This sermon was delivered at Eucharists of Christ the King at St Andrew’s Church Fersfield and St Remigius’ Church Roydon on the 24th of November 2019. Readings: Colossians 1:11-20 , Luke 23:33-43.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today the Church celebrates the festival of Christ the King, a festival which seeks to exalt our Lord and Saviour as the one whom we, along with the angels and the saints, worship as our divine king who reigns in glory and shall some day return to judge both the quick and the dead.
Yet our Gospel reading prevents us from getting ahead of ourselves by confronting us with the vivid scene of Jesus suspended upon a cross by nails through his hands and feet. He’s not the only one. EIther side of him on their own crosses are two criminals. The three of them together make for a sorry sight. Chests heaving as they try and gasp in air whilst trembling with pain. If they were a farm animal, a cow or a horse, the humane thing to do would be to put them down and out of their misery. Yet the crowd watching on transform this scene from something deeply unpleasant to a shameful exposure of the worst of human potential. This is not a respectful and dignified marking of justice exercising the death penalty. This is foul mockery.
The Religious Leaders scoff: “he saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one of God.”
The Soldiers offer sour wine: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”
Even one of the Criminals, amidst his own pain on his own cross spits taunts at Jesus: Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
If you are, If you are, If you are…
I wonder if this reminds us of another time when Jesus was asked this question?
If you are… the Son of God then turn these stones into bread.
If you are the Son of God then throw yourself down from a height and be caught by angels.
If you are who you claim you are then prove it?! was the question, the accusation, the petulant demand of the Devil when he tempted Christ in the Desert. And here at the foot of the cross while Jesus hangs in pain for our sake, the words of the devil sing from the lips of the religious leaders, the soldiers, the condemned criminal. A nightmarish chorus, a mockery and a travesty of the scene of a King’s court where people could gather around to make their petitions for his favour and support.
Amidst this hideous scene there comes a moment which offers us a glimpse of Jesus’ kingly nature. The other criminal speaks up and proclaims that the two criminals deserve their death sentence and so should rightly fear God. Yet this man Jesus has done nothing wrong.
Then he looks to Jesus and Jesus lifts his head to look back at him. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Here is a glimmer of honest faith amidst suffering, of a subject entrusting themselves to the mercy of their Lord.
It is met with a kingly boon, a promise: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
What is it to be a king? What did the religious leaders, the soldiers and the other criminal expect of a king?
Pomp and ceremony? Military prowess? Popularity?
To be a King is to lead your people and by so doing to preserve their rights and interests by the exercise of your power and justice.
Jesus here, although upon the cross, finds amidst the chorus of diabolical taunts a faithful subject trusting that Jesus will enter into his Kingdom and asking to be remembered. He grants the boon, acting with a quiet dignity that demonstrates him to be the King he’s been accused of not being.
Looking upon his bloodstained face we see a glimpse of grace, a glimpse of who he really is. Our epistle reading from Colossians takes us beyond this glimpse into a wonderful reflection on who this mocked man upon the cross really is, and of what he achieved for us there.
Paul begins by praying for us and then praises the God to whom he is praying. We can imagine this as being a request to the King on our behalf followed by reassuring us as to the nature and character of this King.
He prays that God will make us strong with the strength that comes from his own power and then continues to say “may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” This is a prayer prayed first for the church in Colossae but at the end of the letter Paul requests that they send the letter on to be read by those in Laodicea as well; this prayer is not just for a specific church in one place but for all the faithful brothers and sisters who receive this letter. This prayer is therefore a prayer for us here at Ferfield/Roydon as well.
He prays that we shall be strengthened with God’s own strength. What strength might that be when our gospel reading has witnessed his execution so vividly?
It’s the strength of his kingly character and loving commitment to refuse to leave us subjected to the power of darkness and sin. On that cross even death itself could not claim him. Jesus had to voluntarily give up his life with a loud cry and a final breath to submit to its sentence, to the justice which we in our own sinfulness deserve. He died our death, taking the fullness of humanity into the eternal embrace of the fullness of his divinity so that in Christ our humanity was the dwelling of the fullness of God. Through this holy mystery we encounter the reality of God reconciling all things to himself and making peace through the shedding of his own blood upon the Cross. Jesus, the son of God, is the head of the body, of the Church; the first born from the dead. The love of our heavenly Father for his son, extended also to us, raised Jesus by the Holy Spirit from death to an eternal life which can no longer be eclipsed by death so that we may have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. By so doing we have been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of Jesus, Christ the King.
We have seen that a king is one who leads his people, and preserves their rights and interests by his own power and exercise of justice. Jesus, our King, has led us from darkness into light, from sin and condemnation into forgiveness and liberty.
Paul prayed for us that we might be strengthened by the strength of Christ. And we trust in the promise of his presence which strengthens us when we come to receive the eucharist, that we may taste there the first fruits of the first born from the dead; that we are nourished by the pledge of God himself to sustain us in his love through death and into his holy and unending kingdom.
But Paul also prayed that we would be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father who has enabled us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
Are we prepared to endure everything with patience and joy? This is not an abstract question, it’s actually fundamentally about both our own personal lives with their own particular challenges and difficulties (some of which I know, and some of which I don’t but which are known to God nonetheless), and also about the life of our church within our community of Fersfield/Roydon. These are challenges which we will continue to live with in the coming months and years as we try and sustain our worshipping presence here in this place while also seeking to engage with and support the community even while we become a part of a larger team ministry and all the potential difficulties that may come with it.
Are we prepared to endure patiently and to commit ourselves to cling to joy?
Christ is king, but our gospel witness to that Kingship sometimes presents us with a question. Will we mock and doubt him with the religious leaders, soldiers and criminal?
Or will we confess a faith which endures through, rather than escapes from, pain to join with the other criminal and ask Christ our King to Remember Us in his Kingdom?
Let us resolve to receive the sacrament, to encounter the presence of God which sustains us, and to hear Jesus’ response from the cross: Truly I tell you, you will be with me in Paradise.