King Jesus According to Luke

Sunday 21st November 2010
Year C, Christ the King (The Sunday next before Advent)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Luke 23:33-43

Here we are, on the last Sunday of the Church's year, the last Sunday of the Gospel of Saint Luke, looking up at King Jesus on the Cross. And the first person that he specifically allows into his kingdom is the man we often call the "repentant thief", although I think that this may be just a little generous; after all, he had nothing to lose by being penitent but he was certainly a better tactician than his surlier fellow criminal.

And this is typical of Luke, a less than perfect human being doing the right thing but not necessarily for the right reason. And, as the great Lucan scholar Henry Wansbrough points out, you never know what Luke's characters are going to do next; but they are usually acting out of mixed motives: think of the crafty steward who drops interest on debts to get himself off the hook, Zacchaeus making reparation, handsome enough but still leaving himself plenty in the bank, the judge who gave the right decision because the widow threatened to slap him and, of course, the somewhat dysfunctional household of the returned spendthrift and his grumpy elder brother.

Here we are, looking up at King Jesus as he says his last words. And we are standing among his apostles and the women because there's no evidence in Luke that the Apostles ran away; indeed, verse 49 of Chapter 23 says "... all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching these things."

So we, who are standing at some distance from the Cross and who frequently do the right thing for the wrong reason, are just where we should be.

And this brings us to the crux, to the Cross of the matter. In the Gospel of Luke penitence is not a necessary precondition for being associated with Jesus, penitence follows from coming to know him. Instead of being expected to recognise our shortcomings before we know him, it is knowledge of him that helps us to recognise our shortcomings. And, even then, Jesus understands that we are not going to be perfect, that we will make compromises, that we will go the extra mile for our neighbour but that we will not miss the opportunity to be praised for it. In Matthew we are told in the Sermon on the Mount that we must do good privately but Luke knows that this is almost impossible for us.

What kind of a kingdom is this over which Jesus presides? Well, the first thing to recognise is that the Kingdom of Jesus is not reserved for or confined to the Church Triumphant but encompasses the Church Militant which is where we are now. The world which The Creator made for us is not some ante room to the Kingdom but is the place where we, in a state of necessary, creaturely imperfection, forge our relationship with the divine.

And although the idea of the Church Militant presents us with problems as we are rightly suspicious (after Susan Sontag) of the military metaphor, of fighting for Jesus, there is some value in it because of the reality of soldiering. Contrary to the propaganda, most soldiers are frightened, uncertain, conscious of death, as well as being brave and loyal to comrades; their motives are, like ours, mixed. In other words, they frequently do the right thing for what purist moralists might think of as the wrong reasons.

This earthly kingdom, over which King Jesus presides, is a place of mixed motives, of advance and retreat, of timid love and petty hate. In some of its darker places our world is scarred by brutality and greed but we are mostly people of the short tentative step forward and the long backward glance. We are people who piece out our generosity and are much more comfortable with the people we like than the people we ought to love.

And yet we sometimes hide behind a carapace of callousness which does us great discredit. We are far more compassionate in particular than we are in general; we are far more forgiving in particular than we are in general; and we are far more grateful in particular than we are in general. We call for asylum seekers to be deported but run campaigns for the ones we know; we call for punitive prison sentences but almost invariably grow lenient as we are presented with individual cases; and we may grumble about the NHS or the education system but we speak well of our personal experiences and are careful to thank doctors, nurses, teachers and classroom assistants.

But we frequently fall into careless and even malicious talk because of peer pressure; we end up in useless competition to be catty and in certain circumstances, such as the presentation of reality television, we are actually encouraged to be unkind. Indeed, one difference between the world of Luke and our world is that in his world people were forced through circumstances of oppression and poverty to get pretty near to the line between behaving well and badly; but we cross that line for all kinds of frivolous reasons: we're not poor like the Widow of Nain; and we're not oppressed, in spite of recent cuts, by extortionate taxation and the arbitrary use of military violence; rather we seek to mitigate the monotony of our well being by being gratuitously cruel and ungrateful.

And this leads me to the great point about the Kingdom of Jesus as described in the Gospel of Luke. For all the shortcomings of the characters he describes, it is only in this Gospel that we get a full picture of the joy and gratitude which Jesus generates. People are happy in his company and are grateful for his teaching and healing. The gratitude overcomes the griping.

Now, as we stand before this Cross, at our safe distance, let us remember what we are looking at. We are not looking at a cross covered in jewels which somehow both glorifies and obscures reality; neither are we looking at a grotesque act of divine punishment which somehow wipes our slate clean; we are looking at a simple man who did what he had to do to be loyal to his father and to stand up for the truth as he saw it.  In the Gospel of Luke, as in the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as being in control of the process but there was surely something of the fear, not to mention the actual pain, emphasised in Mark and Matthew.

We are looking at King Jesus, the perfect pattern of what we should be as his subjects. That he understands our weaknesses is no reason for us to be complacent; this is the Kingdom of the extra mile and the extra smile, of sparing a Pound and buying a round, of keeping our generosity and our opinions to ourselves, of being grateful and not griping; of thanking God for what we have and who we are, and above all, for who King Jesus was on earth and is to us now.