Christ the King Year C/20 November 2016
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the 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, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:33-43)
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Matthias Grunewald’s magnificent painting ‘Crucifixion’
was originally painted for the altarpiece of the Monastery of St Anthony in Isenheim,
which is in what is now Eastern France.
The Monastery specialized in hospital work,
and the monks were noted for their care of those afflicted by the plague
as well as their treatment of those who had skin diseases.
Did I say that Grunewald’s painting is a masterpiece?
Maybe so, but up close it is horrible to view.
Jesus’ arms are unnaturally long, stretched to the breaking point.
His fingers, nailed through, are splayed out.
His ribs stick out from his body, as if he had been starved.
One can almost see the lungs collapsing
as his muscles, starved of oxygen, become unable to hold his body up,
and his body begins to fill with poisonous toxins.
He bleeds profusely from his head, the crown of thorns piercing his brow.
His head is bowed to one side, it is racked with pain and suffering;
But an imaginative detail added by Grunewald especially for this altarpiece is this:
Christ’s body is covered with open sores and lesions.
In adding this unhistorical detail,
Grunewald reveals a theological truth:
Christ shares everything with the sick who came to the altar
in a place separate from the world:
as they endured their own slow crucifixion,
cut off not only from the health of their bodies
but also from the love and care of family and friends,
from the daily joys and work of the world.
Isolated from everything,
with nothing but the walls to stare at,
in pain of body, mind, and spirit.
The powers of the world had left them alone.
They could give no glory to the powers of the world.
They were unsafe to the public, a source of horror,
but Jesus lived with them,
Jesus in the people that cared for them;
Jesus in the Word that was preached to them,
Jesus in the Communion which they received
with the Crucified Christ before their eyes,
in his pain and sorrow giving them a blessing.
What does it take to see Jesus as the king of the universe?
This beaten, bruised, bleeding man,
bereft of comfort, bereft of help,
with his disciples fled away,
a curiosity to the crowds,
an object of derision to the powerful ones,
an object of brutality to the violent?
Perhaps what it takes is to be on that level,
Or at least to understand that in some way one is on that level,
that we all are subject to sin and death,
and are afflicted by life.
We are subject to the powers of the world
and to shepherds that betray us.
We are blown by the winds of time and change
and deceived by those who abuse the truth.
When we are ill, people may flee from us,
and death separates us from our very selves.
But this man lives with us through it all;
in the Church that cares for us,
in the Word preached to us,
in the Communion that feeds us,
we too are comforted.
The Isenheim altarpiece does not depict
the two criminals who were put to death with Jesus.
But it only takes a little more imagination
to see them up there;
also bloodied and bowed,
the one who in his rage and despair joins the mockers;
and the one who somehow through eyes caked with blood
sees something else in the man before him.
Somehow there is a hidden majesty in him.
He does not deserve God’s punishment,
but God’s reward,
and surely somehow he will receive it.
For does not this condemned criminal with Jesus
also know the Scriptures?
Though he is unrighteous, hasn’t he also heard,
doesn’t he also believe:
‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous,
surely there is a God who rules in the earth.’ (Ps. 58)
Do we see in the naked, bleeding man
the king of the universe?
If we do, we will look not to the powers of the world for our salvation,
we will pray not to be overcome with jealous anger, rage, and despair,
we will be more interested in what we can do for others
than in what they can do for us;
we will forgive and pray for those who do not know what they do,
for we believe that we have been forgiven for what we have done,
whether knowing or unknowing;
we will see Christ in the weak, the bruised, the broken
and insofar as we are weak, bruised and broken
we will see his love for us.
Those who believe
see that the one who in his last moments on the cross
experienced every pang of hell
is the one who holds the key to Paradise.
He it is who is the faithful shepherd
and is the just and righteous branch of David
who will make all war to cease upon the earth.
He it is through whom creation came,
for whom it was made,
the image of the invisible God,
the Spirit-filled icon of the Father,
the true Messiah of the children of Abraham
who is exalted by people of all nations.
He makes them one in his body, the Church.
When he comes in glory to judge the living and the dead,
we will see him as he is,
rejoicing that the one of the hidden majesty
has revealed himself at last to us, for us.
Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen