Raleigh Mennonite Church
Christ the King – Luke 23
Crucifixion was expensive business for the Romans. This particular form of execution was not a commodity wasted on everyday criminals. Iron for the nails was costly and rare. If the Romans put someone on a cross it was because they wanted to make a spectacle. Crucifixion was reserved for revolutionaries. We’re led astray by a translation of today’s Gospel lesson that call the two men crucified between Jesus “thieves.”
What this means is that Jesus is on the cross between two political dissidents, between two people who challenged the legitimacy of the government of their day. Jesus belongs between these two people. The body of Jesus is put next to the bodies of radicals. Jesus comes to be like them, to find himself in their life, to show us that he is one of them.
The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth calls this scene at Golgotha–these three dying men–the first Christian community:
“Which is more amazing, to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company?” Barth asks. Barth is preaching this sermon on Good Friday, to the prisoners in Basel. On this occasion he proclaims that, “Like Jesus, these two criminals had been arrested…, locked up and sentenced… And now they hang on their crosses with him and find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with him. They are linked in a common bondage never again to be broken… a point of no return for them as for him. There remained only the shameful, pain stricken present and the future of their approaching death…”
Barth explains that the Disciples gave up this opportunity to be numbered with the transgressors, to form this Christian community when they fell asleep at in the Garden. The Christian community, the one Jesus enacts on the cross is for those who are of greatest threat to the powers and authorities of this world. The Christian community is enacted here, as those on their way to death.
Last week I said that Mennonites are good at testifying because we bear the realities of martyrdom in our bodies, we bear it in the spaces where we gather, in our history, in our theology. For a long time we used to teach the stories of martyrdom to our children. We gathered these stories in a giant book called the Martyr’s Mirror filled with graphic, detailed pictures of those who died for Christ.
This was bed time reading for many Mennonite children. My friend, Dave, told me stories about his grandparents reading the Martyr’s Mirror to him at night. Anneken Hendriks, Leonard Bernkop, Urusla of Essen. He heard the final words of Maeyken Wen to her children before she was led to the stake, “Love one another all the days of your life; take little Hans on your arm now and then for me. And if your father should be taken from you, care for one another.”
What we cannot forget is that, for the early Anabaptists, spiritual and the temporal struggles were one. The reason we came to embrace believer’s baptism is because infant baptism made a person a citizen. Baptism was an act of allegiance to the state.
The 16th century Anabaptists weren’t killed because they tinkered with established religious traditions. They were killed because their religious conviction took a revolutionary posture towards the state, because they believed in Christ we are free, free from the government, a people who are no longer able to be governed because our convictions are so contrary to state coercion and violence. Their cry, their cry from the midst of the flame, was the words of Romans 6: “No longer under the law, but under grace.”
The danger for Mennonites who are no longer persecuted–those of us who find ourselves comfortably situated within a system of white supremacy–is that we easily confuse “God’s in control” with “everything will be all right.” I’ve heard that fallacy echoed back from a variety of church leaders for the past two weeks. It may be true for those who are in positions of historic power and privilege. But the reality is that for the most vulnerable in our nation and in our world, the future is a menacing storm getting ready to break.
And what we learn from this Jesus hanging on the cross is that we are called into a Christian community in which everything is not all right. We are called to transform ourselves into a people so dangerous that it cannot be allowed to exist. We are called to make a community so threatening to the powers of this world that it must be destroyed, it’s failure put on display to warn others. That’s what it means to see ourselves with Jesus, between the two men on the cross, the first Christian community.
Next Sunday is the beginning of Advent, when we will begin a new year, a world watching for a redeemer. But before that, before the swelling hope of God among us we are here, here at the cross. Wait for it. Wait here. Wait here at the cross. Stay here at the end, here with Christ the King hanging between two political dissidents, here on the last Sunday of the liturgical year.
Christ the King isn’t marked by triumph and fanfare. There are no ticker tape parades, no Cabinet appointments, no calls from international dignitaries, no glasses of champagne. The story that marks this day is the crucifixion. This is Good Friday. It ends with death. And it begins with solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the exploited–a solidarity like Jesus’, where our bodies are put next to their bodies.
When we remember Christ the King we should have in mind those who registered as Jews during World War II, those who went to the camps and died alongside neighbors and friends and strangers. We remember those who put their bodies in the way, whose lives proclaimed that love is stronger than death.
The place in our life where we make this decisive, where we are asked to move to decision, is Communion. For the past few months we’ve added a new practice to our Communion, a practice that is actually old in our tradition as Mennonites. Balthasar Hubmaier called this the Pledge of Love. It’s a commitment we make to one another, to our neighbors, to our world.
We do this because Communion means something, because we become something when we take it together. We become Christ’s body. The real flesh of the meal is your flesh. The real blood is the blood of your sister, your brother, your neighbor, your enemy. And if we’re going to be one, together, we all need some time to think about what that means, how grace can make a way for you to be for someone in a way that you may not have been before.
Communion is an act of solidarity, a pledge of love. And as I’ve looked around our congregation this past week, I’ve been amazed to see the ways you are already doing the work of preparing for Communion. This week you’ve invited each other to a round table on policing and race relations. You’ve gathered others to attend inter-faith table groups so that you can listen to your Muslim and Jewish neighbors. You’ve started reading things that challenge you, books that challenge long-held perceptions about human sexuality, class, and race. We’re making space in Sunday school to confront the racist systems in which we wittingly and unwittingly participate. We’re looking into anti-harassment and non-violent resistance training that we can offer to those who want to be involved in direct action. I’ve seen you invite new immigrants into your homes, beginning to hear new voices, to build relationships.
That is the work of preparation for Communion. It is beginning to find the places of solidarity, to listen for the ways we can be in solidarity, preparing ourselves for the time when we are called by God to do more than listen, when we are called to devote ourselves to people our government wants to get rid of, to give our lives to their lives, to sacrifice what we have so that they might continue to be our neighbors, that we can share life together, a common life, in our city, in our schools and neighborhoods, in our playgrounds and community centers.
One of our earliest Communion liturgies includes these words: “Lead your lives before God and people as table companions of Jesus Christ.” I wonder what kind of pledge of love you want to make this week. What needs to be explored, what action do you need to be involved in? What work do you need to do within yourself? What needs to be confronted? What identity must you betray in order to do the work of solidarity that lies before us? What needs to die for you to find a place among the criminals and revolutionaries?