When the situation in the world looks bleak, Reign of Christ Sunday is our reminder that God’s power of love, embodied in Christ on the cross, always wins, and that we are meant to be part of making God’s peaceful reign a reality.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Reign of Christ, Last Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 34 C
Texts: Jeremiah 34:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43
Beloved in Christ, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Things look bleak. It seems like evil is everywhere. Each day brings devastating news of destruction and violence. Everything is falling apart. Who is to blame for what’s happening? It’s the incompetent, immoral, irresponsible leader of the nation – at least, that’s Jeremiah’s conclusion.
In the passage we heard this morning, the Hebrew prophet is grieving the fate of his homeland Judah, which has fallen to the Babylonians. The Judean monarchy was just not strong enough to resist the foreign empire with its different culture, different values, and different gods. Babylon has conquered. And now the precious city of Jerusalem has been sacked! The sacred walls of the temple have brought to rubble! Many of the Judean people have been taken away into exile, while those who are left split into conflicting factions. And it’s all the fault of a couple crummy kings.
The prophet explains that kings are supposed to rule like shepherds, protecting the sheep from danger. But Judah’s most recent kings have been misguided leaders. They have let the flock scatter. The only chance now is that there might come a king righteous enough and powerful enough to pull the nation back together. There might, someday, be a good shepherd.
Hundreds of years after Jeremiah’s time, someone finally came along who seemed to fit the bill. Jesus came from humble beginnings, but he was descended from the right lineage, the line of David, just as the prophet had foretold. Jesus spoke with wisdom beyond his years. With merely a word, he could heal deformities and illness, cast out demons, and calm storms. He fed thousands with next to nothing and even raised to life a man four days dead.
Could this be, at last, the promised Prince of Peace, the chosen one, the Messiah? Could this finally be the good shepherd? Many people thought so. Jesus drew crowds and changed lives. Yet, his growing popularity made the authorities increasingly nervous. He challenged established religious and social norms, and claimed divine power. But, curiously, he didn’t amass any armies or incite insurrections. He led no coups, took up no weapons. How would he protect the people if he didn’t fight?
Eventually, the opposition against him got organized. They arrested Jesus. They hauled him before the authorities and put him on trial. Frustrated, they demanded of Jesus: “Are you a king or not?!” But even then Jesus didn’t fight, and they convicted him to death, a criminal’s death. Surrounded by angry mobs, he ended up on a cross outside Jerusalem, the same city whose destruction Jeremiah had mourned generations earlier.
In this moment, it seems like history is repeating itself. Things look bleak. It looks like evil has won. Another so-called “king” looks like another failed leader. One criminal hanging next to Jesus expresses this sentiment: “Some Messiah you are! You can’t save us now. You can’t even save yourself.” Instead of calling down righteous judgment on his foes, Jesus speaks forgiveness, even as he loses his life. Instead maintaining his authority, Jesus humbly gives everything away. What kind of king does that? Everyone can see that this is not the king they’d expected after all…
Well, not everyone. Not the criminal hanging on the other side of Jesus. He sees the situation differently. He sees Jesus as a king. Even though it looks like Jesus has been defeated, he says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” When this criminal looks at Jesus, he sees one who rules with mercy, not domination. One whose victory comes through sacrificial love, not retribution. That’s a different kind of power, and somehow, at the darkest moment, the most unexpected person recognizes it. Whatever Jesus’ reign will look like, he wants in. These are the final moments of this criminal’s earthly life. This man is dying, and yet the power he sees in Jesus gives him immense hope. He puts his complete trust in Jesus, even on the cross, and so he says, “Remember me.” And in return, Jesus speaks acceptance and promise. He tells the criminal, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
This encapsulates the kind of power that the Triune God wields: a power that offers forgiveness for even the gravest of sins; a power that finds lost ones and carries them to Paradise; a power that brings abundant life out of certain death. This is, indeed, the promised messiah, the prince of peace, the savior of the world.
It’s no wonder that people failed to recognize it in Jesus, failed to see a king in the crucified – the reign of Christ is unlike any other. It’s still difficult to put our hope in the cross. It’s tempting to trust in the kind of power that rules with might, rather than the kind of power that empties itself in compassion. It’s especially hard to put our hope in the cross when we reach those moments in history when things look bleak, and the news is devastating, and national leaders are a disappointment.
Reign of Christ Sunday, the liturgical festival we celebrate today, serves as a reminder that – no matter how the situation looks – the power of sacrificial love has already won. Our ultimate ruler and judge, stands above and beyond the ups and downs of history. This festival was added to the Christian calendar almost a century ago, in the wake of World War I, as authoritarianism was gaining momentum around the world. Its message is no less critical to the present moment.
On this Sunday, we come to the story of Jesus on the cross and we encounter the power of God in Christ. It may look like weakness by human standards, but this power actually makes us strong. As Paul writes in Colossians, through Christ we are able to endure whatever the world brings. Christ holds the whole creation together and reconciles us all to God. That is a word of hope for every moment of human history.
Generations after this liturgical festival was instituted, it calls us to remember Christ, whose kingdom has come and is yet coming. When we pray together in worship, “Your kingdom come,” we invoke God’s desire for our world, a vision of peace, justice, and love that stands against earthly systems of violence, oppression, and greed. And we are meant to be a part of making God’s reign real: to be instruments of that peace, advocates for that justice, embodiment of that love – not just individually, but in our families, our communities, our congregation. Together, we live the sacrificial way of the cross, knowing that it is, always, the way of life, and trusting fully that God-in-Christ, our good shepherd, goes before us and goes with us on the way.