Sermon: Today

Jesus crucified between two other figures, with a well-dressed man on horseback below.

November 24, 2019
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Reign of Christ

Luke 23:33-43

by Eric Anderson

The Church year is drawing to a close. This is its last Sunday. Next week, we begin a new year as the season of Advent begins. This last Sunday of the year is known as Reign of Christ Sunday, and the Scripture texts for today reflect on the nature of true leadership and authority and on the Christ who rules.

I can never quite resist this passage from Jeremiah: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.” It was the theme of Jeremiah’s preaching year after year, a warning and a judgement that the established authorities of the Kingdom of Judah – including and primarily its kings – were leading the nation and its people astray.

Though directed at the specific leaders of his time, Jeremiah’s words echo down the centuries to ring in the ears of religious and civic leaders. Have as much care for the welfare of the people you serve as God does. Not as the next king, president, or pastor does. Have as much care as God does.

That standard might be impossible to obtain but it is the goal to strive for.

Around six hundred years later, Pontius Pilate failed that test. He cared more for order, power, and a hollow peace than he did about truth, justice, and the actual welfare of the people. Confronted with a man charged with rebellion, he had him executed. Though the gospels say he did so with some misgivings, the brutal truth is illustrated in the sign placed over Jesus’ head on the cross: “The King of the Jews.”

Nobody – nobody – standing at the foot of the cross could have misread that sign. It said, in so many words, that there is only one king, and that is the emperor of Rome. It said, in so many words, that no other pretender to power would be tolerated for a moment. It said, in so many words, that the fate of any competing power, any pretender to royal rule, any claimant to other authority, would suffer death by torture.

Pilate knew what he was saying. The local leaders knew what he was saying. The soldiers knew what he was saying. The first bandit crucified there knew what he was saying. There is no king but Caesar.

Emerson Powery writes at Working Preacher, “Indeed, the inscription above Jesus’ head reads ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ But this was placed over his head as public irony, an act of public shaming for the entire Jewish people. Roman soldiers mock him; Jerusalem leaders ridicule him. This is no ‘king’ in the traditional sense. How true that is!”

When we celebrate the Reign of Christ, when we declare Christ to be Monarch of the Universe, the first thing we have to do is rework our notion of what royalty, of what power, of what authority is.

This was the leap made by the second bandit. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he asked. Everybody else wanted Jesus to launch his kingdom right there and then. They wanted him to leap miraculously down from the cross, for an army to appear at his back, and to sweep the Romans away.

Well, the Roman soldiers didn’t really want any of that. I would guess that the first bandit probably did.

The second one, however, could envision Jesus’ royalty in a radically different way. Everyone else understood monarchy of this life. He saw Jesus’ realm extending beyond death. For everyone else, the cross was the end. This crucified bandit realized that it could be a beginning.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today you will be with me in Paradise.


Today is… a difficult day. A lot of our todays have been difficult, haven’t they? The spirit of Pontius Pilate or of the unrighteous shepherds of Jeremiah’s day: their brutal preoccupation with power is very much with us.

I wish such concerns were moderated by a nation in the form of a republic, but it isn’t and it wasn’t. The Roman Republic’s horrific practice of slavery provoked what we know as the rebellion of Spartacus about seventy years before Jesus’ birth and about forty years before Augustus Caesar was proclaimed emperor. After the defeat of Spartacus’ forces, Roman General Marcus Crassus crucified 6,000 survivors.

The British Empire made its greatest expansions after its monarchs had given up much of their power to an elected Parliament. In Hawai’i, the coup that overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani began when she brought a draft of a replacement constitution to her Council, a constitution that would have restored the voting rights of large numbers of poor Hawaiians while it reduced the power of wealthy foreign landowners.

Incidentally, it took a constitutional amendment in 1964 to end the practice of poll taxes in the United States – a tax that disenfranchised poor people and people of color for generations.

It should come as no surprise that we still focus on power today.

Today. In the midst of political turmoil centered around a President whose disregard for truth would be legendary if it weren’t so thoroughly documented, in the midst of gerrymandered districts that restrain the effectiveness of some people’s votes, in the midst of a crisis of open-heartedness that turns away people fleeing from violence and oppression, we still focus on power. Not truth. Not justice. Not the welfare of the people. Today.

I’m ready to say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Today, I’m also stung by D. Mark Davis’ words on his blog Left Behind and Loving It: “While it may be an act of piety to call Jesus ‘king’ – and might even be a prophetic intention to radically re-define kingship – I worry that it comes across as yet another attempt to establish power, to put on Jesus the desire to rule rather than to serve.”

There is our challenge today. We have to insist on leadership in the church and in the world that values truth, justice, and the people over the power that tempts them. We have to insist on that leadership and we have to condemn it when it falters. We have to insist on that leadership and we have to vote them out when they fail. We have to insist on that leadership and we have to hold them accountable when they choose power over truth, power over justice, power over people.

We have to do it today.

We have to cling to our calling as Church. Karoline Lewis writes at Working Preacher, “For the church to continue to be church, to be the force of everything that is good and decent in the world, it may have to tell the truth about itself. To apologize for not standing up for the very persons Jesus sought out to save. To forgive those who try to silence its voice but keep preaching anyhow and anyway. To look to the left and the right and notice who is getting hanged on a tree and say stop.”


We have to resist the temptations that power raises for us as well. Brian Zahnd writes on Twitter, “Christ calls his church to be the light of the world, not to rule the world.

“Once the church abandons its vocation to be the light of the world for an aspiration to rule the world, it lays down the cross of Christ and takes up the sword of Caesar.

The Bible calls this apostasy.”

So it does. So it does.

Cling to the gracious words of our crucified Savior. Hearing the yearning of the bandit next to him, hearing the near-unique leap of his faith, hearing the fear and the sorrow, Jesus assured him: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

I cannot assure you that any of our efforts to reign in the addiction to power in this world will be successful. I can’t. I cannot read the future.

I trust, however, in those words of Jesus, softly spoken, but echoing down the centuries: words of hope, assurance, confidence, and promise. Power does not get the final word. Injustice does not get the final word. Lies do not get the final word. No, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”


Love wins.



Listen to the Recorded Sermon


The live recording is not an exact match to the prepared text. But then, when was it ever so?

The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1538) – Yale University Art Gallery, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on November 24, 2019

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