Jesus is King!

a sermon for Christ the King [Year C]

Luke 23:33-43 and Colossians 1:11-20

“Everytime I look up, I see God’s faithfulness
And it shows just how much he is miraculous
I can’t keep it to myself, I can’t sit here and be still
Everybody, I will tell ‘till the whole world is healed.
King of kings, Lord of Lords, all the things he has in store
From the rich to the poor, all are welcome through the door
You won’t ever be the same when you call on Jesus’ name
Listen to the words I’m sayin’, Jesus saved me, now I’m sane.”

Those are not words from a church composer you’ve heard before or from a hymn we’ve sung out of our hymnal. Those are words off the new album from rap artist Kanye West, released just a month ago—an album titled, interestingly enough, Jesus is King. I am fairly certain Kanye West did not release it in time for the church’s celebration of Christ the King, which falls on this final Sunday of the liturgical year, but it sure is convenient that he did.

In fact, just two weeks ago when I was driving our confirmation students to Roanoke for the day to see the bishop’s office, talk to the Roanoke College President, and tour several agencies of the Lutheran Church there, Kanye’s album was discussed in our van. Some of the confirmation students had already downloaded it and were wanting to know what I thought of the songs on Jesus is King.

Kanye West at one of his “Sunday Services”

Some of you may know who Kanye West is, either from his previous work or from some of the controversial statements he’s made in public. It’s been hard to miss him over the past two decades. He is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, and is a 21-time Grammy Award-winner. He’s also married to a Kardashian. And at some point in the past year Kanye West apparently had a religious conversion. As the song says, he claims Jesus has saved him and now he wants to respond to that change in faith. This most recent album doesn’t just have one Christian song. It is made up entirely of gospel hip-hop music he wrote. The album includes references to baptism, keeping the Sabbath day holy, and verses from Scripture.

Now, many popular musicians go through some form of religious awakening at some point in their career, and I’m not going to pass any judgment on the authenticity of West’s faith and commitment to God. This could all be, as some claim, a publicity stunt, just a cunning attempt to cash in on people’s true faith and devotion to Jesus. The album and the way he’s promoted it have certainly been divisive.

It may not be how you or I would choose to profess our faith, but I do know that on Jesus is King, Kanye West is talking about a man who was crucified between two common criminals on a hill outside of Jerusalem around 2000 years ago. What is clear is that on his gospel rap album, West is moved to tell the story of a man who, by many accounts, should have never been known or remembered or retold, so common and ordinary he was. And whether people like it or not, it is clear West articulates a faith that this crucified man has in some way rescued him. An individual’s faith is a very personal and unique relationship, and so none of us can really say exactly what such a statement might mean for anyone else, but it’s evident that this crucified man has power over him, has authority in Kanye’s life.


And that, in fact, is why we gather here today, and every Sunday, for that matter. From the moment the sign was hung in mocking fashion above his thorn-adorned head on the cross—“This is the King of the Jews—Jesus has been named as a sovereign ruler. Jesus has some power over us, some kind of authority, and we seek to understand it, worship it, grow into it.

And so there I was, rolling down I-64 on Election Day, when Virginia was choosing a new state legislature and other leaders, discussing Jesus’ kingship with a group of tenth graders as we made our way to visit several institutions that he, in some way, founded and still nurtures: a college in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a nursing home for elderly adults, and a school for children with special behavioral and developmental needs. Jesus is king, and thousands of other rulers have come and gone, millions of other elections have seated and then deposed women in men in power, but the kingdom of Jesus lives on, welcoming more and more people into God’s embrace.

Jesus is king, and borders of countries have changed and been erased, walls have been built up and then torn down, but the places where Jesus walks and loves and gives second chances seem to still be popping up everywhere.

“Christ the King” painting by Ronald Raab (2015)

Jesus is king, and empires have built temples and churches and banks and sports stadiums and concert halls and monuments and marble statues of their finest, but the kingdom that started with a tool of execution, a few planks of wood and a handful of nails stretches across every inch of the earth.

Jesus is King, and armies have fought and soldiers have been trained, presidents have been groomed and princes have been primed, but the kingdom that always starts with the lowly people on the sidelines, the margin-folk—the lepers, the blind, the sinners, the tax collectors, keeps on marching.

It keeps on marching and claims you and me, and Kanye, and Martin Luther, and Harriett Tubman, and Johann Sebastian Bach, and Francis of Assisi, and Dorothy Day and Elizabeth Platz, the first Lutheran woman pastor, ordained 49 years ago this week. It claims Pope Francis and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Claire Louise Johnson.

And it does all of this—this reign has its entry everywhere, even the darkest places—because this kingdom begins on a cross. This rule begins with a man who looks to those who are nailing him there, who want him dead and forgotten, and instead of slinging insults or anger, he says, “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” This rule begins with a man who looks to his right and left and instead of seeing two criminals, sees two fellow humans with him, who never condescends, who never judges, but up until the very end finds way to speak offer pardon and peace: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” This kingdom begins with a man who has umpteen opportunities to save his own skin, to stop it all, to slink away in anonymity, but instead through dying grants us the dignity to let us see what things really look like when our sin runs free.


Right now our country is in the middle of an impeachment inquiry. And as everyone wonders what really will happen next, or what it means for the next presidential election cycle, and no matter where each of us may stand on it, the reality is this is a defining moment—maybe the defining moment—of our current president’s tenure. History tends to judge leaders by their defining moments. In years to come, no matter what happens in these four or eight years, people will mention the impeachment proceedings near the top. We can’t talk about President Abraham Lincoln, for example without mentioning the Gettysburg Address. Winston Churchill was Prime Minister for 9 years but he is known for his resolve in World War II. Napoleon conquered over half of Europe, but we always talk about his Waterloo.

Leaders are known by their defining moments, and this is Jesus’. He did and still does so many wondrous things, but his moment on the cross is where it all comes into focus. We can’t talk about him and God doesn’t want us to talk about him without talking about how people mocked him with sour wine, or how people talked about dividing his clothes before he was dead. This is Jesus at his finest, you might say, and look at him! He stands for mercy, for solidarity with the downtrodden, for looking into anyone’s eyes with hope and love.

And so when the writer of the letter to the Colossians, for example, tells us to be strong with the strength that comes from Jesus’ glorious power, he is talking about the strength to be found in being compassionate with people and the glorious power that lies in humility. When the writer of Colossians goes on to say that in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, we know that the fullness of God can now dwell in any human being anywhere, especially when they are most overlooked and most outcast.

Yale theologian David Bentley Hart describes this concept as a revolution, that the cross of Jesus ignited a revolutionary movement the likes of which the world had never before seen. A revolution is an idea or cause that overturns things so that they can never go back to the way they were before. He says that the cross of Christ is a moment where, for the first time in history, “the human person as such…was invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value.”[1] We take that for granted now, so far we are removed in so many ways from the era that crucified Jesus, but the idea that God could enter the world from the ground up, rather than the top down, that value could be found in any person, no matter who they were or what they were like, was begun by Jesus’ defining moment.


And so for now that is where we seek him and those are the ways we carry on this revolution. We sit down at the table with people who have hurt us, like I witnessed a family here do this week, and we do the hard work of forgiving one another because we’ve come to understand that forgiveness is the only true lasting power we know. It is, as the Psalm this morning declares, the only force that truly “breaks the bow, shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire” (Psalm 46). We devote ourselves to welcoming and serving every person we come into contact with because we know that God is present in them, and we do this even if it means coming to terms with our inner prejudices about people. It means we work to create churches and homes where sinners of all stripes can hear the promise of Paradise. It means we lean in on one another and never close the door on God working to bring life to any situation, no matter how dark it may seem.

There is a small, relatively plain and nondescript house on Skipwith Road that I pass by about four times a day. It is a nice house, and for all I can see taken care of, but it might even be empty. For most of the year it is easy to pass by because it is so ordinary. In its front yard is a tree—one enormous, beautiful, and perfectly shaped tree which turns the most brilliant shade of orange right at this time of year. It is impossible to drive by and not see it here at the end of the year. It is impossible to drive by it and not just marvel at this little plain house with the gigantic colorful tree.


For now, Jesus’ defining moment is that cross on a hill called the Skull, easy to miss, easy to despise, easy to write off as empty. It takes a bit of faith to realize its worth. But one day at the end of all things his glory will be fully revealed for all to see and it will be unmistakable—a perfect tree! His immense and overwhelming love at that point will be unmistakable, his revolution of mercy complete, embracing all, and all we will really be able to do is stand in wonder.

Or, as Kanye says, “Every time we look up, we see God’s faithfulness, and it shows just how much he is miraculous.” For Jesus, the crucified, is King.


Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, Yale University Press, 2009, page 167

God of the living

a sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 27C]

Luke 20:27-38

This is a bit of vulnerability here, but I must admit that back when I was trying to figure out whether or not I felt called to seminary and a possible public role in the church one of the things that I really struggled with was whether or not I could handle all the religious questions that I thought would come my way. It’s not that I didn’t like to ponder theology and matters of faith, but I worried that I would grow weary of being “that guy” in every social situation in my future who would end up fielding everyone’s questions about God or the church. It’s kind of like how I imagine people who are doctors probably end up talking about people’s medical symptoms even when they’re not at the office, or how car mechanics end up hearing people talk about noises their cars are making. The people who probably have it the worst in this vein are the people who work in I/T. They never really get a day off. Every time we run across an issue with our computer or our router we feel entitled to their advice or help. That’s what I feared about being seen as an “expert” in religion. Would I ever be up to all these questions, especially considering that religion can be so controversial? What if I gave a wrong answer?


However, I came to realize at some point that it’s not just seminarians or church professionals who end up being seen as religious experts. I imagine that you have figured out from your own experience that once you’ve been identified with Christian faith, you can end up being the one who receives the religious questions people have. I’m sure many of you deal with the “what do you believe about this?” or “What does your faith/church say about that?” I have come to appreciate that faith often strengthens and deepens through the process of asking better and better questions, struggling with them constantly can also be wearying.

I wonder if that’s how Jesus ever felt. I mean, he gets everybody’s questions, and he gets really hard ones. His own disciples ask him a lot of things. Every time he turns around it seems like the Pharisees are pressing him on some religious matter why don’t his followers engage in ritual handwashing? Why does he pluck grain on the Sabbath day? His entire trial with Pontius Pilate is a essentially a battery of questions. Come to think of it, there was a Prayer of the Day in the old green hymnal, the hymnal before this one, appointed for one Sunday in each fall that really drove the point home: “Our Lord Jesus, you have endured the doubts and foolish questions of every generation. Forgive us for trying to be judge over you, and grant us the confident faith to acknowledge you as Lord.”

When Jesus finally enters Jerusalem, which we hear about in this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus really gets a whole bunch of doubts and questions. The Sadducees think up one particularly foolish one that is actually a front for trying to be judge over Jesus. The Sadducees were a group of elite Jewish scholars we don’t know much about because their beliefs were tied so closely to the Temple life in Jerusalem and when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70 it basically wiped their whole denomination out.

maybe the Sadducees looked like this

What we do know is that they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or in the life of the world to come. That was not part of their belief system, for whatever reason. They were in an ongoing debate with other Jewish groups about this topic, and they see Jesus come along and since he is now “that guy” who can field religious questions, they approach him and come up with a purposefully complicated question intended to make the idea of the resurrection sound stupid.

Of course, there’s a lot of backstory here about why they choose this particular question, but it has to do with the custom of Levirate marriage, which was a law ancient Jewish people followed to ensure offspring within one family system. You can hear this question and hear that women were really valued primarily in terms of their ability to produce children, essentially like property. And the Sadducees come up with this outlandish hypothetical episode where one poor woman outlives not only her husband but also all seven of his brothers. And then comes the foolish question: when God raises everyone from the dead, smarty-pants religious guy Jesus, which of the brothers will be her husband, or will she somehow belong to all eight?

Jesus, gentle Lord Jesus, receives their foolish question graciously, just like he does all of ours, and says, “The life after this life doesn’t work like that.” Jesus, who himself is unmarried, understands that marriage exists in societies in large part to offer stability and continuity amid the trials and struggles of this world.

just to clarify: not my grandparents

I remember when I was still unmarried in my twenties and my grandmother couldn’t understand why I was single. She and my grandfather had gotten married right out of college and she told me one day, “We needed each other.” And she was right. There was World War II. They had grown up in the Great Depression. People needed a partner to manage life in a way young people don’t really need them now. Of course, my grandparents happened to love each other very deeply, too, but her comment opened my eyes to the fact that marriage wasn’t only about the partnership of true love. Marriage, in Jesus’ time but also to some degree in ours, also allows for life to go on through the bearing of children, since it is through parents that new life is brought into this world.

With all this in mind, and in the Sadducees’ minds, Jesus says, the question is moot. In the resurrection of the dead, there will be no need for anything other than God to establish continuity and stability and joy and new life because that’s what Jesus himself will do and be for everyone. In the world to come, when God’s eternal light will dawn on this darkened world, if that is something you believe in, marriage will be essentially outdated. That doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t know and love the people we’re married to now, but it does suggest the new life God has in store for God’s people is beyond anything we might imagine.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there, because that doesn’t really answer the deeper question the Sadducees are getting at. They most likely want to know if there is a life to come, and that’s when Jesus goes back to an old passage in Scripture about Moses. There Jesus finds a clear moment when God leaves a clue that there is more to existence than what we hear and see and perceive now, that the concept of the resurrection, therefore, is not just something the Sadducees’ religious opponents have thought up along the way, but something God established at the beginning.

Jesus says there’s this one time that happens to be in the book of Exodus, where Moses is talking to God himself through the burning bush. And in that moment, God identifies himself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, who were long since dead and buried. But, Jesus points out, God doesn’t say to Moses “I was the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” God says, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And if God says he still is the God of those people, then they must somehow still be alive. God isn’t the God of the dead. God is the God of the living. God is the source and meaning of all of existence, by God’s own definition and name. It’s fundamental to God’s identity, so if he names himself as God of these people there must be some way that life goes on even when here it seems to be over.


What we don’t hear in this morning’s gospel lesson (because it gets clipped off) is that the Sadducees are impressed with Jesus’ answer and they are no longer willing to question him! He doesn’t just endure the doubts and foolish questions of every generation, but he thoughtfully and carefully receives them and offers us surprising love in return. And Jesus not only argues for the case that there is a resurrection by quoting Scripture and doing a little theology, but he’s willing to lay his life down on it. In doing so Jesus is not saying that what happens in this life isn’t important, or that the world and creation are bad, or that our lives here and now have no value, which is, sadly, how some early Christian interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus. But what Jesus is doing by going to the cross is cutting through all the questions they and we might have about God’s ability to raise life and love  over death and doubt and hate, about God’s ability to create hope and justice when we only feel fear and despair. And God shows himself once more, in bright shining fashion, that he is God of the living by bringing about a resurrection through Jesus. On the third day he rose again.


Late this summer some of you may know that my kids and I found some Monarch caterpillars on the milkweed in our backyard. Feeling like they were rare treasures, we brought them inside with some clipped leaves from the plant and put them in a little cage. Lo and behold, they all formed chrysalids, one by one. I know not how even though I got to watch a few of them as they did it. And then, several days later, they each became a butterfly, and we got to witness that process too. It takes only a few minutes. One second they are this lifeless-looking pod thing, and then the next second there is a beautiful, orange and black and white butterfly hanging there by legs with two minuscule claws.  And it looks absolutely nothing like the caterpillar that formed the chrysalis. The butterfly eats differently, moves around differently, has different body parts—and we’ll never know how it all happens because we can’t put a little camera in the caterpillar’s body to film it happening.

For the first time on my back porch, of all places, it became easy for me to see why the butterfly was a symbol of the resurrection for early Christians. God is God of the living even though we do not always understand it and our foolish questions can only take blind stabs at it. People who used to live behind the Berlin Wall could really only guess what life on the other side might be like. It was immovable. You’d get shot if you tried to cross to the other side. And then one day thirty years ago this weekend it just came down. People jumped on top and could not just see life on the other side, but walk right into it. And no one ever thought it would happen so peacefully.

There are mysteries, my friends. There is wonder. I think that in such a scientific age we can forget that. I know I do.  I want logic and straight lines and if the lines can’t be straight then I at least want them pretty. But often the lines disappear or get blurry or get crossed. There are mysteries about God and about life and triumph that we just can’t understand and can’t answer now, but I hold out hope that God will one day address them all in the light of Jesus’ resurrection.

Church historian and professor at UVA Robert Louis Wilken says, early followers of Christ and members of the church “were not in the business of establishing something; their task was to understand and explain something”[1] It’s easy to forget that, too, when we see the church just as an institution with programs that serve people or that the point of any sermon is just some application for living our lives, that we always need to establish and build and do. Let us not forget that we’re here mainly because we have experienced some kind of life we want to understand more deeply We’re here primarily to ponder and give thanks for the mysteries, to gaze with the eyes of a child who is looking through a mesh cage at the wondrous life of an insect, to hear the stories of the One who has climbed to the top and testifies to the life beyond. We’re here to look into the eyes of people like the families of our sister Eddie and our sister Flo, people who are fresh back from the graveside, and say to them, “Your loved ones are alive to God.”

We’re here to ask all our questions, foolish and otherwise, because we can stand and declare with a song in our throat that our God is God of the living and that in him life has no boundaries. No boundaries at all.


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Robert Louis Wilken. 2003 Yale University Press, p 3