a sermon for Christ the King [Year C]
Colossians 1:11-20 and Luke 23:33-43
During my seminary internship at St. Andrew’s United Church in Cairo, Egypt, I spent a great deal of time working among the large and diverse refugee community that our congregation served. At that time many of the refugees were coming to Cairo up the Nile from Sudan, Egypt’s neighbor to the south, where government-backed armies were ransacking villages and slaughtering people by the thousands. Over the course of that year I got to know a good number of these brave individuals as their pastor and as the music teacher in the school the congregation was running for the refugee children.
These are some of the best memories of my life, and at the same time some of the most difficult, for that year I came to appreciate more fully just how precarious a refugee’s life is. There is nowhere on this earth where a refugee truly feels safe, and the place where she feels she belongs is off-limits—two fundamental aspects of life that I, as a white, affluent American, take for granted every single day. The hope of every refugee is to find a place on this planet where they can live without fear of being killed, where they can raise their families with a hope of a good future. They wait and wait and wait to be transferred to a country that will give them that, and usually that country is somewhere in Europe, Australia, or North America.
Imagine what it’s like to live in that kind of treacherous limbo and then finally one day receiving word that your request to be transferred to a new, peaceful country has been approved. I got to witness that a time or two that year. One day we had a special assembly in the children’s school in order to say goodbye to two young siblings whose parents had received word that Canada had finally approved their transfer. I’ll never forget the feeling in the room—the joy of all those assembled, the relief of the parents, and the bewilderment, too, on the faces two young children as they contemplated being transferred overnight from one of the hottest, dirtiest, and most crowded cities of the world, a city that subjected black-skinned Africans to discrimination on a daily basis, to Manitoba, Canada. This, by the way, was in February. Can you imagine?
Apparently the writer to the Colossians can. In an attempt to describe the power of Jesus Christ, a power of love that transcends anything we have ever known, he says that Christ “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” It’s not going from Cairo to Canada, but we do get word of a transfer to a reality no less contrasted to the world we live in now, a world we know that is filled with sorrow and violence and mistrust and brokenness of all kinds. Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, has come to find all of us refugees, all of us pilgrims, all of us wanderers, and through his own death and resurrection receive us into the realm of God’s eternal peace. Jesus Christ, born among us to heal and to comfort, breaks the power of sin over our lives and makes himself our king.
That is our message: no matter where we’ve come from and no matter what we’ve gone through, Jesus’s grace is our new home and we can never be taken out. To get us there, God becomes fully present in Jesus Christ. As the writer of Colossians says, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in the crucified nobody Jesus of Nazareth. That is, the fullness of God didn’t just find a home in Jesus, but it was pleased to dwell there, it was pleased to be so humble, so commonplace. God happily moves in to the rough and tumble places here. And he does this in order to reconcile himself to all things. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the person in whom all things hold together.
If we want to see God, if we want to know how all of the universe makes sense and what the meaning of life is, we look at the person of Jesus Christ. If we want to know how to treat one another in all circumstances, we look to Jesus, for in him all things hold together. And if we wish to know what the Creator of all things thinks of us, we see how Jesus looks to us. And we find he look to us with eyes full of mercy and a heart full of compassion.
That is, after all, what Jesus does in his finest moment there at Golgotha where he looks on everyone with unfathomable forgiveness. To the people driving nails into his flesh he says, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.” To those who insult and mock him, he refuses to lash out in defense, preferring to let their ugliness and meanness echo out into nothingness. To those he dies between—just common criminals—Jesus looks with pardon and solidarity, even promising one of them that day a place in his kingdom. At the precise moment at which anyone would excuse him of any behavior that would alleviate his suffering, Jesus refuses to show any sign of self-preservation. With Jesus of Nazareth, in whom all things hold together, there is absolutely no abuse of power.
This is what his kingdom is made of. This is where we have been transferred by the power of his love and relationships based on this kind of humble authority is what God builds through us. This is how we live, upstream against the flow of hatred and apathy and spite we experience around us.
That disconnect probably presents the biggest challenge to living with Jesus as king. His reign is not always evident to us. Colossians says we need to be prepared to endure everything with patience. No kidding! Greed and war topple the peace and prosperity which people have so carefully built over time. The shooting tragedy at the University of Virginia this week becomes just another example of how quickly one senseless act shatters so many lives. People promote conspiracy theories that try to convince us that dark forces rule the world and are holding all things together, rather than Christ. The rise of Christian nationalism even here in the U.S. distorts the power of Jesus’ gospel and attempts to align one kind of faith with power in government. If Christ really is King, and if his reign is our true home, then how can these things keep getting in the way?
We hear this morning that the place in this world where Jesus dies is called the Skull. In Aramaic that is “Golgotha.” It has often been thought it got that name because of the way it looked. Maybe some boulders protruded from the landscape in the form of a skull. But theologian and teacher Chad Bird, points out that there is an ancient church tradition which maintains that it was called “The Skull” because people believed that is where Adam’s body was buried. Adam, the first person God created, according to Genesis, is the person in Scripture by which death comes to be. Adam’s disobedience to God, and his primal act of self-preservation and wanting to be like God symbolizes our own rebellious nature. It leads Adam to the punishment of death and is a reality that we all must bear. But Jesus, the second Adam, is the one whose obedience to God’s love brings life and immortality to all.
It is just a tradition, of course, but there is something deep at work here: the very place that speaks of death and reminds us of human brokenness becomes, by God’s grace, the very place where Jesus’ redemption and life makes a new beginning. This is how a humble God works: a cross becomes the place where we are transferred from sin into forgiveness, from loneliness to community, from this land to our eternal one.
And therefore the places where we would least expect to encounter God’s grace become the places where Jesus’ new life rises up most clearly. The moments when we hand ourselves over in service to our neighbor become those moments where selfishness begins to lose its grip. The times when God moves us to forgiveness rather than revenge are the times when healing comes to even the deepest wounds. The occasions when we release long-held prejudices and stereotypes come the occasions when dialogue and relationship finds new solid ground. Acts of humility and love strike fear into the rule of the proud and bold new life takes root. “Today,” Jesus tells the humble criminal beside him, “you will be with me in Paradise.”
One of our adult Sunday School classes has been watching and discussing the recent Emmy-winning documentary Heard, which was filmed right here in some of the public housing projects of Richmond. The movie is literally an attempt for some of the residents just to have their stories heard because they are profoundly beautiful stories—stories of remarkable grace and bravery, stories that many of us would not hear because of the stereotypes we assign to the projects and people who live there. It is true that poverty sucks people in and drugs and their accompanying gangs cause all kinds of dark problems for the people in the film. Yet one by one in Heard you hear examples of amazing redemption and the message is clear: God is still at work at Golgotha, raising up new life in the darkest of places. You watch the movie and can see that the transfer is happening, over and over again. People go from a land of despair and brokenness to a place where Christ and his goodness reign.
Where are the places in your life where Christ’s kingdom has been realized, where his goodness has been seen and heard? What are the places of darkness where you’ve buried your skulls of despair where Christ’s reign of forgiveness and mercy still need to be acknowledged? May his mercy reign true for you, for with God’s power Christ is promised to be first place in everything.
Last week we took the second year confirmands up to Roanoke to visit several places where the Lutheran Church has established ministry sites over the years. We saw Roanoke College, of course, but we also stopped at Brandon Oaks, a Lutheran retirement community that is part of Virginia Lutheran Homes. At one point Charles Downs, the CEO of Virginia Lutheran Homes, took the confirmands over to the edge of a bluff overlooking a big four lane road and gestured to another building across the street. It was the rehabilitation and nursing care facility component of Virginia Lutheran Homes, a place where many patients often enter hospice to die. To our back was the planned retirement community, complete with its swimming pool and dining room, where people were very much alive.
Beside us was this small replica of the original Lutheran Church that stood on that location built by settlers back in the 1800s as they came into the valley. Mr. Downs then proceeded to gesture to all of it in one big swoop with his arm, explaining how all of it is all a part of Jesus’ ministry. And then he pointed to the confirmands, who are in the spring of their young, and said that we, too, are connected through it by our faith and our work together as a synod. He said those sitting in those pews at that church over 100 years ago never could have imagined that all of this would come from their vision to extend Christ’s kingdom in their work. It stretches across the highway, across the world, back in time, and into the future—a home of life and care and mercy for all.
So it is with all of us who’ve been transferred to Christ’s kingdom. It happens to us now, but it stretches back to claim those who came far before us and those who will come after. It claims those who are close to us and those we’ve never met. It draws us all in to one land, one reign where Jesus always remembers us with a mercy and love we cannot resist, refugees that we are.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.