With the November elections now behind us, our nation remains deeply divided in more ways than I can count. Conservatives vs. liberals. Establishment vs. Outsiders. Those who want to build walls vs. those who want open borders. The many labels that divide us are endless.
Divisions among peoples are nothing new. Throughout human history, Kingdoms have fought against Kingdoms, nations against nations, religions against religions. Even citizens once united sometimes turn against each other in what we call a “civil war.” But the only division that really matters is plainly reflected by the two criminals who were crucified along with Jesus…a repentant sinner on one side, and an unrepentant sinner on the other. Paul wrote to the Colossians: Let us give thanks to the Father, who has delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the Kingdom of His beloved Son. Paul is speaking of the great divide between all that is evil and all that is good. The Kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of God. We have the freedom to choose sides, and we better choose wisely. This divide has eternal consequences.
Today we celebrate Christ the King, Cristo Rey, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Salvation history can be told by examining the many failed kingships that began with the kingship of Adam and continued until Jesus Christ is revealed as King of Heaven and Earth. The first King, Adam, was entrusted with the Garden of Eden and God told him to cultivate and care for it. Adam failed miserably in his kingship.
The Old Testament also tells the story of when Gideon rose up to defend his people and, with only 300 soldiers and a lot of faith, won a miraculous battle against an army of thousands. The people wanted to make him King, but Gideon refused, saying, You have King, the Lord your God. But the people wouldn’t listen. 200 years later, the Jewish people were still looking for a King. The judges chose Saul as King of Israel; but he too disobeyed God, lost his three sons in battle, and later committed suicide. Israel went through a succession of Kings, but all of them would fail. The people of Israel were desperate for a King who would smash their oppressors and finally liberate them.
In the fullness of time, God supplied their King. It just wasn't who they were looking for. Three wise men from the East went in search of the King. Where is he, who is born King of the Jews? They found only a babe, in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. The King of Heaven came to be the King of Israel, but the people didn’t want him. There were many attempts upon his life until Jesus was finally arrested and brought before Pontius Pilate. Which of the two shall I release to you? Jesus or Barabas? Barabas! the people shouted. What shall I do with your King? We have no King but Caesar. Crucify him, they shouted all the louder!
Hanging on the cross, the temple priests, the Roman soldiers, and the crowd mocked him. If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself. Come down and we will believe. But he did not come down.
And two criminals on either side of Jesus offer a clue why. They were both sentenced to death and the crowd made no moral distinction between them, but Jesus does. One of criminals confesses, we have been condemned justly, for our sentence corresponds to our crimes. Then, this repentant sinner turns to Jesus and humbly prays, Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom. Your Kingdom.
In all of Scripture, I can't think of a more powerful expression of faith than that of this thief. He too saw the inscription above Jesus, mocking him as King of the Jews. He too sees a crown on his head, except this one is made of thorns. With Jesus hanging on a cross, blood pouring down his face, flesh exposed, the crowd sees nothing more than dying man. But this repentant sinner sees something more. He is the first to acknowledge Christ as King, and the only thing he asks Jesus, as he himself is put to death, is to be remembered. And in one of the most powerful moments in salvation history, Jesus reveals the depth of his love and mercy when he turns to the criminal and replies, Today you will be with me in Paradise.
With these words, Jesus offers hope to every repentant sinner, no matter how far we have fallen. Even a criminal on death row can be forgiven by the God who created us and wills for each of us to return to Him.
True enough, hanging on the cross, Jesus could no longer preach, or cure the sick, or visit the towns. To human eyes, the sight of a crucified Jesus was another failed Kingship. But, through the eyes of faith, Jesus accomplished the most important act of his life on the cross. When it seemed like Jesus had nothing else to give, he gave us all he had left, his life.
In doing so, Jesus reveals what it means to be a true King. Most certainly, he could have saved himself, but those who mocked him missed the nature of his Kingship. Instead of saving his own life, Jesus surrendered his life to save ours. By laying down his life as a ransom for ours, we were rescued from the power of darkness and offered a place in his Kingdom.
Unlike all the other failed kingships the world has known, all of which were marked by riches and decadence, and maintained by sword and dominance, the Kingdom of God is very different. His Reign endures by love and humility, mercy and forgiveness.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done. Establishing the Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven is a work in progress, and the way things are looking, we've got a lot of work to do. All who are baptized have an important role. By our words and by our actions, we are either helping to build the Kingdom, or we are cooperating with the forces that seek to tear it down. On which side of this great divide will we stand?