Christ the King (of Subversions)
St. Philip Lutheran Church
20 November 2022 + Christ the King
Rev. Josh Evans
Every hymn has a story.
Paul Westermeyer tells the story of one of my favorite hymns, “Holy God, Holy and Glorious,” in his Hymnal Companion commentary on Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
In her own words, as Westermeyer’s commentary quotes, Lutheran pastor and hymn-writer Susan Briehl composed this text “as a gift” for her friend and fellow pastor Paul Nelson, just weeks before he died, “as he grew mysteriously weaker and weaker” in the course of a lengthy illness.
Briehl’s stunning and moving hymn text is full of subversions and paradox: God’s eternal glory becomes frail human flesh in the person of Jesus. Strength is revealed in weakness, beauty is revealed in a likeness despised by humans, wisdom is revealed in foolishness by the world’s standards, and life is ultimately revealed in death.
It’s also a particularly appropriate hymn for Christ the King Sunday, and perhaps especially so for this Christ the King Sunday, as we hear Luke’s story of the crucifixion.
Christ is a king who reigns not from a throne – but from the cross. Christ’s kingship is nothing like anything we’d expect from a king. It is not regal or majestic or conquering. It is bloodied and mocked and, by all appearances, defeated.
Christ the King “bends to us in weakness,” in the words of Briehl’s hymn.
You are despised, rejected.
You chose the way of folly:
God the crucified.
Jesus wasn’t the only one crucified that day.
Every person has a story.
Unfortunately, Luke doesn’t tell us the stories of the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus, which leaves us with more questions than answers: What are their stories? What crimes did they commit? What happened in their lives that led to this moment?
We know that Rome crucified its enemies for one basic reason and one basic reason only: insurrection. But we also know it’s more complicated than that, and Rome could feasibly make a case for insurrection out of anything they disagreed with or perceived as a threat.
So, we can speculate about their backstories, but ultimately, we just don’t know.
Both of these criminals do appear to know something about Jesus, though, or at least Jesus’s reputation. And, remarkably, one of these two criminals assumes a posture of humility and repentance in his dying breath: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Even more remarkable still is Jesus’s response.
Whatever this man’s story, whatever he has done, and whatever has led to this moment: His story is not over. Because today, defying all expectations, Jesus promises that he will be with him in Paradise.
This is the good news of Christ the King, who reigns from a cross:
Whatever your story, whatever you have done or left undone, and whatever has led to this moment: Your story is not over.
Christ the King promises to be with you today, in whatever today brings, and ultimately, Christ promises to be with you in Paradise forever.
Christ the King comes not with military might or regal victory but in weakness and in folly.
Christ the King, who hangs on a cross between two criminals, has entered into our human reality, in all its messiness and imperfections, and meets us in our suffering, in our loneliness, in our shame, and in our despair.
And in all of that, Christ the King promises paradise and life.
The cross is not the end of the story either, and this, as the hymn text puts it, is what we confess when we acclaim Christ as “king”:
Holy God, holy and living one,
life that never ends,
you show your love by dying,
dying for your friends,
and we behold you living.