Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, also known as Christ the King Sunday. It is the last week in our Liturgical year. Next week is the beginning of Advent and it is the season where the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end overlap to form our circular exploration of the life of Christ and the church. We are simultaneously called to remember the birth of Christ and to anticipate his second coming. It may seem strange that we are reading about his crucifixion today, but this was the moment Christ’s kingdom began. The Romans thought they were mocking him by proclaiming him King of the Jews, but it was in fact his coronation and the beginning of his reign.
Here in Twenty-first Century America, the role of “king” is a foreign concept. England just crowned a new king, Charles III, but the real political power resides with Parliament and the Prime Minister. That was not the case in biblical times. Kingdoms were often much smaller, but kings were powerful leaders. The word king shows up over two thousand times in the Bible so kings were much on the peoples’ mind. The Romans claimed to have overthrown their monarchy and founded a Republic. They even killed Julius Caesar for fear that he was setting himself up as a king, only to have their next ruler named Emperor, which wasn’t much different.
What was a king in Jesus time? A king traditionally has both final say and final responsibility for the welfare of a kingdom. Their kingdom is a monarchy, rule by one. Their subjects, those persons within their kingdom, owe to them, and only them, their full allegiance. It is a vocation, not a job. The king doesn’t take off his crown at 5pm on Friday night and forget he is king until 8am Monday morning. The king is king from the day of his coronation, his anointing, until his death. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, the king is effectively married to his subjects and they to him.
Jesus spent much of his preaching career talking about his kingdom. It was a kingdom like none we have ever seen on earth. Both John the Baptist and Jesus began their preaching career saying, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. I don’t think they had in mind, “Lord, forgive me. I fussed at my wife, or I yelled at the kids today. I cussed during a football game, or I ate the whole piece of cheesecake.” They meant, make a 180 degree turn in the way you are living your life, because we are currently called to live in the midst of God’s kingdom while in this worldly kingdom, the rules are different in God’s kingdom than in the rest of the world.
It is a kingdom in which there is no poverty, either physical (Luke) or spiritual (Matthew). Worldwide poverty rates are the highest in many areas of Africa with ¾ of the population in some countries living below the poverty level. Here in the United States South Dakota has several counties with the highest levels of poverty in the nation impacting the indigenous population the hardest. Here in Virginia, the poverty levels were declining until COVID hit and they are now moving back up. Spiritual poverty is not so easily measured, but no less a problem. In 2021 Pew Research stated 29% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation and NPR said Gallop showed the number at 53%, that does not necessarily mean they do not have a relationship with God and those who claim a religious affiliation don’t necessarily practice their faith. Spiritual poverty is no respecter of race, gender, nationality, or economic bracket. Jesus found it most in the Pharisees, those who claimed to be righteous.
It is a kingdom where there is no disease and illness. Health care is a major concern in our nation, and no matter what you believe the solution to be, we all know it is much more complicated than it looks. The poorest often suffer from poor nutrition and inadequate health care. The rest of us suffer from genetic and/or stress related disorders. I had to take a “Wellness” course as part of my undergrad degree in Human Behavior. They had us take a stress indicator test. Death of a loved one, divorce, a new baby, legal issues, job or school changes, and financial problems all were big point items, but even the approach of Christmas scored 12 points. Over 300 points and you had an 80% chance of illness in the near future. They explained their findings by saying “The body is a finely timed instrument that does not like changes.” [i] Jesus often reached out to heal people physically, and closely linked the idea of forgiveness and healing. Even many physicians recognize a link between faith and health.
Those who are persecuted for doing the right thing are already subjects in the kingdom of heaven. November 20th is the day we remember Edmund, King of East Anglia. We don’t celebrate individual saints on Sundays because Sundays are always feast of Christ, but 1200 years ago, young king Edmund refused to deny Christ and hand his kingdom over to pagan invaders to save his life. His example still inspires people. Being a Christian is hard. C S Lewis, the beloved English writer who embraced Christianity after spending his youth as an atheist was quoted in LIFE magazine as saying “I didn’t take up religion to be ‘happy’. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion that will make you feel really comfortable, I don’t recommend Christianity.” As we are reminded in today’s gospel, our king was crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross. Christ’s kingdom is at war with the kingdoms of this world, but we battle in a different way.
Those who obey and teach others to obey God’s commandments will be great in the kingdom of heaven. Those who break them and teach others to do so will be called the least. One of the most moving movie scenes for me is in Camelot, when King Arthur realizes his failure to acknowledge his own sin, his illegitimate son, and to hold accountable those he loves, Lancelot and Guinevere, for their sins, has led to the destruction of his kingdom and made a mockery of the ideals he has fought so hard to instill in his subjects. His one salvation was that one boy remembered the noble things he taught and so there was hope for the future. We are constantly teaching others by our words and our actions. Do you know what you are teaching the next generation?
Jesus told many parables about the kingdom and those who live in it. The kingdom is like a mustard seed, leaven in bread, a pearl of great price, a net that brings in different kinds of fish, a man with treasures old and new. Through these stories Jesus tried to help us see his kingdom was a world that is both present among us now, and yet different, mysterious, and hidden. Not yet fully realized.
Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). We say this every week, but do we mean what we say. Do we really want everybody and everything to follow God’s commands all the time? I remember hearing once about a city where the mayor decided he was going to battle obesity by making it against the law to serve giant sized soft drinks. When he went into a local pizza parlor and tried to order an extra slice of pizza, the restaurant manager refused to serve it to him on the grounds that it exceeded his appropriate calorie count for that meal. The mayor was not very happy, even though the manager was carrying out the intent of the law the mayor himself had enacted. What if your mouth refused to work any time you were about to say something hurtful? What if merchants refused to sell us things we don’t need? What if your car automatically drove to church on Sunday morning, even if you had other plans? Thy kingdom come.
Jesus tells us to “Seek first, the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to us” (Matt 6:33). This passage comes toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not just saying, seek first the kingdom and you will have pretty clothes and a big house, but that you will receive the blessings that belong to those who live in the kingdom: comfort for those who mourn; the earth for the meek; mercy for the merciful; a vision of God for those with a pure heart; adoption by God for the peacemakers; heavenly rewards for the persecuted.
In our Gospel story today, we see Jesus hanging on a cross between two thieves. Over his head hangs a plaque that reads in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, “King of the Jews,” and on his head is a crown of thorns. And as he looks out though the blood and sweat that run into his eyes, he feels only mercy toward his persecutors and says, “Father, forgive them. They don’t understand what they are doing.” This simple act provokes contempt on the part of one of those hanging beside him, and awe on the part of the other. The one thief, who is a kingdom into himself, mocks Jesus, just as Satan did after Jesus’ baptism by saying “Save yourself.” When we do what is right. When we actively engage the kingdom of heaven, there will be those who mock us and who believe what we do is foolish. They believe “every man for himself.” They live alone, and they will die alone, even when others are present with them. The other thief calls to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He has not had any long theological conversations with Jesus. He hasn’t come to Sunday School and learned about how God works through history or that God is working to reconcile all things unto himself. He has simply looked into the face of Jesus and seen his king.
Jesus’ response to him is that “today you will be with me in Paradise.” The first thing one must do to become part of a kingdom, is to acknowledge the authority of the king. For Christian’s Jesus is our king, our monarch. No other authority is higher, but instead of “God save the king!” our cry is “Our God is the king who saves!”