from, “Doctor, cure yourself!” to “King, save yourself!”

Why is that significant? I think Luke is trying rhetorically here at the end of Jesus’ public ministry to draw our attention to what Jesus first said would be the shape of the reign of God he would be inaugurating when he stood up in the synagogue all the way back in chapter four, the first act of his public ministry.

Remember what Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll?

“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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19).

From the very beginning, Jesus indicated that the reign of God he was going to inaugurate would be different—upside down. Notice, he didn’t say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to…those who are already pulling their weight. He has sent me to proclaim future political stability after we kick the Romans out of our homeland, to give those who were once powerful back their power, to make sure the rich get their fair share, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor for the folks at the top of the political and economic food chain.”

No. Jesus brings good news of a world of peace and justice to those who know they need it—the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I paid attention during the recent campaign and election, and what I saw does not suggest that many who aspire to political leadership make their initial campaign appeals to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. That’s not a constituency some politicians feel like they need to answer to or advocate for.

Jesus couldn’t get elected dog-catcher in America with this kind of message. In fact, in many cases, politicians often believe it’s in their political interest to keep “those” kinds of people out of the process, off the campaign trail, and out of the voting booth altogether.

The kind of reign Jesus announces wouldn’t get him very far in some political circles today, I’m afraid.

Come to think of it, it didn’t get him very far 2000 years ago either—unless, of course, you think that being executed is the way to establish your reign; which is apparently what Luke is trying to tell us.

The cross, as it’s been typically understood in Protestant Christianity, is something of a bridge over the chasm of our separation from God—the cross as a prop in the great morality play God has sketched out. In this sense, the cross isn’t the point of Jesus’ life and ministry; it’s a horrible tragedy; it’s a short-term inconvenience through which he must pass before moving on to the more difficult work of resurrection. On this reading, the cross is merely an instrument.

But I would like to suggest to you that the cross is the point of Jesus’ life and ministry. That is to say, I would like to make the radical proposal that the cross is exactly the point at which Jesus most clearly reveals God and the nature of the reign he’s inaugurating, as well as the violent kinds of kingdoms he’s looking to correct.

In other words, the cross is the very shape of the life that following Jesus calls us to lead. That’s why Jesus, properly understood, makes so little sense in our world. That’s why popular religion works so assiduously to domesticate him, to make him safer, to make him a pal, to make him the friend first of those already in power—because the real Jesus is headed in a much more dangerous direction.

The kingdom over which Jesus presides as ruler moves in exactly the wrong direction from the kingdoms of this world. Rather than appealing to the best and brightest among us who labor successfully in the fields of commerce, academia, and politics, Jesus says that success in the reign over which he’s ruler is defined in a different way.

Not only does God not respond to us with violence—God, in Jesus, has a front row seat to the very systems of domination that deal in the kind of death Jesus suffers—the kinds of death people continue to suffer at the hands of the wealthy and the powerful—the very people Jesus announces from the beginning his new reign will lift up: the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.

It’s hard to imagine Luke getting any further away from our established understandings of what constitutes a viable kingdom in our world. After all, crosses don’t make good political mascots.

As Robert Capon has noted:

The human race is, was and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. We don't want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it… He claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It's not that we weren't looking for the Messiah; it's just that he wasn't what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying” (The Romance of the Word, 90-1).

On Reign of Christ Sunday, the final Sunday in the Christian year, holding up the crucifixion of Jesus is counter-intuitive just to the extent that what we’re generally looking for in a ruler is exactly the opposite of what Jesus provides.

Of course, for those of us who are not nearly as competent as our résumés suggest—that’s the good news.

“You call this a kingdom?”

And Jesus looks down from the cross and says, “Yes. Yes, I do.”

How do we respond to this bizarro reign, this strange ruler? We’d better adjust our expectations. Jesus is playing fast and loose with the rules. Power, wealth, political connections, a killer polling operation, a winning smile . . . these are no longer the necessary prerequisites for rule in God’s new reign.

If you think that following Jesus has first to do with winning, with succeeding, with getting to be the boss, then you’re walking in the wrong direction, and whatever you’re following, it isn’t Jesus.

You want to follow Jesus? As Father Daniel Berrigan said, you’d better look good on wood.

And boy howdy, does that sound like bad news to everyone who seems so heavily invested in the old paradigm of success and winning.

But for for those—the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed . . . those who’ve spent so much time on the outside looking in, despairing they’d ever be allowed inside?

For people who can’t assume the system will do right by them, I suspect, it sounds like the gates of heaven being opened.