Monday, November 18, 2013

Loyalty To Christ, The King Of The World. A Homily for 11.24.13 from Luke 23:35-43 for the 34th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Homily for 11.24.13
Thirty-Fourth Sunday in 
Ordinary Time C
Luke 23:35-43
(revised & edited from a 
previous homily on 11.16.10)

Today we celebrate Christ the King. This is the day the church sets aside to remind herself that our loyalty, ultimately, is to the living, risen Christ, and not to an earthly power or to human glory, indeed a very difficult lesson to keep in mind when the enormous social pressure from all sides calls on us to offer our time and allegiance to this party or that important cause.

And, what is most challenging in this regard is that the Gospel reading for today offers us our King, not on his celestial throne but on his cross of state execution. This is the primary moment of trial and temptation, supremely for the man Jesus, but also for we who are his followers as well. For Jesus, the cup that earlier he prayed would pass him by is now passing his lips as he drinks fully the bitter, hateful, violent and resentful pain of the world. For us, the trial and temptation is similar. Will we die, too? Will we offer ourselves to the brokenness of the world as GOD'S image-bearers of peace and hope? Or will we instead live for ourselves and for our own? I think a good argument could be made that the church in the West has not done well here. (for more on this see a Douglas John Hall's work on the theology of the cross, e.g. go here

To open a way into the TEXT we might well ask how one would expect a King to behave as he endured execution? 

And, in response, what we find are the Gospel accounts offering little in the way of description. Mostly, the King is silent in the face of hate and ridicule. Which leads me to the thought that the Gospel writers want us to see that there is a kingly dignity to Jesus, even in this moment of extremity. Jesus is compliant, willing to let the forces of evil and empire hammer him. Thus, there is a beauty here that occasionally we find coming out of the frail human flesh under pressure, a beauty that brings a quietness to our spirit. 

Let us now pause in silence and behold the man, our King...

So, here’s the question that flows from the King on the cross: How does the inner endurance we see from Jesus on the cross — his strength found in humility, purpose and calling — offer direction for our own lives?  

Perhaps the endurance we see in Jesus, as he struggles, fixed to a Roman cross, is the strength the church in the West needs to mourn the death of Christendom, and to wait for the rebirth of the church.

Here are the lessons I see from this; there are three.

1. Doing GOD's will doesn't mean you always winsometimes you die. 

To find this perspective one must have the ability to see beyond the self. In my personal experience this is a chore not easily practiced. That is to say, one must find within the reality of our calling to walk the narrow-way, that this story we live as a follower of the Jesus the King is primarily about GOD and not about us.

I more than most understand the difficulty of this reality. Almost always we are the hero of our own story, are we not? And just as clearly, because our life is so tied with the very events and experiences of living — the good, the bad and the ugly (and how could it not be otherwise) — we find it challenging to see the big picture of how GOD is working beyond our momentary well-being to capture and redeem this sad, tired old world he still loves.

Enter Jesus. Jesus is the model who shows us the story is not about what we want or need! Listen to this text from Hebrews 12:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 
3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  (Hebrews 12:1-4)
That is, Jesus, seeing the reward, seeing the big picture of GOD’s restoration of the world, willingly endured. To be sure, resurrection for Jesus is mere days away, and that promise had much to do with his present death-moment, as he endured the taunts and the shame and the cruelty of a wrongful state execution.

2. Doing GOD's will doesn't mean all will agree with you; sometimes you stand alone. 

King Jesus hangs from the cross, think of this for a moment! Allow this to wash over you. Contemplate the paradox of a King dying for his subjects, and note well the spiritual cognitive dissonance that follows. How could a King die for his subjects and still be victorious? How could this be?

Subjects must defend the King, right? But here King Jesus is alone, being mostly deserted by his friends. Here, the King resolutely sets his face toward Jerusalem knowing what awaits. And, here, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the King asks for prayer-partners from his most trusted followers, but ends up toiling in prayer alone as he faces-off in a life-and-death confrontation with the powers of empire and the forces of evil.

I would submit that this question of standing alone is the immense challenge facing the church in the West. Surely, by now we know that the climate within the culture has changed toward the church. And, whether we understand its nuance or not, we know, instinctively, that the social-structures supporting the church — commonly called Christendom are disintegrating. These cultural shifts can be read and understood within many subtle changes. 

One example will have to suffice for this morning. Think about of the planned children's and youth sporting events now held on Sunday mornings. There was a time when this would never have happened. The culture, while not necessarily being part of the church’s world-view, still respected the church as an institution, and planned around our activities. But, this was christendom; and christendom is dead.

So, here’s the question: 
Will the church in the West be able to sustain our calling to follow the Jesus-way within a new minority status, as we face this loss of cultural acceptance, appreciation and support? 
One wise sociologist once said, in a world of people it is very difficult to believe anything by oneself. Should you doubt the truth of this try to sometime to announce an unpopular belief. Try standing for something when all around you think the actually truth lies in the other, opposite direction. 

As a case in point, try sharing what today the church celebrates. Try announcing publicly the biblical truth that Jesus Christ is King of the world. Do that and suddenly, you will quickly discover the reality of the clash of world views. Suddenly you will discover these truths:

  • People fear the idea of Jesus as King because they fear a theocracy — that is the misbehavior of his followers…
  • People fear the idea of Jesus as King because they wish to live without submissionevery knee will bow carries no attraction to them…

What, then, is meant by Jesus the King? The easiest way to understand this is to simply understand how Jesus lived while here. (I am indebted to N.T. Wright for this understanding). That is, when one wants to know what the Kingship of Jesus looks like, one must look to how he treated people. And, here, one sees in Jesus not a normal, run-of-the-mill petty dictator. In fact, one sees the very opposite. One finds in King Jesus the real embodiment of sacrificial love and reconciling forgiveness

But, let’s let Jesus speak his understanding of where true greatness lies:
24 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:24-27)

3. Doing GOD's will doesn't mean GOD has left you just because it is a struggle; sometimes the struggle is the goal

We can place this final idea on the map by asserting this: Doing GOD’s will is always a struggle; following the Jesus-way always causes suffering, as we say no to ourselves and place the King’s vocation before our own.

As an example of this I would cite the November 13, 2013 edition of the Christian Century magazine. On page seven the Century quotes the International Society for Human Rights, which asserts that 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world are directed toward Christians. The article goes on to refer to a book by John Allen — The Global War On Christians, who says that as many as 11 Christians are killed each hour somewhere in the world. And finally, the Century quotes a Pew Forum report that contends between 2006 and 2010 Christians faced some form of discrimination in 139 countries — close to three-fourths of all the nations of the world. 

May we now pause and offer a prayer for our persecuted sisters and brothers in Christ…

This persecution we call the narrow-way, which Jesus describes as:
13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
Brothers and Sisters: There is no other way to understand Jesus’ narrow way than the struggle toward self-sacrifice and forgiveness, which I would assert is the true meaning of his Kingship. 

The narrow way is the way of turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving our enemies and praying for those who despitefully use us! The narrow way may involve saying no to our life’s ambition. The narrow way may involve saying no a particular mate. The narrow way may involve standing for the things culturally unpopular. And for some, the narrow way may involve the offering of ones very existence.

This is what it means to follow the Jesus-way; this is the life for which we have offered ourselves. And, in the end, as we face this suffering we should remember how GOD often offers small, subtle reminders that he is present, smiling in our conscience his approval. This is how we are able to face the suffering

I can remember one time at the end of a particularly grueling pastoral-help cession, at the end of a particularly grueling week, praying for the person I was mentoring. When we were done this person asked if they could pray for me, a request to which I happily submitted. As their prayer went out the words hit me just where I lived. My prayer partner mentioned in amazing detail all the struggles I faced that day, all without knowing what was in my heart! GOD was speaking to me through a fellow-struggler’s prayer! How I was humbled and amazed...

Or, think again about King Jesus on the cross. I wonder what the second thief's conversation meant to the King? Here, in the midst of all his suffering, grief and doubt, here as he hangs abandoned, here quietly a frail faith is expressed from the most unlikely source. I simply cannot imagine what this must have done for the King, our King, who on that day supremely practiced what he preached.