Reign of Christ • 20 Nov 2016

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Rev. Chris Udy

It’s interesting to be celebrating
the festival of Christ the King
at the end of a year of difficult elections.
While we give thanks to God
that democracy allows us
to choose those who rule us
without resorting to bloodshed and rebellion,
no-one could possibly say
that an election brings out the best in humanity.
Elections are about power,
and power is seductive.
In most elections everyone plays dirty,
everyone attacks their opponents personally,
everyone is easy with the truth,
and everyone avoids the issues
that are most difficult
because they’re the most important.

Elections don’t leave us hopeful and at peace.
For half the population
they might bring a sense of relief -
but for the other half they simply entrench anxiety.
We can’t make a community
out of winners and losers -
so every election, no matter what the result,
requires that a community
find time to heal and time to reflect.

Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ -
and the festival of Christ the King
is the most recent addition to the Christian calendar.
Easter dates back to the oldest traditions
of the Church’s worship;
Pentecost was a Jewish festival
that Christians continued with new meanings;
Christmas came much later
- in the fourth century,
and after nearly two centuries of opposition
from Church leaders.
The other significant days of the Church’s year
developed mainly during the middle ages,
but the feast of Christ the King
is less than a century old.
In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted the festival
at a time when Europe was in turmoil.
Mussolini had ruled Italy for three years;
Hitler had been out of gaol for a year
and the Nazi party was bullying its way to power;
the world was in the grip of depression,
and bloodshed and rebellion seemed imminent.
Pope Pius wrote an encyclical - Quas Primas -
in which he asked all Christians
to celebrate the Reign of Christ
on the last Sunday in the Church’s year.
He said that humanity
“must look for the peace of Christ
in the kingdom of Christ” -
in other words,
that the kind of world we long for,
the peace and justice we hope to live by,
cannot be achieved by bloodshed and rebellion.
Peace cannot come from any kind of system
where power is a prize won by those
whose army is the most brutal,
whose budget is hostage to corruption,
and whose journalists and advertisers
are least handicapped by truth.
It would be a grave error, Pope Pius said,
for Christians to retreat from the world,
or for politicians to tell Christians
not to get involved in politics,
but it would be a foolish and dangerous mistake
for Christians to believe
that politics was the way
to bring about our hope
for the ultimate peace and justice
of the kingdom of God.

Our gospel reading for today
is part of Luke’s account
of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Jesus had been arrested, condemned and executed
on a political charge.
This wasn’t a religious act -
Jesus was considered a threat
by those who had won their power
through violence and bloodshed -
and that political charge
was behind the inscription
Pilate had written and nailed above his head:
“This is the king of the Jews”.

But Pilate’s inscription
wasn’t anywhere near as offensive to Jesus
as it was to the authorities in Jerusalem.
Jesus was just one more body
Pilate was using
to show how complete and brutal
Roman power over the Jewish people had become.
The crucifixion was a spit in the face
to all those who thought
there was any kind of power
in the royal house of Israel.
Pilate was saying
“This is what I think
of Jewish people and their kings”.

But for Luke,
there’s a deep irony and an ultimate truth
in Pilate’s inscription.
Pilate meant it as an insult,
but for Luke it was profoundly true.
Jesus was the Messiah.
He was King David come again.
He was the one
in whom all the hopes and expectations
of a good and just king were realised -
except with one enormous difference.
Where David, like Pilate,
and like the Roman Emperor,
had won his power to rule
through rebellion and bloodshed -
through brutal and savage repression
of those who opposed him,
even including his own children -
Jesus ruled through forgiveness,
through justice, and through love.

When Luke recounts the story of the crucifixion
he adds something
that none of the other Gospel writers include.
All the other writers
talk about Pilate’s inscription
and the jeers and taunts
of the political leaders from Jerusalem;
all of them also mention
that there were two bandits - or thieves -
who were also being crucified with him.
That they were being crucified,
and that they were crucified
beside the political prisoner Jesus
meant that they were probably being executed
for political reasons also.
They might have been bandits - or thieves -
but their crimes were probably motivated
by their hatred for the Romans
and their commitment to a free Jewish state
ruled by their Messiah - King David come again.
Mark and Matthew both say
that the bandits -
who might also have been called
patriots or terrorists,
depending on your perspective -
the bandits also mocked and taunted Jesus
as a fool and a failure - a Mickey Mouse messiah.
But Luke tells the story differently.
One of the bandits in Luke’s account
called out "Are you not the Messiah?
Save yourself and us!"
but the other, Luke says, rebuked him,
"Do you not fear God,” he said,
“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 turned to Jesus and said,
"Jesus, remember me
when you come into your kingdom."
Jesus replied,
"Truly I tell you,
today you will be with me in Paradise."

For Luke, the kingdom Jesus rules
is established in love,
and can only be entered through forgiveness.
The peace of the kingdom Jesus rules
is not the product of violence and the fear of violence,
it comes through justice
recognised and accepted
even by those who face its judgement.

The bandit recognises
that his life and actions will be weighed
and found wanting.
He recognises a justice
much more pervasive, more equal and more fair
than the authorities have exercised
for Jesus or for him.
Our ethical and moral boundaries
are not optional extras
to be forgotten when they don’t quite fit
our politics or profit -
and in the courts of the kingdom Jesus rules
the dodgy legal arguments
and tricks and lies and bribes
that everyone knows are rampant
in every legal system
are useless against the evidence of the heart.
Ultimately all of us,
just like the bandit crucified with Jesus
will face our moment of truth,
our own encounter with true justice,
and none of us will come there
without some sense of shame -
not imposed by someone else,
not pronounced by any prosecution,
but by our own honest and careful self-assessment -
the evidence of the heart.

We live in an ethical and moral universe.
What happens to us
may not always be fair or right,
but we can tell the difference
between attitudes and actions
that bring distress and harm
to ourselves and to our neighbours,
and those that will build
a community of justice and peace.
There is a common good,
and we know when our choices and actions
are bringing it to life.

The kingdom Jesus rules
is a kingdom of peace through justice -
and the only way to enter it,
the only way to reach it,
the only way to give it practical,
political, economic and domestic life,
is through forgiveness.

The bandit crucified with Jesus
asked for forgiveness,
“Jesus, remember me,
when you come into your kingdom” -
and Jesus replied
“Truly I tell you,
today, you will be with me, in paradise.”

Paradise isn’t confined to heaven,
and forgiveness isn’t only our passport
to the reign of God we enter with our death:
paradise is the kind of peace
we find when we know we’re living
warmly and honestly and creatively;
paradise is what lovers know
when they reveal the truth about themselves
and find that the one they love
still loves them in return –
possibly even loves them more;
paradise is what communities find
when they overcome their anxious isolation
to share a vision of the future
and work together to make it a reality.
Paradise is established in love,
can only be entered though forgiveness,
and can only be maintained in peace
through justice.

This year’s elections are now over -
and for the next few years
those who’ve been elected will lead and rule -
but none of us would say we’ve entered paradise.

The festival of Christ the King -
or the festival of the reign of Christ,
as some would prefer to name it -
reminds us that whichever way
we as Christians choose to lean politically,
our first allegiance, our deepest loyalty,
is to Jesus and his rule.
We are called to be carefully and creatively involved
in the political process -
we’re called to offer encouragement and advice
to those we elect to public office,
and we’re called to work in any way we can
to deliver justice and peace
to people who are weak,
or sick, or poor, or strange -
those who get ignored
or overlooked and run over and ground down
when majorities make choices that suit themselves.

We won’t be getting to paradise
by voting Labor or Liberal,
or any other political ticket;
no political process can deliver us to paradise -
it will take something much more radical and costly.
We get closer to paradise
when we take personal and community responsibility
for ourselves, for our families and our neighbours
and for our future together.
We take a step to paradise
when we recognise our own power,
not to rule or to control,
but to love and to serve.
We take a step to paradise
when we recognise that we
along with every other human being,
need to be forgiven
and to forgive -
and that therefore no leader,
no party, no institution and no system
should be followed with blind obedience
and no-one deserves our uncritical loyalty.

This year’s elections are over,
and as always when our divisions are emphasised,
the work of those who follow Jesus
is to build community,
to seek the commonwealth in love,
to make peace through forgiveness,
and to fix our hope and energy
on nothing less than paradise.