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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sermon from November 21, 2010

“A Different Way”
Christ the King, Ordinary Time 34 C
Texts: Luke 23:33-43; Colossians 1:11-20
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

There’s something very interesting about the ancient city of Hierapolis in Turkey, located near the cities of Laodicea and Colossae, both known to us from the New Testament writings, including today’s second reading. This city had wonderful natural hot springs and in Roman times was known to be a place to come for healing in those baths. However, if you visit the archaeological site, you’ll also notice that very close to those baths is the largest ancient cemetery in all of Turkey – it’s immense. Now I don’t know about you, but having an enormous cemetery right outside a major center for healing is not the thing that inspires confidence in the care or the cure. You certainly don’t see cemeteries outside modern hospitals, for good reason.

But having a cemetery outside a church is very common, isn’t it? Look at us – we have a cemetery, our columbarium, right here in our sanctuary! We can’t avoid its reality each time we come together to worship. But it has an entirely different feeling for us. That’s because the answer we give to pain and suffering is quite different than that of medicine. When a doctor has used up every medicine, every cure, at some point that doctor has to tell a patient that there is no more to be done. As Christians, we never reach that point. There’s always one more word, one more thing –that we have a promise that death is not the end of this journey. So a cemetery inside a church is a word of promise, not a word of defeat. And that’s a huge difference. And on this Sunday we celebrate Christ Jesus as our ruler, our king, we proclaim that Jesus rules in a very different way as well. Like looking at a cemetery and seeing promise, we look at Jesus where he looks least like a king to the world, and we see our hope and our life.

We see the difference in this powerful moment just before Jesus dies.

One of the criminals crucified with him, in pain and agony just like Jesus, looks at Jesus and sees a king. It’s hard to imagine what led him to his request – it’s a pretty clear definition of tying one’s cart to a dying horse. There’s nothing for the criminal outwardly to hope for here – this man is dying just as he is, and there’s no prospect of him miraculously getting off the cross, let alone helping the other two down. It’s like looking at a cemetery and seeing hope.

The response of the other criminal is far more appropriate to the circumstances – he says, “Look, if you have this power, you’d better do something for yourself and for us quickly.”

There’s also no sense in this believing criminal that he can have earned special consideration from Jesus, even if he’s right that Jesus is somehow a king. He’s a criminal, he’s got nothing that commends him or his life. He’ll be dead before sundown. And yet he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And in that he shows a faith in a reality that is completely unseen, but that in fact is the deepest truth about God’s coming to us in Jesus that we can ever know.

And this is the faith that we seek as well. You see, like having a cemetery inside a church building, the Church claims that Jesus is in charge, ruler of the universe, but that he rules from the cross.

This way of Jesus is so radically different it will seem like foolishness, sometimes even to us.

It goes against all worldly assumptions about power and rule. From our politics, which have evolved to people running for office not to govern but simply to be in power and retain that power, to our daily lives, we still operate as if being in control is the main thing. And whatever we want of our leaders, we don’t want weak ones, we want – or at least our polls seem to say we want – strong ones, uncompromising people.

But clearly Jesus is not strong here, and is not giving off the sense of power or rule. Look at the questions, the mocking, thrown at him on the cross: Let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God! If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself! The assumption is a true King would save himself. What kind of king or Messiah would let himself be killed as a criminal? The world has no way to comprehend the servant leadership of Jesus.

But the only time in the Gospel stories of his trial and execution that Jesus admits to being a king, except for once in the trial before Caiaphas where he asserts that he is the Messiah, is not when Pilate asks him, not when people mock him as king, but only when the criminal next to him acknowledges Jesus’ kingship: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Then, and only then, does Jesus reveal who he is, by promising the condemned man that he will be with Jesus in paradise that very day.

Jesus preaches, and lives out, a kingdom of God that is the world turned upside down. But as one author has said, Jesus comes to us standing up, but we’ve been standing on our heads so long we think he’s the one who’s upside down. In the kingdom of God, the greatest are the least: the weak, the wounded and broken, the children, the oppressed. And the King, the Son of God, is the lowest, the servant – down in the dirt with the people, suffering on a cross to destroy death.

And here’s the other truth about our King, Jesus Christ: he’s exactly the king we really need. Because what he would have us learn is that life is only fulfilling and abundant for us when we follow his way, and that the way of the world, while looking like a way to life, is only a way of death.

Our King invites us to follow his way, to give up use of power and manipulation and live by love. And so to learn what real life is.

It means we will be taken advantage of by those who play by the power rules of the world. But that’s OK – that’s OK – so was our King, and he will help us through it.

The alternative is not a way we want to live: that we control others, dominate others, manipulate others. Imagine a life fully lived that way: it would be terrible. I’ve never gotten my way by force or coercion and been happy about the final result, never. It’s always an empty victory.

The truth of giving up power and serving like our King serves is that it’s the only way to really have life. Exercising power over people may get your way more than not. But ultimately it will corrupt you, and leave you with empty victories. Giving, sharing, caring, losing like our King loses, may look like the fool’s way out. But ultimately it leads to incredible relationships with people, rich, fulfilling love, and joy even when others don’t understand us. And this abundant life is ours now, and in the world to come, because in giving up everything for our sake, our King conquered death itself, and actually won by losing.

So we’re left in the position of the criminal here – can we see Jesus as the king he actually is, in spite of what looks so different and unexpected?

Can we look at a way that seems to be a losing way, a way that to the world looks like a dead end, like a cemetery, like a dying King, and see hope and life? We know so much more than that criminal – we know that Jesus is risen, we know that he is Lord of the universe. But he will still rule in this way, from the cross, from suffering, from self-giving love. And life in God’s kingdom is following our leader in servanthood and love. Christians who willingly live that way know the joy of life in ways no one in the world’s power game would ever know.

And that’s the true secret of faith. God fill us with such faith in our servant King, and give us the strength and grace to follow in the same way, that we might find life truly worth living, now and always.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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