What do you think of when you hear the word “king”? What kind of images does that word bring to your mind?
Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, also known as Christ the King Sunday. But, reading a gospel text like this one, you might never guess that that was the case. In this passage from Luke, you don’t exactly find a lot of images that we might think of as “kingly”; there are no thrones or crowns or fancy clothes, no legion of knights – people don’t bow down before Christ or respect his power and authority. In fact, they strip him and beat him and mock him and give him sour wine to drink as he is literally tortured to death as a criminal.
It’s an absurd text for us to read today. Our other three texts sound much kinglier. From Jeremiah, we have:
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”Jeremiah 23:5
In Psalm 46, the psalmist writes:
“’Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’ The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”Psalm 46:10-11
And in Colossians, we read that:
“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for 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 1:15-16
Now that sounds kingly AF!
And then we have this gospel text. Granted, Jesus is described as a king in this passage – the “King of the Jews” – but this is a mockery of the cosmic, kingly power that we see in the other readings. In this text, Jesus appears weak, with no obvious power or authority; he can’t even save himself from dying a criminal’s death.
And this text gets even more absurd the more you dig into it. Here we have this scene with Jesus on the cross. Except for his followers, literally everyone there is mocking him. The leaders of the people are mocking him; the soldiers are mocking him; even one of the other people being crucified with him is mocking him. Yet in the midst of all this, the other criminal being crucified pushes back against the mockery of Jesus. And he makes the most extraordinary statement of faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Now, to us, this may not sound all that striking. These are words we’ve heard a hundred times, words that we have prayed and even sung before. And we already know how the story goes – we know that Christ really is king. We know that he will rise from the dead just three days later. But this common criminal doesn’t know that. He doesn’t know how this story will end. Nothing in this scenario really points him to that. I mean, even Jesus’ disciples – the ones who had followed him all the way from Galilee, the ones who truly believed that he was the Messiah – even they gave up hope when they saw him hanging on the cross. Yet somehow, miraculously, absurdly, this man looks at Jesus, battered, bloody, and broken, and he sees a king. Somehow in the midst of all this pain and violence, he sees the truth of Jesus’ power and authority.
But that’s not all. The most truly absurd part of this gospel passage is what Jesus says in response to this man’s request. He says to him, “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Now, this verse requires a little bit of unpacking in order to appreciate just how truly absurd it is. Some of you might be sitting here wondering to yourselves, “Why does Pastor Day keep reading that verse in such a weird way? It’s supposed to be, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” But, here’s the thing: in the original ancient Greek manuscripts, there were no commas! In fact, there was very little punctuation at all. So there has been a lot of debate over the centuries about how this verse should be read, where that comma should go. Many translations of the bible will put the comma before “today”; but most theologians – 👉🏼 including this one 👈🏼 – will put it in after.
And the reason for this is that Jesus says again and again in Luke and in all the gospels that he will be killed and then rise again on the third day. And the broad biblical witness and our own creeds speak of the “resurrection of the body” on the last day. It doesn’t make sense that Jesus and this criminal would be like hanging out “in paradise” somewhere for two days – and that Jesus would then have to like look at his watch and go, “Ope, I’d better get back in that tomb so I can pop out and surprise some people!”
Instead, what Jesus is saying to this person being crucified with him is : “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.” And that actually makes this moment all the more absurd. He says to him, I promise you right now, in this moment, in this moment in which we are both being tortured to death, that you and I will both be in paradise. To any other humans watching this spectacle, it’s a promise that sounds completely bonkers: some death row prisoner is promising another prisoner paradise while they are both literally in the middle of being executed. It’s ludicrous. But Jesus can make such a bold promise, because he knows the truth. He knows that he is about to kick death’s a…butt. He knows that even death is no match for God’s life and love.
We still live in the today of that promise. Jesus still says to each one of us, “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.” And if we’re being honest, it still sounds almost as absurd now as it did the first time he said it. There are days when this world feels so far from paradise that this promise sounds downright laughable. Our climate is in crisis with fires and droughts and floods; wars and gang violence have forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere; our children are being massacred at their schools by angry gunmen; and our political culture has left us so deeply divided that we can hardly even talk to each other about what to do about the problems facing us!
In the face of all this chaos, it can be hard for us to imagine what the power of Christ can even realistically do. It’s hard to imagine what we – as the body of Christ – can realistically do. Especially because Christ’s power doesn’t look at all like what we think of as power – he still doesn’t look like a “king.”
Think about the people in our world who we consider to have power – what does that look like? We might think of millionaires and billionaires with all their money, or of those who have political connection and influence. We might think of the leaders of nations, those who command military forces or who have their hands on the nuclear codes. These are the kinds of power that we are used to seeing at work, shaping this world.
But that’s not how Christ operates. Instead, in this passage from Luke, we see his true power at work. We see him nonviolently resisting those who are clamoring for his blood – he lets them put him to death, knowing that even death is not the end with God. We see him forgiving the people gleefully participating in his execution, praying for them even as they are killing him. And we see him loving them, loving this criminal dying next to him, and he speaks words of love even with his dying breath.
These are acts of power. And this is the same power at work in us as followers of Jesus, the same power that we are called to use. We are called to be imitators of Christ – to enact forgiveness, to love one another as we have been loved, and to resist the violent and divisive ways of this world. Christ’s power flows through our acts of forgiveness and love and reconciliation, building God’s kingdom little by little wherever we may be.
And I know that, for other people observing, who don’t know any better, this kind of power often seems silly or sentimental, even naive. And even we may be tempted to think that it will never make much of a difference, not in the face of the powers of this world, with all their money and influence and military might. But this power is the real deal. This is the kind of power that absolutely changes the world. It’s power that cannot be stopped – not even by death.
This is the absurd power of Christ the king – of Christ our king – the power of the king who hears us when we pray: “Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.”