This Sunday is Christ the King, a day when the church proclaims that Jesus alone is ruler of heaven and earth. You would think that for such a grand celebration our gospel reading would be one of triumph. It is not. From Luke 23:33-43 it is a scene from Jesus' crucifixion. That seems like an odd place from which to celebrate the King of all creation - at his embarrassing and painful death. Yet this day and this text remind us that God is revealed in perplexing ways, God comes in unexpected forms. It reminds us, also, that we do not and cannot know the Word of God once and for all, not in human form (Jesus) or in written form (scripture).
At his deathbed Martin Luther wrote "we are beggars, it is true." The phrase is frequently quoted so it might not strike life-long Lutherans as offensive. But think about it. Beggars? What did Luther mean? We are very different from common beggars. We bathe regularly, brush our teeth each day, wear fashionable clothes, sleep in a comfortable bed, and have enough (more than enough?) to eat. We earn our living; we don't sit on a street corner asking people for handouts. We don't sleep under a bridge or dig in dumpsters for our supper. How, exactly, are we beggars?
We are so used to paying our own way, to working hard for any raises or promotions we might receive that it is easy for us to forget... God owes us nothing. We do not have God or the Bible "in our back pocket" - to pull out at the moment we need them, to have them handy to give us what we want whenever we ask. Our understanding of scripture, of the good news of Jesus, is a gift from God. Even if we've studied and read the Bible for 20, 50, 100 years we have not mastered it, but need God to open the message for us. Scripture is not something we can learn like a mathematical table and then have its truth tucked away in our brains. We hear and understand scripture only through God's constant giving.
Likewise, faith is not something we work for and achieve ourselves; we receive it from God. Forgiveness and life are not prizes that we attain through good behavior or by virtue of our place in society, our citizenship in the "right" nation. We don't barter with God or manage God; we are beggars. The blessings we receive come from God's generosity, not because we have earned them. Our relationship with God is not like our life in the world where we have a job that pays us a salary, we act responsibly to pay our bills, our house and car note, and thus we have things because we have worked for them. No, everything we have from God (our health, our ability to think and work, our loved ones, air to breathe, challenges, hope, joy...) is given us by God because God is gracious.
On Christ the King Sunday there is a model of how our relationship with Jesus works. As Jesus hangs on the middle cross, a man on the cross next to him asks: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." That man is a convicted thief, being executed for his crimes. He himself admits that his punishment is deserved. As he dies, this thief asks a favor of Jesus. He has no "brownie points" to bargain with; he cannot say "I've always been a good person, so please accept me." The man knows he is a thief, that he has nothing to offer, but still he asks "remember me when you come into your kingdom." And Jesus says "today you will be with me in Paradise."
Beggars and thieves - that's who we are in relation to God. And God gladly receives us, embraces us with love, fills us with life. God welcomes all of us beggars and thieves, whatever our history, whatever our present condition. For God's love is greater than our successes or our failures, and God's mercy bids everyone to come and be blessed.
Rejoicing in Christ the King,