Living by faith, dying with hope  

Song of Zechariah

Colossians 1.11-20

Luke 23.33-43

Reign of Christ

Sunday 20th November 2022

                                       ©Suzanne Grimmett

“This man has done nothing wrong.”

Or had he? We speak of Jesus as being free of sin, but he was not free of breaking laws- the kind of laws that see you nailed to a cross in Roman occupied Palestine. The cruel joke (and yet revealed truth) of the sign, “The King of the Jews” points to why Jesus found himself punished by the rulers of his day. Preaching and teaching about a kingdom other than Caesar’s was sedition.

With Jesus, what he said and what he did were one consistent whole. He taught and lived a non-violent life where forgiveness and reconciliation remained at the centre. When we come to this scene on the cross, we are arriving at the only possible destination for one who refused to abandon these values or revert to the power at his disposal. There would have been so many places in Jesus’ journey to avert what appears to be the disaster of the cross. The temptation to bring peace by the sword, or a new kingdom by manipulating worldly powers or calling down heavenly ones must have been great. With Jesus, however, the way- not the destination- is what matters.

Essentially, we are at the church’s equivalent of New Year’s Eve, where we end the liturgical year with this feast day of the “Reign of Christ”. I particularly like the way we finish the year not with a vision of Christ the judge, ruling from a heavenly throne, but of Jesus on the cross, hung beside two criminals. It is hard to hold a triumphalist vision of kingship and glory, when your God is naked and nailed to a tree. What we find at the close of this year is death and an utter emptying of power.

What if we lived our lives honestly in the light of our deaths? Maybe our best new beginnings look truthfully at our fragile bodies and the fleeting nature of our lives. Death is the great unmasker of hypocrisy but also the great leveller. It is why I think there are so many cries in scripture like this one in Psalm 39, “O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” When we are forgetful of this, humankind has a habit of seeking power, possessions and self-advancement as if there is no end.

This week has seen the announcement in the US of Donald Trump’s renewed presidential ambitions. It has come after some disappointing losses by a few who sought his influence to pave their way to power. Trump has been called a “kingmaker” for the way he secured his own power by giving favours to others and placing allies in key positions of influence. He has also curried favour with some sectors of the Christian church, promising to protect their political agenda on issues like abortion or religious discrimination. All the churches had to do was to give power in exchange for their goals to be met. When some expressed discomfort with Trump’s character, these tended to be silenced by those who felt the ends justified the means.

But here’s the thing. This was never a compromise Jesus made. For Jesus, every moment, every choice, thought, word or deed could align with the purposes of the kingdom and the reign of God on earth. His life witnessed to love and mercy right up to his death which became the supreme act of revelation of the non-violent, compassionate mercy of God. Jesus never took short-cuts through violence, applied for favours from the wealthy nor accepted financial handouts from the corrupt. He never created extra influence through power games nor refused to offer mercy for the sake of some greater good.  The reign of God was revealed not in the achievement of an end goal, but by how Jesus lived in every moment, all the way to the cross.

Inherent in realising the importance of every moment is an understanding of the essential connectedness of all things. We see the impact on our world today of humanity’s voracious harvesting of the earth’s resources and the use and control of these resources for personal gain. Conflicts in the world cause catastrophic harm even as other nations manipulate through an arsenal of weapons that build fear and distrust. This brokenness has at its a heart the driving ambition to possess and rule, to achieve and accumulate. When we live our life forgetful of death and oriented towards these kinds of goals, it is so easy to fall into a way of being where we can justify any behaviour that helps us on our way to achieve them. Matthew Fox has coined the term, “egologically driven” to compare it to ecological motivations that recognise the fragility of life and the moral responsibility we have toward one another and the planet.

There have been people in our history who understood this…people whom we commonly call saints and whose lives reflect not just a courageous death but a faithful life. People who understood that the ends do not justify the means and sought not to be kings or kingmakers but prophets of peace and liberty.

I was reminded of the story of Sophie Scholl, one of the founders of the White Rose movement of resistance in Nazi Germany. She was initially drawn into the ideology of Hitler’s youth movement which inspired her with a vision of rebuilding community through the love of one’s comrades and the natural beauty of their country. But as Sophie and her siblings began to sense the corruption and violence behind the movement, they were disillusioned and decided to begin communicating the truth they were uncovering of an evil regime. They began a campaign of anti-Nazi propaganda which was secretively effective for some time, until they were finally arrested by the Gestapo. It seems that 21-year-old Sophie was given a chance to avoid her fate when her interrogators suggest to her that her brothers were to blame for her involvement. To this she answers vehemently, “You are wrong! I would do it all over again, because you are wrong.” Sophie and her brother, Hans are executed by the Nazis. The last word from both was “freedom”. The integrity of their living and dying inspired others, including Austrian writer, Isle Aichinger who spoke of the feeling that rose in her in learning of Sophie’s fate, saying; “This hope was not just the hope for our survival. It helped those who had to die that even they could die with hope. It was like a secret hope that expanded over the world.”  

Those who die with hope can inspire others to live lives of faith because they proclaim that what is of greatest value is greater than ourselves. When we are egologically driven not only do we live with constant fear of losing what we have or hope to have, but we also ultimately approach death with despair because our life has been centred on what we could self-create… and we cannot manipulate our way out of death. 

As we close this church year and prepare our hearts through Advent, it can be a reminder to put our hope in the reign of God that is renewed and strengthened through every act of love, courage and mercy. It is a reminder that it is not a distant goal that matters, or that mythical moment when we will finally have our stuff together, but rather how we live now…every thought, every word, every action… in every precious moment. We do not need to be facing execution to create a beacon of hope by witnessing through our lives to goodness, integrity and truth.

 But what if when we look back on all these “every moments” and find that we have not lived according to the light that is in us…what then?

Well then, we are coming even closer to the hope that can save us.

‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’

Jesus proclaims the compassionate love and mercy of God through his life and in his death, and the last words he speaks are forgiveness for even when we do not see…do not know. Far from being a cause for despair, the more we see the chasm between who we really are and who we would like to be, the more we are opening ourselves to grace. Perhaps ending the year with death might be just the reminder we need to let die all that strives to save and promote our own little life and instead find rest in this New Year with the crucified and risen one who is gentle and humble of heart. Instead of becoming kings or kingmakers, may we experience the reign of Christ in our hearts and lives where there is peace and forgiveness, on earth as it is in heaven.         +Amen.