The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Luke 23:33-43
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
God has come to God’s people and set them free. Amen.
Today is the Feast Day of Christ the King. When I was in seminary, Christ the King Sunday, together with Trinity Sunday, were very commonly known as seminarian Sunday, because if you were a rector and had a seminarian training in your church, you passed off preaching for those Sundays to the student.
Why pass the buck on these Sundays? Well, some would say these topics a bit heady, a bit intellectual—perfect for a seminarian halfway through a semester of their theology course. Others would say that these topics can be hard to preach on. Especially Christ the King with its potentially problematic implications: being a king usually implies conquering, subduing, and then maintaining control in order to maintain power. Is that how we really want to think about Christ?
Well, for a lot of centuries, that is exactly how Christians thought about Christ. Emperor Constantine brutally conquered land stretching from Spain to Iraq, from England to Ethiopia, with the sign of Christ on his soldiers’ shields. European kings claimed that they were in power because God made it so, and to question their rule was to question God.
We even had a form of this in our own American history. Manifest Destiny was the idea that Americans of European descent were divinely ordained to settle the entire continent of North America. Manifest Destiny legitimized the brutal removal and genocide of the non-white, non-Christian native populations who were living on that land.
Instead of kings, we had pioneers who conquered the plains, believing that God mandated it. And these pioneers were usually supported by military force.
So, yeah, those are some of the things that can come up when we talk about Christ the King.
Alas, we do not have a seminarian.
But I actually think that Christ the King Sunday gives us an opportunity to talk about what power means.
In the Gospel today, we hear the same phrase three different times: “You saved others, so save yourself if you’re the chosen one,” said the bystanders. "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" said the soldiers. Even one of the criminals hanging on the cross next to him got in on this: “Save yourself and us if you’re really the Messiah.”
"If you're so strong, if you’re so powerful, save yourself." These people tell us a lot about what they thought a chosen one, a king, a messiah should look like. To them, there’s no way Jesus could be the king people claimed he was if he didn’t take power for himself, to dominate those who would try to keep him down, to conquer those who would oppose him. Or at the very least, to use his power to save his own hide. Because to them, power is selfish, only mindful of how me and my people can benefit, only concerned with taking control of a situation in order to keep power.
This is the kind of thinking that comes when we mistake power for control. And let’s not get on our high horse here: Let you who has no desire for control cast the first stone. We all like to feel like we’re in control. Some of us keep detailed planners and notebooks of lists, not only for ourselves but for our partner and children. Some of us are not so subtle and just take over situations or projects, bending them to our wills by sheer force. Some of us are charming and skilled in planting our idea in someone else’s head so that they think it was their idea. But you know you’re the person behind the curtain.
And I’m not saying these behaviors are inherently bad. In fact, Jesus used a lot of these techniques. He took charge in the temple on numerous occasions—sometimes commandeering scrolls during worship and sometimes flipping over tables. And what are parables but the planting of powerful ideas in other people’s heads? I don’t know whether Jesus kept detailed lists, but paper wasn’t really ubiquitous then, so we’ll assume that’s more of a modern thing.
Strong leaders need these kinds of skills. These kinds of skills are the tools of power. But they can be harmful when used for the sake of control. Jesus knew how to exercise power. He knew when he needed to cause a ruckus, and he knew when he needed to speak quietly to someone who needed comfort. But the kind of power Jesus has in mind isn’t about control.
In today’s gospel, he is on the cross unjustly. He is suffering because of the sins of others. But instead of saving himself, instead of taking control of the situation for his own benefit, he looks around and forgives everyone who wronged him. Then he grants grace to the convicted criminal hanging on the cross next to him. "Today you will be with me in paradise."
The kind of power Jesus has in mind isn’t about control, it’s about liberation. For Jesus, power is about liberating everyone—bringing everyone to paradise with him even if it causes him personal anguish to get it done. He could have saved himself, but he sacrificed his own comfort to bring everyone into a deeper joy—even wrongdoers, even those who mocked and betrayed him.
This is what I would call a Body of Christ kind of liberation. It’s the kind of liberation Fanny Lou Hamer was talking about when she said “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” That’s the kind of power Jesus has in mind, and it’s the kind of power our faith calls us to.
So what’s your superpower? And not theoretically. I’m not asking if you’d rather have the ability to fly or to be invisible.
Paul wrote: To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. That scripture is about your superpower. So think about it. What gift has the Spirit given you? It may not be flashy. Not all of us can resurrect from the dead, at least not within three days, so we’ll let Jesus have that one. But this world also needs the little things:
The people who notice the one person in the room who looks lonely.
The people who just know how to fix things.
The artists and musicians.
The people who love bookkeeping.
The people who instantly put others at ease.
The people skilled with plants and trees.
The people who notice the tiniest details in a room and can change the whole feeling of a space with a few adjustments.
So think about it—what’s your superpower?
I’ll give you a second, and don’t overthink it—whatever pops into your head is probably a good place to start.
Have you thought of it?
Now, how are you using that superpower?
For liberation or for control?
We all know what Jesus chose. We all know that his actual superpower was pouring grace out on everyone, during his life and by his resurrection. Our sins don’t matter anymore. We are loved. We are liberated. And by setting us free, Jesus calls us to live into our own superpower so that we can be his body on this earth, so that we can do his liberation work, so that we can help set others free to live into their own superpower. Amen.