November 24, 2019

Feast of Christ the King C

Save Yourself


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. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:33-43
And they arrived at the place of the Skull, the place of death, and the place where the sin of the world – the rebellion featured in the mythical Garden of Eden -found its moment of apparent triumph. And to the God whose will it only, ever was, to save us, a tempter’s chorus was raised and the air on Calvary resounded with the cry, “Save your self.”

In other words, “Don’t be God, be like us.” In some ironic twist, we circle back to the words of the snake in the garden and we direct its words to God.

Remember how the serpent said, “If you eat the fruit of this tree, you will be like God” – you will have power. We say to the God who hangs as powerless as fruit on the tree of the cross, “If you but consume us with your power, and thereby save yourself, “You will be like us.” If you put your self, your survival and your life first, you will be like us.

And so the religious leaders scoffed at Jesus saying, “Save yourself!”

And so the soldiers mocked him, saying, “Save yourself.”

And so a criminal derided him saying, “Save yourself.”

The religious world represented by its leaders, the civil order represented by the soldiers of Rome, and the thief, representing all the takers in this world, the entitled 1% who exploit and live off the 99%, the billionaires who pay no taxes and have secured deeper tax cuts – the criminal representing these – all these scoffed, mocked and derided Jesus and the words of this chorus blended in a united refrain, “Save yourself.” “Be like us.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it? For it is a dog eat dog, eat or be eaten, kill or be killed, every man for himself, kind of world, where the rule of law can so easily morph into jungle law, and the brand of justice morph into frontier justice.

It is about the survival of the fittest and the gospel of social Darwinism. “Bomb the hell out of them” or “Enhance those interrogation techniques” or the granting of a presidential pardon to war criminals, give chilling expression to this way of thinking and being.

We understand the refrain. Personal survival, identifying who belongs to the pack to be protected and fed, and who is to be left as prey to be hunted; and taking care of me and mine, is so very much the driver in the choices and decisions that we make so matter-of-factly and so naturally.

And this air appears to be very much in the ascendancy these days, does it not? Too many elected officials are more concerned with their political survival than they are with either, ethical and moral integrity, or speaking the truth and doing the right thing. Someone like the former secretary of defense appears to be more concerned with securing and advancing the sales of a two million dollar book deal than in taking the witness stand on behalf of the people.

Yes, in the jungle, the lion eats the lamb, and in the human jungle the Lamb of God continues to be impaled on the wood of the cross. For Jesus said, that when you do it – either good or bad – to the least of these, you do it to me.

For God has become so incarnate as to make our flesh his own flesh, our suffering his own suffering, our pain his own pain, our dying his own dying. And there is no way to know Him or to love Him apart from attending to His sacramental presence in the flesh and blood of the other. And by God’s grace the other is not only friend and neighbor, but also the stranger.

God did not take the bait to be like us by seizing power to save him self as He hung upon the cross. God, however, apparently has no qualms about being like us in our weakness and vulnerability.

This is the point of identification He seeks with us and this is the image of Himself that He wills to bring to its full beauty in us. And it is through uniting with us in this way that He exposes who He really it – what it means to be God on God’s terms – and also exposes what it means to be human, fully human, again on God’s terms. It is through becoming one with us in this way that He saves us from our worst selves and sets us free for new possibilities.

And from that place of total vulnerability, simple but powerful words are spoken that have liberating power – that have the power to set us free. “You are forgiven.” And from that place of total and complete surrender, this Prisoner of Love gives the gift that keeps on giving. For God does not remember our sins.

God gives God’s very self that we might know, not only with our minds, but with our hearts and souls and our very being, all that it could ever mean to be deeply and completely human, I must mount that same cross and give as fully as I have been given to. I must confront, challenge and indeed triumph, by God’s grace over this most basic impulse that shouts not just from out there but even screams from within here – “Save yourself.”

Today is the Feast of Christ the King. Today we worship Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. If you will look beyond the distractions that ancient, medieval and contemporary images of kingship tend to conjure up, thrones and crowns and jeweled scepters, if we remember that His throne was a cross, His crown was of thorns, His scepter was a reed, this feast provides us with a deep spiritual truth.

It invites us to severe all false attachments, or at least hold them conditional, and give primacy only to one attachment. It asks us to distance ourselves from anything that would attempt to stake a primary claim on us – even our most natural impulse to save ourselves.

Today we remember the awesome truth that we belong to Christ. It is Christ alone whom we are to serve. Contrary to popular wisdom, our lives are not our own. We don’t act to save ourselves but rather always act to give and loose ourselves more fully. In fact, our freedom is borne of our very giving it all to Christ and only to Christ. We live in Christ and under Christ – with all its sacrificial responsibilities, and with all its spine tingling possibilities.

In his wonderful book, “Mere Christianity”, C.S. Lewis captures the height and the depth, the length and the breadth of our response to Christ. He writes:

“The Christian way is different: It is both harder and also easier. Christ says, ‘Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half measures are any good. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires that you think innocent, as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole garment. I will give you a new garment instead. In fact, I will give you myself: My own self will become your self.’

The self-giving is harder and easier than what we are trying to do. It is harder and easier than trying to be good and living for others in a grumbling discontented way. Christ himself sometimes describes the Christian way as very hard, sometimes very easy. He says, ‘Take up your cross”. And then He says, “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” Christ means both. And one can see why both are true.

The real challenge of the Christian life comes the very moment we wake up each morning. All the wishes and the demands of the day rush at us like wild animals.

The first challenge in our daily giving to Christ is that we simply shove them all back, and then listen to the King’s Voice. To take on the King’s Point of View, allowing the “larger, stronger, quieter life” to come flowing into us – to stand back and stand under the rule of the Spirit.

Gradually the little seeds of the new creation take hold. A new sort of life given by Christ spreads through our being. The Kingdom of God grows stronger and deeper roots within us. And thus, the Kingdom comes, on earth as in heaven, and Christ reigns from inside out. And, my friends, this alone is finding the bliss we all seek. Christ reigning from inside out. It is only lives lived in this way, lived from this cross, lives poured out even unto death that will undo and caste out the powers that cause pain, do harm and kill.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
November 24, 2019