In him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.Colossians 1:16
Christ the King Sunday always makes me think of a Community Thanksgiving Service that I participated in back in South Carolina. There were three other churches involved in the service – two of them Baptist and one of them AME (African Methodist Episcopal). Before the service began one year, the pastors gathered in the host pastor’s office for prayer and conversation. We started chatting about what we preached on that morning. “Thanksgiving,” of course, was what the other three pastors said they had preached on, in one way or another. But when they asked me what I preached on, I said, “Christ the King,” of course.
They all gave me a puzzled look, but it was true. This festival often falls on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, as it does this year. And it is an important festival to celebrate, so that is what we are doing today. Next Sunday begins the Season of Advent and a new church year. But today, we conclude our church year by celebrating Jesus as our King.
Christ the King Sunday: A Brief History
The history of this festival is interesting, and I think it is worth remembering today. It is one of the more recent festivals added to our church calendar, beginning less than a hundred years ago, and originating in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Pius XI introduced it to the church in 1925 to combat the rising secularization and nationalism that he saw in the world back then. I’m not sure it worked, at least by that measure. It seems to me that the world continues to become both more secular (less interested in religious or spiritual concerns), and more nationalistic (identifying more and more with our own nation, whatever nation that might be). So if secularization and nationalism continue to plague our world, you could say that this festival did not accomplish its intended purpose, or you could say that this festival is now more important than ever.
This festival became popular quite quickly, and soon spread to other denominations, including ours, of course. We join today with Christians of many different denominations to give thanks to Christ our King, and to be reminded that all nations fall under the reign of God’s Son, and to remind the world that we all live under this reign, whether or not we acknowledge it.
So this festival continues to hold an important place in our church year. And to remind us that Jesus is our King. He is the King of kings, in fact. But what does that mean? And what kind of king is Jesus? Today’s scripture readings offer several important answers to these questions. So that is what I want to focus on today. What does it mean that Jesus is our King, and what kind of king is he?
Let’s start with our second reading, from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, Colossians 1:11-20. Paul tells us that in Jesus, our King, “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him.”
Everything that we see in this world, in this universe, and everything that we cannot see, has been created by Jesus. There is no nation, no government, no earthly ruler, who has not been created through Jesus and for Jesus. That is why he is the King of kings.
And, Paul goes on to say, “in him all things hold together.” Without Jesus playing an active role in our world, in other words, everything would fall apart. In Jesus, all things hold together. Even if we can’t always see him at work. Even if we wish he were more involved in our world. The truth is that the only reason things have not completely fallen apart is Jesus. In him all things hold together. He is the glue to our universe, you might say.
But not only that – Paul tells us that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” We have been rescued, transferred from the power of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus, where there is love and forgiveness and grace and mercy. All ruled by the gentle, loving hand of our all-powerful King. A King who chooses not to rule by force, but by love. And we have a beautiful illustration of that in today’s gospel reading.
The Gospel of Luke
This gospel reading, Luke 23:33-43, should seem to us like a surprising choice for today. On the day that we celebrate Christ as our king, a story of his crucifixion? An account where he is being mocked for being the so-called King of the Jews? What kind of king is this? What kind of king, with all the power that Jesus has, allows himself to be crucified and killed in the most humbling, shameful way imaginable? What kind of king chooses to reign from a cross? Our king, the king of all creation, who is none other than the very Son of God, who can melt the earth away with a simple word. This is the King that we give thanks for today, the kind of king who willingly dies for his subjects.
Jesus really is a most unlikely king, who rules from a most unlikely throne. And this gospel reading intentionally takes us back to Good Friday to remind us of this. If we want to know what it means that Jesus is our King, or what kind of king we have in Jesus, there is no more important place to look than the cross. On the cross, and in Jesus’ suffering and death, we discover a king who allows himself to be humiliated and mocked, and refuses to save himself, because he is overflowing with love for us, and because he is literally dying to save us. And so our king, Jesus, gets what he does not deserve – death on a cross – so that we can get what we do not deserve – life in his kingdom. Jesus is a most unlikely king, with an unlikely throne, showing us in the most amazing way of God’s unlikely love for us all. That is what kind of king Jesus is.
Jesus, Remember Me
But there is even more that can be said about our king, based on this gospel reading. Because we have yet to look at the penitent thief. Two thieves are dying on either side of Jesus, and both for crimes that they have committed. One of the thieves mocks Jesus, deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other thief rebukes him, and then reaches out to Jesus with one of the most remarkable prayers and statements of faith in all of Scripture. As he is dying, and without any hope of being rescued from this death, he says to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And Jesus, as he himself is dying on his own cross, says in return, offers one of the most hopeful and powerful promises in all of Scripture: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus is a king who is always ready to forgive, and always ready to welcome a repentant sinner home. It is never too late to turn to this king, and to be welcomed into his kingdom. The one who created our world and all that is in it, the one in whom all things hold together, the one who rescued us from the power of darkness by dying for our sins, is so filled with love for us that he is always ready to promise us Paradise with him. That is who our king is. And there is not a better king to worship today than Jesus.
What Kind of Subjects Are We Expected to Be?
But there is one more thing to consider today. If this is the kind of king that Jesus is, then what kind of subjects are we supposed to be? How are we to live in this kingdom, with Jesus as our king? Whenever I read or hear today’s gospel reading, I think back to an experience that I had when I was in my early 20s. I’ve shared this before, but I want to briefly share it again, because of how important it has been to me, as I have thought about how we are called to live in Jesus’ kingdom.
When I was in my mid-twenties, and when I was still in the Ph.D. program in economics in Chicago, I was invited to attend a workshop that changed my life. And it was through a simple question that I want to ask you today. Imagine for a moment that you are the thief on the cross next to Jesus. It’s not too far a stretch. After all, we all are sinners. In the eyes of God, we deserve nothing more than death. Now suppose that you summoned up your courage and said to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And suppose that Jesus responded slightly differently than what he said to the thief. Suppose he said to you, “I have come into my kingdom. Now, I let you off of the cross and invite you to live freely as my disciple. Go and remember what I have done.” What would you do? How would you live? What would change in your life? What would remain the same?
When I was asked this question back in the Fall of 1989, it changed my life forever. It caused me to make some major changes in my life. And, to this day, when I come back to this question, it leads me to make changes in how I go about my day. I don’t always do this well, which is why I am thankful to serve a king who rules by love, but this simple exercise helps me, in this complicated, confusing world, to stay focused on what really matters.
So what would you do if you were let off the cross? Because that is what it means to live as subjects of Christ our King. You and I have been let off the cross. We have been given a chance to live each day for the King who died for us. What does that mean for you?
Today we give thanks for Christ our King. A King who is all-powerful, but chooses to reign by love, and who chose to be crucified to rescue us and our world. He died so that we might live. Live not for ourselves. But for him. We have been let off the cross that we deserve. Now we have an opportunity to live each day for the king who died to save us. And to do this until that blessed day when his glorious kingdom comes in all its fullness. Amen, come Lord Jesus. Come and be our King. Amen.
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