Last Sunday, I could not get home from worship fast enough. I had to get to my recliner, turn on my tablet, and open up Netflix. Why? Because the show “The Crown” had returned.
“The Crown” provides a dramatic telling of the Windsor family, focusing on the rise and reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Each season is its own decade, which is why there is a need for new lead actors and actresses every two seasons. The show tells the story of what many of us are fascinated with – the glitz and glamour of the Royal Family and its unusual family drama.
For many of us, the Royal Family is our only interaction with the idea of monarchy. What we see is the image of celebrity and ceremony. Yet we are captivated by it. That captivation is why 750 million people watched Prince Charles marry Diana in 1981. It is why an estimated 2.5 billion people watched Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. It is why more than 100 million watched William and Kate’s wedding in 2011. As a point of reference, 98.2 million watched the Super Bowl in February.
We’re fascinated with the idea of monarchy and kingship, but that fascination hinders us on a day like today. This is Christ the King Sunday. It is the final Sunday of the Christian year and one that is particularly important for our life of discipleship. This is a day to celebrate that Jesus is our King and Lord.
What does that mean?
I think it is easy, and maybe even tempting, for some of us to see this role of Jesus as king and stop with a comparison to the Royal Family. We see the British Monarchy and its reduced authority and influence, essentially now a ceremonial position, and can easily attribute that to Jesus’ role as king. Seeing Jesus as this kind of king means that he gives no direct guidance and has no relationship with us. Jesus is there, and we are here, left on our own to figure it all out. (As an aside, no one metaphor can completely tell the picture of Jesus, and every metaphor we could use can have potential issues attached to it.) And yet, without a reflection on what it means that Jesus is King, we would not have the opportunity to ponder how our entire life is to be led by Jesus.
That is what today, Christ the King Sunday, affords us. It is a chance to reflect on the kingdom of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Scripture does not give us a king who is absent from our lives. Scripture paints for us the picture of a king, Jesus Christ, who is present and leads us to follow him with our very lives as citizens of God’s kingdom.
There is no better place to reflect upon this than at Jesus’ coronation as the king of all in Luke 23:33-45. Jesus’ crucifixion was and is his coronation moment as the king and Lord. Notice what this coronation does not include compared to the ones we are familiar with. There is no pomp and circumstance. There is no royal scepter. There are no robe or trumpets. There is only a cross and the agony which it brings, and yet it is the moment Jesus is announced to the world as our Lord.
It doesn’t seem like the place for a coronation, but God chooses to use the “foolishness of the world” to bring about God’s love and desire for humanity. The crucifixion was, and continues to be, the most inhumane form of punishment ever devised. Criminals, who were often revolutionaries and murderers, were placed on the cross and left for days. Crucifixions would take place upon highly traveled roads in order to cause fear. It was Rome’s desire to make a spectacle out of them in order to let people know what would happen if they disobeyed Roman law. So what was intended as a way to humiliate, God used to bring forth the Lord’s kingdom in a mighty way.
At this point, Jesus has been betrayed and convicted in a mock trial by the religious elites and political ruling class. He has been charged as a blasphemer by the religious elites and as a revolutionary by Rome. Both were worried what Jesus’ kingship would come to represent. The religious elites were fearful that Jesus’ kingship would mean their power and influence would be eliminated. Rome was worried that Jesus meant to bring forth a military revolution to overthrow their dictatorship in Judea.
While Jesus was on the cross, Scripture tells us, he made several comments that were reflective of what was on his heart and mind, as well as the nature of his kingdom. These are important words, because of the effort it took for Jesus to express them. He would have had to pick himself up by the nails in his hand just to get enough air to breathe. It would be difficult to speak, so everything said on the cross was important. What we see are Jesus’ words as he prepares to be crowned as the king and Lord of all.
Luke records for us the first of the spoken statements. His words, though, come with some controversy. Through archaeological research, we have found earlier manuscripts of the Gospels and some of them do not include the words, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.”
So how did we get this phrase? It may have been added in by a later editor after looking through Luke’s work in Acts, especially when he records Stephen saying something very similar in Acts 7. This doesn’t take away from the message. I remember several times, as a reporter, that I would turn an article in, and an editor would get a quote or statement later in the day and insert it into the article. It’s still the same article, but there is now more depth added to it than before. This is something similar to what is going on here. It doesn’t take away from the message, but we need to understand the contextual history that supports our Scripture.
In this particular passage, we see that Jesus’ concern was not for himself but for others. He doesn’t think about his wounds, the pain he feels, or the death that is coming. His focus is on those who have broken his heart. What Jesus does next is amazing. He could have easily, and would have been justified in doing so, have offered a word of judgment. That is not Jesus, for Jesus came not to “condemn the world, but to love the world.” What he does instead is to prayerfully ask God to forgive them.
What does it mean to forgive? Forgiveness is a central theme in our faith. It means to look past the wrong that has been caused and to choose to love the person nonetheless. Forgiveness recognizes that something has been done to cause a fissure in a relationship. Instead of seeking revenge or being angry, forgiveness offers grace and mercy in its place. When God forgives, the Lord looks past our sin – the things we do that break God’s holy love – and chooses to see us as God’s very children. There is a desire to let go of the anger and take on peace. The same is true when we forgive. We choose to love the person and to be reconciled with them. That is kingdom grace.
So who are the “they” that Jesus forgives with these words? That has confused us, as well. There is no clear direction within the immediate surrounding of the text to help us or point us in a proper person or persons. The whole of the Gospel of Luke and the Gospels may give us an idea.
The “they” are the Roman authorities – Pilate and the soldiers – who placed him on the cross. They mocked Jesus by dividing his clothes, gambling for them, and calling him the “King of the Jews” as a charge of insurrection. They nailed him to the cross to deliver the execution of the one they believed was a treasonous revolutionary. And yet, Jesus forgives them.
The “they” are the religious elites. The priests and scribes who were worried about their power and influence over the people. As a result, they falsely claimed Jesus committed blasphemy and deserved to die. And yet, Jesus forgives them.
The “they” are the criminals who were on the cross with him. One mocked him, like others had, while the other stopped him and reflected on who Jesus truly is. And yet, Jesus forgives them.
The “they” are the disciples who abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. They promised to never leave his side, but they were not there with him at the trial and the cross. Even Peter said he would never deny him, then three times he refused to recognize Jesus to others. And yet, Jesus forgives them.
The “they” are you and me. We say we will follow Jesus with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but we find ourselves easily distracted by the messages of the world’s consumerism, political discourse, and self-focused attitudes. We say we will go wherever Jesus leads, but we are more concerned with our own ideas and desires. We say we will follow Jesus, but with our words, actions, and deeds we do anything but follow the Lord. And yet, Jesus forgives you and me.
What we see is that the kingdom of God, Jesus’ kingdom, is one of divine grace and mercy that is available to all and shared with all. The kingdom of God is not one of anger, resentment, fear, or vengeance. It is one of mercy and grace shared freely with all people regardless if they “deserve” it or said “I’m sorry.” Jesus’ grace is available to all and freely shared with all, because God is the essence of love and mercy. Grace is the very picture of God’s character.
Jesus’ kingdom is one of mercy. We who seek to follow in Christ’s footsteps as followers of Christ are called citizens of God’s kingdom. Our citizenship is in the divine kingdom of God and it comes with responsibilities. The very nature of God’s kingdom is that it must be lived out in our lives as a response to what God has done for us. Because the kingdom of God, Jesus’ kingdom, is a reflection of grace for all, so are we called to share grace with all people.
Followers of Christ, citizens of God’s kingdom, are to be people who live grace-filled lives, and who forgive others. We are not to be known as people of anger or as people who seek revenge on those who have harmed us. We are not called to hold grudges or look down upon others. Oh, how the heart of God breaks when our people live in this way.
We are called to share mercy with others, because this is what Christ has shared with us. Jesus leads us to be a people defined by forgiveness and mercy. As kingdom people, we are called to look past the harm done and seek to live in peace with one another. When we do, we live as kingdom people, led by a king who is forgiving of all people.