33 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. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 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!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The imperialistic-sounding title of the final Sunday of the liturgical church year, “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ,” can give a false impression. A shallow engagement with this liturgical day could leave one with the interpretation that Christians celebrate Christ as an imperialistic ruler analogous to some leaders of countries. However, the actual historic impulses of this liturgical day could not be further from such an imperialistic interpretation.
The liturgical day of “Christ the King” is meant to upend imperialistic visions of leadership. C. J. C. Pickstock writes that Christ as King is Christ’s ultimate eschatological role. As an eschatological role, Christ’s rule is not about domination but is about his coming toward the world in restorative transformation.
Eschatological transformation aligns people’s practices in the world with God’s liberative practices so that creation may become the place of God’s eternal Shekinah—divine indwelling. The goal of God’s Shekinah is God’s glory, and when God’s glory dwells within creation, the result could hardly be further from domination. Rather, through God’s glory all of creation arrives at its fullest self (Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, xiii).
When a Prayer of the Day appointed for “Christ the King” bids, “make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty,” it is not asking for Christ to dominate over and against the world. It seeks transformation of the world so that the world corresponds with God’s justice and grace. It seeks the transformations that assist all of creation’s arrival at its fullest selfhood.
In the gospel reading from Luke 23, Jesus’ death is fast approaching. Nevertheless, Jesus focuses on his coming kingdom. His response to his neighbor resists reducing this criminal through isolation, dismissal, or scapegoating. Instead, Jesus promises his neighbor what is coming. Jesus promises the criminal arrival at his full selfhood when he announces, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In this passage, the “leaders” are found to be in opposition to Jesus. They scoff at Jesus as they mock him, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” Well, Jesus is the chosen one; he does save.
Leaders who mock others and promote injustice do not fall outside the scope of theological critique, and Christians fail to live out their vocations if silent, inert, or supportive of injustice. Jesus confronts the leaders when he turns to the vulnerable one, whom the leaders are getting rid of. Jesus declares ultimate protection for this outsider when he promises kingdom-paradise. Jesus confronts the unjust leaders when he promises solidarity with the outsider: “you will be with me.”
There are world leaders whose promises are antithetical to Jesus’ promises. Leaders who promise to deport neighbors based on their religious identity or race flaunt leadership antithetical to Jesus’ vision. Leaders who objectify women and promise tax breaks to the wealthiest at the expense of the most vulnerable practice a style of rule antithetical to the Christian vocation expressed in Luke 23.
As long as such rulers exist, Luke 23 will ring in the ears of Christians—a clarion call to resist oppressive forces of injustice. Injustice can come in many forms: xenophobia, racism, sexism, and re-inscribed cycles of poverty, to name a few. However, Christians, who know that Jesus’ eschatological inbreakings into the cycles of everyday life bring the fullest selfhood to all creation, will name injustice as wrong and contrary to the Christian way of life.
What does it look like for immigrants to arrive at fullest selfhood? What does it look like to people in the LGBTQIA community to arrive at fullest selfhood? What does it look like in Christian-Muslim dialog to seek one another’s fullest selfhood? What does it mean for the water sources flowing into Standing Rock to be honored for the fullness of their creation?
What leaders around your community and nation threaten the fullness of life for those who are poor and vulnerable? How are you called to confront leaders whose actions are unjust? How will you and your assembly stand in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, proclaiming “you will be with me” in a way that announces the reality of Jesus’ eschatological coming, the coming that transforms all creation into its fullest self?
Jan Schnell Rippentrop is the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria Swanson Carlson Chair in Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where she also serves as the Director of the Master of Arts Programs. Working ever at lively intersections, she is a liturgical theologian whose scholarship focuses on homiletics and a political theologian whose scholarship is informed by communities suffering from the stifling effects of poverty.