Maybe it’s because I just saw a Celine Dion concert last month here in Fargo, but when I read this Gospel lesson earlier this week, I was reminded of a scene from the 1997 film, Titanic. The scene takes place shortly after Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his friend Fabrizio win third-class tickets to America in a poker game with two Swedes named Sven and Olaf (which I love!) Jack is an optimistic artist. His companion Fabrizio, an Italian emigrant. With their tickets, they get on board with no IDs—using the names of the original Swedish ticketholders. Something that would never happen now. Today, we’d call them illegal immigrants.
Eventually, the two friends take a walk around the ship. They end up on the prow of the Titanic. Looking out to sea, Fabrizio jokes, “I can see the Statue of Liberty already! Very small, of course.” Then Jack experiences one of the best moments of his life (at least until he gets to kiss Kate Winslet.) Standing on the rail at the front of the ship, Jack shoots up his fists and spreads his arms wide. Then he shouts in ecstasy, “I'm the king of the world!” Which is the movie’s catchphrase. Since then, almost anytime you’re feeling really good about yourself—especially if you’re standing at the bow of a ship—you might yell those words. Right? How many of you have ever done that? What’s ironic, of course, is that Jack was no king. He was a poor, unemployed drifter with big dreams. Who ends up dying unknown. And unnamed on the Titanic’s list of dead passengers. Jack doesn’t fit what we expect a king to be.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday in our liturgical year. Personally, I don’t really like this Sunday. For me it seems like an old-fashioned, empire-based way of looking at Jesus. Christ as a European king. Which doesn’t fit how today some of us are talking about “decolonizing” Lutheranism. Meaning that as a denomination we need to move beyond seeing our faith only through the lens of a Northern European heritage and history. A culture brought here by immigrants on ships like the Titanic over a century ago. Decolonizing Lutheranism means we acknowledge many people in our church are part of a dominant group that still sets up and maintains our cultural norms. Norms that for many still define what it means to be Lutheran. A European-American culture with strong ties to Germany and Scandinavia. Not that there’s anything wrong with those traditions, in and of themselves.
However, when we talk about decolonizing Lutheranism, we are seeking to ask some hard questions. Questions like: Who holds the power in our Church? Who controls the norms of Lutheranism today? Who really has a voice—especially those from other communities or cultures? And if someone like me—with a last name like “Larson”—doesn’t feel the need to address this issue, maybe it’s because (even as a gay man) I’m part of that dominant culture. For I’m a white, cisgender male. Where it’s easy to view everything our Church does and says as normal and fair. That experience is called “privilege.”
I believe that privileged perspective also affects how we see Jesus, especially if Christ is a king. Historically, it’s interesting that this day was added to our liturgical calendar only about 100 years ago, largely in response to what was happening in Europe. Emphasizing the royal attributes of Jesus was a predictable choice for the decade after World War I. When better to reflect on a heavenly kingdom that will stand forever, than in the aftermath of a war that toppled four royal dynasties and killed 10 million soldiers and eight million civilians? By the same token, placing theological emphasis on the kingship of Jesus also reflects the nervousness of our past religious hierarchy that long relied on earthly kings to empower the worldwide Church.
Today I know there are still many Christians who prefer seeing Jesus as their glorious and victorious, reigning King. Whom they can praise with uplifted hands. Many of us, deep in our hearts, want a mighty savior will protect you and me from disappointments, disease, and death. We want to believe that being a Christian is some kind of protection against tragedy and loss. But that’s a theology of glory. A Christ without a cross.
Yet we know—if we are truly honest with ourselves and with one another—that life isn’t always a picnic. That sometimes we have to face serious illness, separation and divorce, and loss of loved ones. We Lutherans call that the theology of the cross. A theology that allows us to believe God is with us in the midst of our pain and suffering. That during difficult times, we like Jesus can honestly cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
For me, the one thing that does make Christ the King Sunday meaningful is to be able to see Jesus as one who reigns not from a powerful throne, but from a cross. That Jesus chose not to be an indestructible ruler, but a human who suffers and dies like us. Jesus was not the king people expected him to be. On the cross, Jesus revealed the love of God. With arms wide open to the sky. But without a victory shout, like in a movie. Instead the people yell at him. They laugh at him. They dare him to save himself. First, it’s the religious leaders. Then the Roman soldiers. Finally, one of the criminals on another cross.
We see Jesus at the lowest point of his ministry. He appears to be beaten down by everyone. Suffering a humiliating defeat and death. A cruel punishment reserved for slaves, rebels and enemies of the Empire. Today we’d call them terrorists. One of those criminals stands out in the story in Luke. To me, it’s amazing that Jesus doesn’t respond to any of those who mock him. Instead, he speaks only to the condemned rebel, who admits he is guilty of his crimes. The one who requests, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The one to whom Jesus promises, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It’s truly ironic that Christ the King chooses a nameless criminal—a stranger most people would ignore or condemn—as the first person to join Jesus in heaven. Yet, if you read the Gospels, that’s exactly how Jesus describes the Kingdom of God.
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not a place with castles or armies or wealth or power. For Jesus, the Kingdom of God isn’t about Hollywood fame, or the many things our culture values.
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is not like a Caesar or President who oppresses the weak. It’s not a kingdom that guards its borders, or arms its citizens, or puts children in detention camps.
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God is about grace. Something that happens among flawed people like us. A Kingdom that we followers of Christ can make real by doing the same things Jesus did. Like feeding hungry people. Like bringing healing to the sick in body and mind. Like overcoming the hatred of this world with kindness and hospitality. Like making holy what seems to others mundane and ugly.
In his death on the cross, Jesus reveals what love and mercy and hope are all about. For even in dying, we find grace. And meet a lowly king. Who wears a crown of thorns. Who sits on the throne of a cross. Who suffers among us, fully human. Who draws all people to the love of God. Who bestows on each of us life that never ends. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 23:33-43
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”