Ex-Cons and Christ the King - Luke 23:33-43
When they came to the place that is called “The Skull,” they crucified Jesus there with the criminals; one on his right and one at his left. And Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. Many people stood by watching, but the leaders scoffed at him saying, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one.” The soldiers also mocked him, bringing him sour wine to drink, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” And there was an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who was hanged there, kept deriding him saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself, and us.” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since we are under the same sentence of condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly for our deeds. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Christ the King Sunday’s message seems more prescribed and predictable to me than I prefer when I sit down to write a sermon. This day, as a festival celebration on our church calendar, didn’t exist until 1925, when Pope Pius XI decided that the Church was called to combat the political goings-on in the world at the time. And Churches of all flavors played along as a way to remind believers, in the aftermath of the first World War that, in spite of that – and in spite of worldly sorts of Kings – we should lift up Jesus as the one and only and ruler of our lives in the world.
So it’s full of big picture stuff, this notion of Christ the King. It’s 1st Commandment stuff: “I am the Lord, your God. You shall have no other Gods before me.” It’s Jesus in the desert, being tempted by the devil, sort of stuff: “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” It’s eschatological, end of days, Book of Revelation sort of stuff: trumpets and white robes and throngs dancing around the throne of “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth,” as John writes in Revelation.
And that’s all well and good and I hope we get that. Today I’m going to assume we get the big picture of all of that. I’m taking for granted that, because we’ve prayed about it and fretted over it and stumbled through our recent presidential election that even the political implications of this day are clear to us – and the same as they were back in the day – that Jesus, not a king or a Kaiser, a president or a politician or a political party – are to have utmost power and influence over our lives in this world. And that none of that will matter in the next life, either.
Well, a friend of mine wrote a blog the other night that brought the message of Christ the King down to earth for me, if you will. He wrote about how he was walking home from work last week, in Philadelphia, past the federal prison there, and let an ex-con borrow his phone. I mean a just-released, fresh-from-the-cage, carrying-his-belongings-in-a-plastic-bag kind of ex-con. It was a short, simple, sweet and holy little reflection. Here’s some of what my friend wrote:
…a guy stopped me to ask if I could call his mom for him. He had no phone on him, and he needed her to pick him up.
“I was just released from federal prison,” he said — as in, just moments before, he had walked through the front doors of the fortress across the street.
It seemed a detail I might have withheld if I were in his shoes. You know … prison. Makes people nervous.
So of course I said yes. He just got out, and he needs a break, and I’m going to thumb my nose at him? He gave me her number, I entered it, and it began to ring. It seemed inappropriate for me to do the talking, so I handed him the phone, which seemed to surprise him…
…He spoke to his mother in Spanish, so I don’t know what he said, but the conversation was short. No more than 10 or 15 seconds…
…Briefly I was nervous, hovering over him as he spoke to his mother from a stranger’s phone... But the nervousness faded.
I’ve never been asked for a favor from someone fresh out of prison. The street was well lit, there were many people around, and it occurred to me rather quickly that outside of a federal prison was probably among the least likely places someone would try to steal my phone or rob me. And statistically, he seemed as likely as any other stranger to do me harm — which is to say, not very. I could assume nothing about him. I had no more reason to have any prejudice against him for leaving the federal prison than I would if he had just left the Federal Reserve Bank.
So, yeah. Of course he told me he was just released from prison. Why wouldn’t he? He was proud of it. He was done. He was back. It signified that he wasn’t about to try any funny business. And what did I have to worry about? He was probably the most trustworthy person on that block at that moment, including myself.
He handed me the phone back and said thank you.
“You’re welcome,” I said. “Have a great night.”
…As he walked away, he looked relieved — elated, really — to be breathing the evening air, I suppose. To be talking to a stranger. To be calling his mom without a time limit and a queue behind him. To be free.
And I guess I was happy to be part of a friendly, helpful encounter. Welcome back, buddy. Good luck out there.
So what if “Christ the King Sunday” doesn’t have to span the depth and breadth of our political, theological landscape? What if we don’t try to wrap our brains around the theological implications of it, so much as we wrap our hearts around the depth and breadth of its implications for our daily lives in the world as we know it?
See, my friend reminds me that each of us has the power to let the love of God rule our lives, daily, in small but meaningful ways. It can be as high and mighty as Jesus promising eternity to that lost soul on the cross. It can be as worldly and practical as my friend sharing a moment of grace and mercy – in the form of a phone call home – with an ex-con who needed a hand and some hope on his first day of freedom.
So I wonder how many of us – I wonder if I – would have let that guy borrow my phone. Because I think we forget too easily that we are more like that ex-con than not, in the eyes of Christ the King. As broken, sinful people, we are more like those criminals hanging next to Jesus – one on his right, and one on his left – and we are, each of us, looking for relief, needing forgiveness, wondering about eternity, and hoping and praying and trying hard to put our ultimate trust in something bigger and better than ourselves.
And this is the God we get in Jesus. Christ the King is a God of grace, mercy, and peace. Love, forgiveness, and humility. Sacrifice, generosity, and a wide, welcoming kind of hospitality and kindness to all of God’s children.
If we live with that Jesus as our King and ultimate authority, the love of Christ will rule in our hearts, and in our minds, and in our lives – as the benediction goes. And we will know paradise – like every sinner before and since – and we’ll know it “today…” now… in this life and for the next.