Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a King. He was no ordinary king. He was different from other kings because he did everything backwards. From the very day he was born, you could tell that this king was going to be different.
Most kings are born in a palace, but this king was born in a stable. There was no press corps, no viral speculation as to the new king’s name, no massive crowds surrounding the barn, nothing but a handful of shepherds and a few foreigners.
As the infant king grew into a man, he continued to be unusual in a disconcerting way. While most governors and presidents spend their time building up riches of gold, jewels, cars, houses, hobbies, board appointments, this king had nothing at all. People began to call him “King Backward.” And while most powerful leaders surround themselves with security guards, drivers, and servants, he chose to be a servant. As time went on, people became very unhappy with King Backward because he just didn’t act the way that they expected a king to act. Instead of riding into town in a big black car as part of a long motorcade the way he was supposed to, he rode into town on a borrowed 3-speed. Was that any way for a king to act?
And the people he chose to be his friends! He could often be seen visiting with homeless people and known criminals, or eating with prostitutes and worse, collection agents. Finally the people decided that they had put up with this King long enough. They kept waiting for him to do something spectacular. But he didn’t. If He couldn’t act the way a king should act, then they didn’t want him to be their king any more.
You know the rest of the story. And the final scene in King Backward’s life as we know it is the one we hear about in today’s gospel. In just a few weeks, we’ll celebrate the infant King Backward by singing This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Or we’ll sing, Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King. Today’s gospel reminds us to make no mistake—this ends badly. For a few days, at least.
Why do we have this gospel, today? This Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King, is meant to be a triumphant Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year, that culminates all of Jesus’ teaching and good works, right? This is the New Year’s Eve of the church…we’re supposed to be celebrating! This isn’t Good Friday!
On days like today when we are reminded that we cannot look at Christ as King in triumph without remembering Jesus on the cross. The irony is that perhaps nowhere is Jesus more kingly—in the unique way that he is king—than in the scene we have in today’s gospel. The cross is Jesus’ triumph.
The power of the cross is the refusal to use power. The political leaders, the soldiers, even one of the two criminals hanging next to him all challenge Jesus to use his power to prove himself and to save himself. But (as anyone who has ever spent time in twelve-step programs knows), true power and true salvation come only when we experience our complete powerlessness. Jesus’ power here, his control, is his act of letting go, self-emptying. The image of Jesus on the cross is the image of powerlessness.
Jesus’ power is the power to wait, the power to let God act, the power to live out of the knowledge that suffering is a necessary part of transformation. Don’t you wish, sometimes, that you could appropriate some of that power? I do.
There is one person in today’s gospel who recognizes Jesus’ kingly power in this moment of profound powerlessness: the other of the two criminals hanging next to Jesus. Throughout the gospels, the people who recognize Jesus for who he is are always the mostly unlikely ones, not professors or lawyers or theologians, but the itinerant fishermen, the despised tax collectors, the lepers, the dying, and the desperate. This is still true on the cross. The truth is spoken by that desperate criminal who says “Jesus, remember me when you come in to your kingdom.”
This guy is often called “The thief who repented.” I like to think of him as “the thief who recognized Jesus.” In a few weeks we’ll hear John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. One way of thinking about repentance is to say that repentance is to recognize Jesus, and recognize that the Kingdom has come near to us. This is our call at the very beginning of the church year and it is our call at the end, and every moment in between: recognize Jesus, and recognize the Kingdom of God.
The feast of Christ the King is the New Year’s Eve for the Church. What are your New Year’s resolutions? What will you give up in the New Year? What will you let go of? Is there some area in your life where God calls you to be King Backward or Queen Backward? Sometimes we cannot recognize the work of God in the world around us and in our own lives until we let go of power and control of Jesus does. It is only then that, to borrow words from today’s Collect, we are freed and brought together under Christ’s most gracious rule.
There is, in fact, reason to celebrate today. We are gathered, not scattered. We will come together in a little while for a small bit of bread and a sip of wine and call it a feast. And this feast that we share is both a foretaste and a celebration of the kingdom over which Christ is indeed Lord of all. Let us celebrate.