“Christ the King Comes into His Kingdom” (Luke 23:27-43)

Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 21, 2010

“Christ the King Comes into His Kingdom” (Luke 23:27-43)

Today is the Last Sunday of the Church Year, and so it may seem odd that the Holy Gospel for this day is a Good Friday reading. But when I tell you that the Last Sunday of the Church Year is also called “Christ the King Sunday,” perhaps you will be able to see why this Good Friday reading was chosen. For in this crucifixion account, we are told about Christ as the King. There is the inscription above Jesus’ head, “This is the King of the Jews,” and we hear the plea of the penitent thief, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And so in these last days of the church year, when our thoughts turn toward the end times and the Last Day–the Last Day, not just of the church year but of this age; the Last Day, when Christ the King will return in glory–on this Last Sunday of the Church Year, Christ the King Sunday, we will see just how “Christ the King Comes into His Kingdom.”

Now usually you would think about a king coming into his kingdom in a glorious fashion, full of grandeur and pomp and circumstance. But this is a very strange coronation. Jesus is being led in procession, but he is being led out to be crucified, the most shameful degradation and death you could imagine. Jesus is nailed to a cross, an instrument of torture, designed for eliminating and humiliating criminals, by means of a slow, agonizing death. And this is how Jesus comes into his kingdom?

Now it was customary for an inscription to be placed over a condemned criminal’s head, giving the reason for his execution. Governor Pilate had put above the head of Jesus of Nazareth, “This is the King of the Jews.” This was a bit of a slam against Jesus’ opponents, the Jewish religious leaders who had persuaded Pilate to have him crucified, against his better judgment. They had said that Jesus was trying to lead a popular revolt against Caesar, although Pilate could see that it was really out of jealousy that they wanted him killed. But he couldn’t risk a riot, so he buckled under pressure and gave in and had the innocent man crucified. But to get back at the Jewish leaders, who hated the fact that Jesus was looked upon as the promised Messiah, Pilate uses that messianic concept when he writes “This is the King of the Jews.”

“This is the King of the Jews.” On a condemned criminal’s plaque, as he hangs there dying on a cross. The irony is not lost on the crowd. The Jewish rulers mock Jesus mercilessly: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The Roman soldiers likewise ridicule him: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even one of the two criminals crucified next to Jesus rails against him: “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal has witnessed all of this, and by God’s grace, the light begins to dawn in his head and heart as to who this Jesus really is, in spite of his unjust punishment. By the witness of Jesus’ extraordinary words and deeds, his extraordinary character, and by the working of the Holy Spirit, bringing him to repentance and faith, the penitent thief recognizes the hidden beauty, the hidden majesty, the hidden divine glory in this truly righteous man dying next to him. He turns his head toward Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

What an expression of faith this is! Jesus is dying, nailed to a cross, and still the man recognizes that he has a divine kingdom he will come into. The power of God is such that even death cannot stop it. The Messiah, the Christ, will enter into his kingdom, and Jesus is it! Scripture had long promised the coming of the messianic king, and here he is! A righteous, holy king, who will deliver God’s people from their misery and usher in an age of blessing in an everlasting kingdom. Jesus’ character, his words and deeds, show that he is the fulfillment of these promises, that he is God’s Chosen One. How Jesus is being wrongly put to death only accents the righteous nature of his person. Men are revealed as sinners, Jesus is revealed as righteous–indeed, as the Messiah, the King. It all comes out at the cross.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This really must be divinely wrought faith, for in this plea a justly condemned sinner, even as he is dying, expects to receive mercy from God’s Messiah. There is no ordinary reason to expect such a thing. Only God can create this faith. How can two condemned criminals, dying side by side–on what basis should one expect the other to remember him in mercy and act on his behalf, after his death, when that other one comes into a glorious kingdom, after he too dies? Is this lunacy? Hallucination? Madness? No, call it what it is, Christian faith.

And Jesus acknowledges it for what it is. He acknowledges and accepts the truth of what the thief is saying: that he, Jesus, is that very messianic king who will act in mercy; that the penitent thief’s faith is well founded, not madness; and that his prayer will receive an answer–in fact, much sooner than he may be expecting. Jesus says to the man: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

What a wonderful promise this is! Jesus frontloads it with his strongest expression of assurance, “Truly I say to you.” Whenever Jesus says this, he really means it! And whatever follows is of the utmost importance. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” “Today.” Wow! How can this be? On this very day when both Jesus and the thief are dying on a cross? On this blackest of black Fridays? On this day when everything looks the worst, this is the day when Jesus comes into his kingdom and the thief receives his mercy? Amazingly, yes!

“Today you will be with me.” Ah, there is the promise, there is the mercy. It is to be with Jesus. Where Jesus is, where the king is, there is his kingdom. “You will be with me in Paradise.” Paradise, the abode of the saints, those blessed by the Lord to live with him in his heavenly kingdom. It’s a return to the Garden, God and man in peaceful harmony and fellowship once again. And, the surprising thing is, it starts “today,” on this day when Jesus dies on a cross. For this–yes, this most shameful and loser-like death–this is how Christ the King comes into his kingdom. This is absolutely how Jesus can promise the man, this sinner–and all sinners, people like you and me–this is how he can say to us, even on the day of our death, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Will Jesus remember you? Oh, yes! He will remember you, and remember you in mercy, because he was dying for you also when he hung there on that cross. Will Jesus remember you? Oh, yes, your name is written in his Book of Life. Your name was inscribed there when you were washed in the waters of Holy Baptism. Will Jesus remember you? Yes, yes, it shall be so! Our Lord’s promise to the penitent thief is his promise to you as well: “Today”–whenever that dying day may come for you, you have Jesus’ promise–“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Death cannot stop the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Indeed, it is Christ’s own death that ushers it in! For by his death, he takes away the sin of the world. “In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” St. Paul tells us in Colossians, “peace by the blood of his cross.” Christ’s own resurrection then on Easter Day shows us the results: Life and immortality come to light. Now the kingdom of blessing and eternal life is open to us. The new age has dawned, already now, today.

Today we hear the penitent’s plea: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” More than that, we hear the King’s reply: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Christ the King comes into his kingdom on the cross, on Good Friday, the day he calls “Today.” And that “Today” will be culminated on the Last Day, when Christ the King returns in glory, raises our bodies and restores all creation, better than ever. Truly, he says this to you!

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 10:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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