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Today in Paradise

1 God is our refuge and strength, *
a very present help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, *
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;

3 Though its waters rage and foam, *
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.

4 The Lord of hosts is with us; *
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Today we celebrate that it is Christ to whom we offer ourselves, our lives, our souls our bodies. It is Christ who fills all of creation with light and life in whom we place our ultimate hope and trust. This week, the Church celebrates the Feast Day of “Christ the King” or the “Reign of Christ” It is a portal between the liturgical seasons of Ordinary Time and the beginning of Advent, a single Sunday where we are invited to pause to reflect on what the reign of Christ means on earth as well as in heaven. 

Now on this day, it would not surprise you or me that the reading we hear would be about what we expect to being kingly. Something glorious from the Book of Revelation, perhaps, about Jesus on his heavenly throne, robed in luminous garments and jeweled crown. Or perhaps a shiny moment in one of the Gospels where Jesus is glowingly changed in front of his disciples. Or the power of Jesus’ works as told in raising Lazarus from the dead or calming the raging sea. 

But we do not find any of this today. Rather we are taken to a place ominously called “the Skull” where Jesus, has been stripped of his clothes, tortured, and then nailed to a tree to suffer in a way that is incomprehensible (unbearable) to contemplate. The leaders and the soldiers taunt him and challenge him to prove that he is indeed a king by saving himself. And yet he hangs there suspended between heaven and earth sharing this terrible place with two others who have also been convicted and sentenced to this brutal execution.

With rejection echoing in his ears, rather than hurling curses or shrieking in pain, he offers words of forgiveness asking God to recognize that those who torment him do not know what they are doing. One of the men hanging  beside him, suffering the same fate, sees the situation for what it is—a mockery of justice. He asks Jesus to “remember him when Jesus comes into his kingdom.” In the midst of his great anguish, Jesus assures him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus who began his ministry proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captives, ends his time on earth by extending the promise of redemption to one who embodies what the powerful do to the poor. 

This is our king? This is our king! What a scandal this is that we proclaim. There is no other word for it but scandal. How can it be that the One we follow, the One who came close so that we and all creation could experience God’s love, the One we call Lord, the One whose example claims our lives–goes in peace and love to die on a cross?  Even in the excruciating time of his death, love continues to pour from him What does this say about how we are called to view/see leadership? Rule? Power? 

This is an image that is impossibly hard to reconcile with what we too often equate with leadership today. Of course, it is easy to say, “There is only one Jesus.” But as followers of the living Christ, we must ask ourselves what does it mean to follow the One whose power came from loving all, whose power came from welcoming all, whose power came from inviting all to love each other and to pay particular attention to the most vulnerable among us.

Today the leadership we witness often takes on the face of cold, heartless power. Compassion, generosity, welcoming the stranger, loving your neighbor, sharing your gifts with those in need, standing up for those who are without voice and power—is seen as wimpy, as weak, as the choice of only those who have no choice. Leaders we see and too often elevate today, grasp brazenly at power by whatever means to hold on to their desired image as a strongman. Whether that means– mocking the most vulnerable, incarcerating those seeking refuge, or trivializing the rights of those seen as being outside the leader’s supporters—using violence and hateful speech to divide and break us down so that caught up in tumult we fail to truly understand what is happening to us and who we are becoming. 

But in reading the Gospels, we know that this is not something new. The Roman government held on to their power by forcing all non-Roman citizens into servitude and poverty for their own profit. Their method of gathering wealth turned those who were poor and powerless against each other. Their use of incarceration, punishment and execution was yielded with a brutal force to send a clear message—no one should even imagine questioning their power. Pontius Pilate the governor of Judea used this terror to insure that the Roman government faced little rebellion, that his treasury was always full, and that his own position was unquestioned. He knew that Jesus was an innocent man. He says so in all four Gospel accounts. In the Gospel according to Luke he says that he finds no guilt in Jesus and that Jesus has done nothing to deserve death. Yet because he could, and in his desire to preserve “the peace”, he sentences Jesus to torture, to humiliation, and to the most brutal of executions—not to deter evil, but to reinforce the absolute power of Pilate and the Roman government.

On this Reign of Christ Sunday we are startled by the contrast and are reminded what a true leader is. Today we remember who we should give our hearts to, who is worthy of pledging our full loyalty to, who we should follow with devotion and orient our heart and our actions towards. Jesus shows us what a leader does. Jesus as the good shepherd does not scatter and harm those who follow him so as to secure his authority. Jesus came so we all could have life and have it abundantly. Jesus not only cares for us, he seeks us out when we roam off the good path, he frames his life around us, he sees in each of us, even in our brokenness, the imprint of God. In the reign of Christ, all are seen as worthy and precious, all are recognized and cared for, all lifted up and offered mercy and grace. From Jesus’ first sermon in Galilee to his final words on the cross, Jesus shows us that the true measure of a leader is how they treat the poor, the vulnerable, and those who suffer. In Christ’ reign hatred is not the fuel for power. In Christ’s reign only love provides the ultimate force. 

On this reign of Christ Sunday we are called to follow, to set our lives in the direction of, the One who does not seek power in the suffering of others, in the One who is willing to take all our suffering into his own body, in the One who will walk peacefully, even to the ending of his life, so that no one suffers harm as a result of his power. He is the One who even in his greatest agony looks to his right and to his left and offers blessing—forgiveness—reconciliation. He is the One who as his body and his heart is being ripped open shares Paradise with the person next to him. This is what true power looks like. This is what a ruler should look like. This is the shepherd where we should invest our trust and our lives. 

Today we find ourselves due to climate crisis, to war, to extreme poverty, and violence facing the immense suffering of many in our world. And for far too many this suffering has been met, not with compassion, but with a fierce nationalistic protectionism. Today thousands of families that include young children are being held in prisons and forced to live out in the open weather because rather than seeing them as our brothers and sisters in need, there is a message declared that they are “invading” our country. Today families including young children are facing daily the horrors of war because leaders do not see them as their children in need of protection, but rather choose to fiercely cling to power despite the cost. Today families including young children are fleeing for their lives in leaky boats and other dangerous sources of transportation because “leaders” care more about protecting their power than caring for vulnerable people. 

How will we as the church respond to this? It is a crucial question. Today we are reminded that we follow Christ who was willing to go to the cross because his love for us was stronger than death. We follow a Christ who overcame the tomb and showed us that fear, hatred and death, will never have the last word.

As Jesus is dying he offers paradise to the man hanging on the cross next to him. Paradise is not restricted to heaven. Paradise is not restricted to after we die. Paradise is here and now when hungry people are fed. Paradise is here and now when families fleeing violence are welcomed. Paradise is here and now when children are able to lay down to sleep at night in peace. Paradise is here and now when no one has to face life or death alone. Paradise for all is still a hoped for event and yet we follow Christ who has already called us into the kingdom of God and we are a people of hope. We know where to look for paradise. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, “the time is not about conquering the world for Christ, it is about saturating the world with love.” We have the right leader for this moment.May we all in prayer and action follow him.