A Cross and a Throne
Christ the King Sunday
November 24, 2019
When they came to the place the that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right hand and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
I’ve often wondered about those soldiers. Those soldiers with the grisly task of nailing criminals to a cross. Did they ever get used to it? When they tried to sleep at night, did they hear the cries of agony of those they crucified? Were their dreams haunted with those awful scenes? Call it shell shock, combat fatigue, or PTSD, soldiers have never truly been able to walk away from it all. Siegfried Sassoon, the English trench poet of World War I, writes of his own experience, an experience shared across the ages. He writes, “you’re quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home…you can hear the guns. Hark! Thud. Thud. Thud…Those whispering guns. I’m going crazy; I’m going stark, staring made because of the guns” (excerpts from “Repression of War Experience” by Siegfried Sassoon). I’ve often wondered about those soldiers with that “terrible duty” of crucifying Jesus and so many others. Jesus asks that they be forgiven, but do they keep on doing what they do? Next Friday, do they set about another round of crucifixions?
So there you have them. The soldiers, representing the might of the Roman Empire, representing sin, death, and evil, pitted against the Kingdom of God. And the powers of darkness seem to have the upper hand. They have swords, crosses, and tools of executions. And what does God have? Jesus is stripped naked. His friends have abandoned him. He has no weapons, no might. How can it be that this is Christ the King Sunday? How can it be that this is the coronation of our King? How can it be that from his royal throne, the cross, Jesus prays even for those callous, brutal soldiers tasked with his execution? This doesn’t look like kingship. I mean, have you ever seen somebody in a position of ultimate power forgive their enemies? Have you ever seen a ruler among people open wide their arms in vulnerability? On the surface this is sheer lunacy, that a man being crucified would pray for those with the hammer and nails. It’s lunacy, that Jesus would speak words of kindness to men so accustomed to curses. Indeed, to the world, this looks like lunacy.
But to us, to us who find all our lives and meaning in Christ, this looks like grace. These hardened soldiers are just about going their day of nailing criminals to a cross outside the city gates. Yet Jesus sees something in them. He sees that with every pounding of the nail, with every swing of the hammer, those soldiers are actually hurting themselves. With every cry of agony on the part of the crucified, the crucifiers are only deadening their own souls. The true cost is not what those soldiers are doing to others, but what they are doing to themselves.
Jesus understands them more than they understand themselves. He understands what they are inflicting upon themselves. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” These are the first words from his royal throne, words of grace and mercy. No vindictiveness, no retaliation comes from the lips of our king. I’ve often wondered about those soldiers, if they could hear those words of love above the hardness of their own hearts.
But it’s not about them, is it? It’s about me. Can I hear those words of grace from the cross? Can I hear mercy when it is my heart that has been hardened by sin? Do I know that the true cost of my ego, my anger, my greed is not just the hurt I cause others but the hurt I do to myself? When I peer up to the cross, do I see just another criminal dying at the hands of some ruthless soldiers, or do I see my gracious master and my king?
I ask so many questions this morning because the cross asks questions of us. Questions about our own sin, about our hardness of heart. Questions about who we are and what we believe in and why we believe it.
Look, I get it. We much prefer to talk about the teachings of Jesus, how he broke bread with sinners and outcasts, how he healed the sick and fed the hungry and raised the dead. We talk about it so much that it’s almost as if Jesus Christ came, not to die for us, but to enact a new social program. I praise God for the whole of Jesus’ ministry. And yes, Christians are called to imitate the example of Jesus in the world, no doubt about it. But none of that makes sense unless and until we behold the power and the scandal of the cross. Everything else in the Christian life flows downhill from the cross, flows downhill from that terrible hill outside Jerusalem called, “the Skull.”
And it is a scandal. See, the religions of the world are full of good teachings. They are full of miraculous stories about good people doing good things. There are other stories about other gods who overcome death. The religions of the world are full of wisdom, but they do not have the cross. This, this thing, this instrument, this royal throne, is what sets us apart. It is a scandal, because gods are not supposed to die naked and alone. I mean, if you were creating a religion this is not how you would write the story - about a powerless, suffering, god.
But praise the Almighty, that is precisely why we are here this morning. We are here for the cross. It’s always been that way. Think of Saint Paul, who wrote powerfully about being reconciled through the blood of the cross. He’s the individual who contributed the most to the New Testament. A man who turned his back on his whole way of life, his family, his people, his heritage for the sake of Jesus. I am certain that Saint Paul did not go through persecutions, betrayals, prison, shipwrecks, hunger, and beatings because Jesus was a nice guy who said nice things and offered a path to spiritual enlightenment. Saint Paul knew one thing and one thing only - Jesus Christ and him crucified.
This passage, the crucifixion itself, is too often skipped over in American Christianity today. Because we would prefer stories of kindness, of wisdom, of fulfillment; we much prefer to talk about meditation, or to squabble about what kind of vestments the priest should wear, what kind of wine we should use. We get all in knots about the most controversial question of the day - what color candles should we use at Advent? But that is a pale shadow of Christianity. We have been lulled to sleep in our modern comforts and our modern privileges. We want God to make us happy, to give us wealth, to be our friend. I give thanks to God that I live in a society like ours, where I am free to worship. But I also know that this means I’ve never really had to sacrifice myself, to truly sacrifice myself, for the sake of the gospel. I’ve never really had to carry a cross. When the hardest thing a Christian has to do is roll out of bed on Sunday morning and drop a few bucks in the offering plate, do we really know the power and the scandal of the cross?
So sometimes I wonder - do we really want Christ the King or Christ the Genie to grant us all our selfish little wishes? Like those hardened Roman soldiers, we have shut our ears to the words from the cross so that we can go about our terrible little lives. We go about with our deadened souls, stopping the screams of our hearts with with easy credit, fast food, and Netflix binges.
Look, I know this may not be what you want to hear the week before Thanksgiving. And sure, I could have conjured up some platitudes about gratitude. I could have griped that Target has had its Christmas stuff up since Halloween and that Starbucks is already playing Christmas music. I could have refought the much ballyhooed “War on Christmas.” But compared to the cross, who cares? I did not take my priestly vows to God and the Church so that I could stand here as a court jester for a jolly little king. No, I am here, like you, to give myself for the King who reigns from the cross. For, like Saint Paul, I wish to know one thing and one thing only among you - Jesus Christ and him crucified.
I may not have happy news for you this morning, on this celebration of Christ the King, but I have good news. The Kingdom of God is so grand, that even those hardened, callous soldiers are invited in. Even the hurt they are causing themselves by virtue of their terrible duty, is forgiven. Even those whom the world would deem unlovable, even the people we would regard as unredeemable, are seen and known and loved by God. Even the pain, the hurt, the horror you carry with you day by day is not forgotten by God. And because of that, because of that, you don’t have to run from your pain any longer. You don’t have to numb your pain any longer. You can stop. You can turn around. You can embrace the pain in your heart and in this world with open arms; and as Saint Paul says, you will be crucified to the world and the world will be crucified to you. And when you suffer, not if but when, Jesus will suffer with you.
I’ve often wondered about those soldiers and all their issues. But more than that, I wonder about us and all our issues. I wonder what it would be like if we truly understood that Jesus is talking to us, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”