In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
On the crucifix, there is a sign over the corpus, or body of Jesus, with the letters I, N, R, I written upon the sign. It is shorthand for the words Pontius Pilate had put on the cross of Jesus: in Latin, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.
Can you see a king in this naked, bloody, dying man? Is he one to whom you could or would swear allegiance? Do you see, in him, God’s chosen one to deliver God’s people to freedom?
Before you answer ‘yes’ too quickly, with all the assurance of belief, think about this: Here is someone who cannot save himself from death, much less you. He, in fact, is the most powerless man in the universe, as we think of power.
Where are the signs of his power in the world? Almost two thousand years have gone by since he died upon the cross and the world has seemingly not changed for the better. God’s name is still trampled upon by people acting in his name, the ‘shepherds who destroy the flock,’ of whom Jeremiah speaks. Rulers, politicians, and those with power use it to abuse children, both born and unborn; the elderly; the vulnerable, the disabled. Natural disasters, perhaps aided and abetted by environmental degradation, affect many people, many of whom pray to God to spare their lives and property.
We are born and we die and in between we are up at night, worrying about things we can’t control. We, or our loved ones, may suffer from illness, contract disease, or die by accident at any time. We strive to become better people but we make the same mistakes. We pray to God but sometimes it seems he does not answer.
Again, I ask you, is this the one whom you should call king? Is this the one to whom you should dedicate your life? If you call him king, do not expect anything more, necessarily, than the men crucified on either side of Jesus. Though life is filled with signs of God’s grace and promise, though healing may indeed come, though miracles may happen, we cannot demand them of him. It can sometimes happen that life seems more like death, and sometimes for the most faithful among us.
Maybe this doesn’t seem like a very hopeful sermon to this point. But what I find convincing about faith in Christ is that it’s realistic. It doesn’t offer me false hope. So many people and so many products, so many ideologies and so many religions offer me hope that ends up being false hope. Hope that my life will magically change or that the world will magically change. Jesus has nothing to offer me except to be with me in my suffering. That is how he was on the cross with the two on either side of him. He was with them.
If we put our faith in him, if we believe that he is the king, what does that look like? The rulers, the scribes, and the first of the two crucified to speak mock him, saying, ‘he saved others, he cannot save himself.’ Today people mock God in refusing to live by his Word, for can his Word save? Can it fulfill our lives in the way we expect? If God is with us, should not he be able to remove our suffering, meet our needs, fulfill our desires, establish justice? Or, at least, he should be able to take revenge against those who mock him. But the man who is on the central cross is silent in the face of human derision. He does not summon legions of angels or consume those who scoff at him with fire from heaven. This only seems to confirm the opinion of those who mock him.
But if we are looking to him not with derision but with hope, we use the words of the man on the other cross. ‘This man has done nothing wrong.’ I know my misdeeds and I know the misdeeds of others. But if I look to Jesus, I look to him as one who is worthy to be a king, the only one worthy to be a king. I recognize the true king not by his ability to seize power, but by his worthiness to be entrusted with it.
Then I say, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ I see that the man who is worthy, despite all appearances, will be the one through whom God rescues the world and his faithful ones. He will be so because he is worthy to be so. His silence in the face of mockery reveals God’s patience, God’s love, God’s mercy. And his resurrection reveals that he is the one whom God vindicates. He receives honor and glory from God, and to him God gives the kingship of the world. God gives him ‘the name above every name; so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth; and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
And to the one who sees in Jesus the one worthy to receive the kingdom, to the one who asks to be remembered when his kingdom finally comes, Jesus says, ‘Today you shall be with me in paradise.’ Me, a sinner, a rebel, do I deserve a place with Jesus? No, but since Jesus comes to share in our suffering, we will also share in his kingdom. He receives what is ours, our sin, our death – we receive what is his: his righteousness and life. And it is this word alone which gives us strength to wait for his kingdom to come in its fullness; this promise which is for us the one thing which sustains us in our journey.
Christ the King – where is his kingdom? It is present here and now - because he is the one who is worthy to be king, the one who is exalted by God;, the one who is with us in our suffering, living in our hearts by the power of the Spirit, and the one who will come to judge the living and the dead. The words Pontius Pilate wrote on the cross are true: Jesus of Nazareth, King – of his people, of all people, of the world. Lord, remember us when you come into your kingdom. Amen