Updated: Jan 31
I mentioned last week that today, Christ the King Sunday, marks the end of a cycle. It not only ends the season of Pentecost, but next Sunday marks the beginning of the Christmas season, Advent.
Advent is rooted in an Old French infinitive verb, “advenir,” meaning, “to happen, to occur, to come.” It speaks of anticipation of something promised, as a beginning, not an end.
Thus, today we have reached a symbolic death in the cyclic story of Christ, as told by the Lectionary schedule and the Church’s seasonal focus. A figurative death is once again upon us. The record has reached its end; and although we flip it over and play the next side, the song remains the same. The same song, next verse, as sung by other books and writers of Scripture than those we have read over the past year.
Today we read of Christ on the cross, before his death, and thus also before his resurrection and his ascension. For all of that cycle “to happen, to occur, to come to be,” Jesus must first be born.
Thus, from death comes life. From a life ended come resurrection; and then, from birth comes death. It is the continuing cycle of life on earth. It is the continued repeating of mortality.
As I said last week, we are born, we live and we die. However, the end is how it seems from a linear life’s perspective. While it is true a song plays from beginning to end, and a book is read from introduction to conclusion, because the song can be played again and the book can be read again, there is not a straight line being drawn. There is, instead, a spiral.
We continue onward, cycled into a new level of existence, with a new birth and a new life. This is literally seen in biographies, where the dead come back to life. It is figuratively seen in a belief of heaven … or hell; but more so in the philosophy of reincarnation. Same soul, next body.
In the scene set today, at Golgotha, the place named The Skull, it becomes one of decision time for us. It is a reflection on what is about to be born next, what will happen next, what will occur next, what will come next to those who die.
It represents Advent Eve in that way.
Today’s Gospel reading may seem quite clear. We see Jesus making the promise, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We hear those words and fondly think, “Jesus is speaking to me. I am going to Heaven.”
But, it is not as clear as you may think.
All of us have a tendency to see us as Jesus’ companion, whenever any of the stories Jesus’ life comes into our minds. As Christians, this is a natural way to think, but it can be a flawed way to see the value of Scripture.
We identify with the criminal hanging on the cross, presumably to Jesus’ right-hand side (to our mind’s eye left). He believes Jesus will go to his Father’s kingdom, in another realm, and he asks Jesus to remember him when he gets there. Jesus told him that he will join him there that day.
We see ourselves as disciples of Christ, as Christians, so invariably we believe Jesus will see us in Heaven too.
What we fail to realize is it has been 1,400 years of tweaking that has led us to believe getting to Heaven is that simple. We have been trained by our leaders to believe this. I may have given that impression in some things I have said before. Certainly, those before me have helped you believe you are saved because Jesus died on the cross for your sins.
From the Gospel reading today, we do not think any of the Roman soldiers, the criminal to Jesus’ left-hand side, or any of the leaders who all mocked Jesus – telling him to save himself, if he was the King of the Jews – were going to see Jesus in Heaven.
At least, they would not be going there in that state of mind. So, while Jesus asked God to forgive them for not knowing they were sinning, that forgiveness was only going to give them a second chance. They would be allowed to find the right path later.
Jesus did not forgive the sins of the criminal about to die to his left side, as if that forgiveness would send everyone happily to Heaven when their time to die came. Otherwise, Jesus would have told the criminal to his left, “Yeah, you’ll see me in Heaven too, in a short while; but brother you have some thanking to do then.”
Jesus didn’t say that.
If you believe he did say that, then Golgotha is as serious as this movie.
In the Lectionary schedule of readings, this is year C. Typically, there is an alternate Old Testament reading to pick from as our reading selection, although we usually go with the first option. Today, the reading from the Book of Jeremiah has no other option.
Our elders, the ones who prayed and discussed how the Lectionary should be laid out, they saw Jeremiah 23:1-6 as necessary to be read along with the Luke reading of Jesus on the cross at Golgotha. We need to understand why that is.
In the Jeremiah passage, we read God telling us, “I will raise up shepherds over [his people] who will shepherd them, and they will not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.”
We have to see the plural number in “shepherds” in order to understand that Jesus would not be the only shepherd raised by God to attend to his flocks. This means I am a shepherd, and you are a flock of God’s people. However, Jesus becomes the model for the good shepherd, for all shepherds who will attend to God’s people.
When God told Jeremiah to write, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture,” we think that was only a reference to the ancient kingdoms of Israel, which had fallen. While they were part of this failure, the failure will always be possible, should bad shepherds again lead the flocks improperly.
After Jeremiah wrote his books, Jesus came. This is interpreted to mean that, once again, bad shepherds were improperly leading the flocks of God, scattering them away from their true purpose as God’s chosen people, so that God was not properly served. Same song, another verse.
To think that the creation of Christianity would always mean good shepherds attending properly to God’s people is wishful and fanciful imagination. From our perspective, looking back at the history of Christianity, we can see how many have been misled and scattered. The decline of Christianity, as a religion, is well upon us now … and growing yearly … monthly … weekly.
This means the shepherds … in the plural number … are the churches of Christianity. From the churches come priests, pastors, preachers, and ministers, who are the shepherds of their respective churches, more than they (we, I) are shepherds to you sheep. As much as you think you are my flock, you are the flock of the Episcopalian Church, and I am only a replaceable part of that machinery.
If you let it be that way.
Jesus told his disciples that the future would bring, “Many who will say, ‘I am Christ,’ and that the end is near.” Jesus warned the disciples, “Do not follow them.”
Now, if we see Jesus warning his disciples about people who would actually have people follow them, rather than telling them about terrible people trying to get good people to follow them, when good people would spot a terrible person a mile away and stay clear of them, never to follow them, then we have to see the warning being, “Do not follow wolves in shepherd’s clothing.”
Bad shepherds pretend to be good shepherds. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. So, you have to hear Jesus warn, “Do not follow a Church that says it is Christian, when it does not attend to the people of God properly.”
When Jesus said that a church was whenever two or more people gathered in his name, this can be seen as one of three ways.
First, when two or more gather in the name of Christ, one is filled with the Holy Spirit and the others are wanting to be filled. So, following the good shepherd means to learn how to also be good shepherds. This is the circumstances under which we meet today, in a building called a church, such that I represent the good shepherd and you represent the flock. All of us are here in the name of Christ … as Christians. I want all of you to be able to recite this sermon to those you come in contact with, in the future.
Second, when two or more gather in the name of Christ, they are (both or all) already filled with the Holy Spirit. This is represented in the letters sent by Paul and the other Apostles (those filled with the Holy Spirit) to the churches they had founded. You have to see how those “churches” were not buildings or cities, but instead were other living members of our Lord Jesus Christ … Christians … who had also been filled with the Holy Spirit and were themselves filling their flocks. The gathering was to encourage and support, to ask questions and share the knowledge of the Holy Spirit, so that could be passed on, as would good shepherds.
Finally, when two or more gather in the name of Christ, they have died and risen to Heaven. The Holy Spirit having been within them, through Christ as the advocate, so it has protected them from sin for their remaining days on earth AND in those remaining days they will have shepherded flocks of God’s people properly. Those souls would have left behind churches of Christians, who are continuing to attend to God’s people, so the lineage thrives and grows, producing good fruits.
Jesus never indicated a church was a beautiful building, made of finely cut stones, and adorned with the beauty purchased by the tithes of God’s people. Jesus said a church like that would be thrown down, with no stone left in place. It would decay and collapse, just as had the Temple priests of the Israelites failed its people and led them to ruin.
When Jesus warned that “many will come after me saying, “I am he! Follow me!” He was telling of the corruptions that take hold of buildings and the people who own those buildings, because it is costly to own and run buildings, and it is also costly to pay men (and now women) to stand above the people of God and tell them, “We come in the name of Christ to tell you to follow our creeds, dogmas, rules, procedures, and rituals. By doing so, you will be upheld as good Christians.”
Jesus warned, “Do not follow them!” Unless these people bring the Holy Spirit to you, in your midst while filled with the Holy Spirit, so that “the kingdom of God has come near,” for the sole purpose to have you open up your heart to receive the Holy Spirit within you, then you have been in the middle of snakes of wisdom. A church is a gathering for the purpose of passing on the Holy Spirit, which comes with infinite wisdom for each and every Christian to possess.
The model left by Jesus, for all good shepherds to become, was to teach the faithful why they should have faith. Jesus taught his disciples this, and for as much as they wanted to be like Jesus, and for as much as they said they believed all Jesus taught, the day Jesus died on that cross, they all hid in fear and trembled.
They were not filled with the Holy Spirit simply by going to hear Jesus’ sermons every Sabbath. They were not filled with the Holy Spirit simply by following Jesus, the model of a good shepherd.
Jeremiah wrote how the LORD told him, in the future there will come the times when good shepherds will make God’s people so “they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.”
The Psalm of Zechariah sings, “The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”
Paul wrote to the Colossians, “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transformed us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Luke recalled Jesus saying to the sinner who admitted his acts deserved punishment, begging Christ to remember him after he enters his kingdom upon death, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The disciples were not filled with the Holy Spirit until after the resurrected Christ had taken the knowledge of those who followed him to a higher level. A follower cannot ascend to that higher level. Only one who has the courage to admit, “Without the Holy Spirit within me, I can only lead myself to sin, and all others I follow only help lead me there.”
A leader receives the Holy Spirit by willfully stepping aside from him or herself and asking Jesus to remember that acceptance of punishment. By asking Jesus to resurrect oneself, to ascend within one’s heart and take control over one’s mind, so one can lead others to the same dawning, then one can ascend to the level of good shepherd.
On this Christ the King Sunday, as we prepare for the coming of Christ in the physical realm once again, take this time to reflect on why you are here today.
Are you following someone who says, “I am Christ resurrected!” because they told you, “All you have to do is say you are Christian!” Can you see how that is what Jesus warned against? Can you step before others and explain Scripture, from possessing the mind of Christ, so others will be likewise inspired?
Or, will the baby Jesus be reborn within you later, to grow and develop within your body, to become your head, to make you the Church of Jesus, and to make you the shepherd God wants you to be, leading others to the same higher state?
God is the God of the living. Let Christ make you come alive and remove the fear that holds you back.