I don’t often write out homilies/teachings word for word, but I did for this one. This homily was given at West End Abbey, based on Luke 23:33-43, and you can listen to the recording on our West End Abbey podcast here or on most major podcast platforms.

Have you ever felt like your life was in someone else’s hands?  

I did my masters in Israel. One Christmas, my family and extended family were rendez-vouzing in Delhi; my grandfather was sick. Because customs in Israel was often arduous for me with multiple hours at the airport before boarding etc., I booked a flight from neighbouring Jordan to Delhi. I’d have to cross the border from Israel into Jordan, and then take a taxi to Amman International Airport. I left for the border several hours before my flight based on google estimations and friends’ anecdotal travel times. Inevitably, I waited for hours at the Israel-Jordan border. I finally got through and hopped into a Taxi with 1.5 to 2 hours left before check-in for my flight. When I got to the taxi and asked the driver if I could make it in time his response was “You have to believe.” “You have to believe!?!” 

We raced through Jordan and finally made it to the airport. I ran through the doors, and to the check-in counter, only to be told check-in was now closed. I hoisted every single reason I could think of for them to let me onto the flight.  

“There’s still time, I could still make it!” 

“I travelled all the way from Israel and they held me up at customs! It’s Christmas!” 

“My grandfather has cancer and might die!” 

But it was no use. It was in someone else’s hands. And I missed my flight.  

Today is called the Reign of Christ or Christ the King in the liturgical calendar. It’s the last Sunday of the liturgical year; the Sunday before Advent. And I am increasingly grateful for this day because it holds something very important for us. Today is the day where Jesus as ultimate, sovereign King of the cosmos comes into sharp focus. And I’d like to highlight two things about Jesus as King from Luke’s gospel today: the first is rather cosmic and awesome; the second is painfully human and also awesome. And the combination – as you guessed – is even more awesome.  

First, Jesus as King means that Jesus is Judge. A cosmic Judge who has ultimate decision-making power relative to what Christians call “Last Things,” or eschatology. This has typically involved the four last things of death, judgement, heaven, and hell. 

Now, this is not a popular notion, Jesus as Judge. We prefer Jesus meek and mild, God as friend, companion, Love, Father etc. We don’t like people who are judgmental, judgy, and certainly don’t like feeling judged. But the witness of the Old and New Testaments is unambiguous. God, over and over, is characterized as the Judge who will execute judgment in full when Jesus returns again in glory. This is part of him being King. Whether we like it or not, no one – not you, not me, nor anyone living or dead – is exempt from this in scripture. Just listen to what Jesus says about himself in Matthew 25: 

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left." 

It’s not just me who hears that, right? “All the nations will be gathered and he will separate the people one from another.” It gets worse. 

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” 

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” 

I won’t pretend to know what that all means (and probably don’t want to know anyway). But what is clear is that Jesus, the Son of Man, is the King on the throne who will execute last, final judgement. The process and outcome of this judgment is in his hands, not ours.  

In today’s gospel, we see Jesus in preliminary action as King and Judge. One criminal who seems to get all this already says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus has ultimate decision-making power in telling this dying criminal precisely where he is going to be, and with whom, after his death. The fact that the Judge is assuring this similarly crucified man – who by his own admission is being condemned justly and getting what he deserves – and telling him he’ll be in Paradise is more beautiful than words can convey. Apparently, unlike the Roman empire, Jesus the Judge doesn’t always give people the terrible sentence they may expect and even deserve.    

If today’s gospel shows us that Jesus as King means he has ultimate decision-making power in last things, it also shows us that Jesus is a very, very different kind of King. A radically kind king who embodies powerlessness, solidarity, and forgiveness.  

Remember that the setting of Luke’s gospel is The Skull. Jesus is a King who willingly embraces crucifixion. He has an inscription over him to prove it. The physical anguish of Roman crucifixion is unlike anything we know of. We get the word “excruciating” from it – literally meaning ‘from the cross’ in Latin. And crucifixion was even more than its physical torment – it was a profound experience of shame. The victim hung naked in full view of pedestrians, who scorned, mocked, and ridiculed as the leaders, soldiers, and even a fellow criminal do to Jesus. Speaking of which, Jesus is crucified with criminals.  

What on earth sort of God is this? What sort of King would choose to be crucified – to experience the utter powerlessness, pain and shame of death by cross in between criminals? This King, whoever he is, is not standing on ceremony but is radically committed to solidarity with human beings, even the worst and most “sinful” of human beings. He is not ashamed to be next to these sorts of characters. What if this King chose to be crucified in hope of saving even one other criminal who was going to be hanging next to him?  

Remember, the gospel passage for today is happening mostly during crucifixion. Those who hung on crosses eventually died from asphyxiation. It’s not an ideal time for a chat. You’d have hardly any energy or breath to speak of. And yet what do we find our King – King Jesus – saying from the cross?  

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” 

This gracious, incredible expression of forgiveness is quite literally Jesus’ dying breath – what he wants to say before it’s all over. What sort of King would go to these lengths to offer forgiveness and has this as their last words? Even at his worst, our King speaks and asks for mercy to those who wound him; those at their worst.  

I began this homily by asking you if you ever felt like your life was in someone else’s hands. The Reign of Christ, Christ the King Sunday reminds us that Jesus is both King and Judge in whose hands are all last things. He decides about you, me, and Paradise and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But this Judge’s hands were also willingly nailed to a shameful cross between criminals. And this King dies speaking of grace and forgiveness; the “them and they” of each and every sinner. So take a good look. This is Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In whose hands would you rather be?  

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