Growing up in church, I was taught that the Christian faith, and life itself, was primarily about a choice.
It is about a choice to accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior or to reject Jesus. It’s about a choice to spend all of eternity in heaven with God and his angels or to forever burn in hell with the devil and his angels.
In church, I was also taught that I could not afford to wait to make this choice. I needed to make a decision before we finished singing the last hymn, because if I didn’t, the Lord could return or I might get killed in a car accident on the way home, and it would be too late. So, there was a sense of urgency instilled in me to make this choice.
I was also taught that if I didn’t make a choice, I was actually making choice. Not to choose was to choose.
For me, it wasn’t a very difficult choice to make. “Preacher, you are saying that if I choose to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior, I get to live in paradise forever? But if I don’t, I am damned to hell for the same amount of time?” Well, preacher, how fast can you schedule my baptism?!
The problem is that the gospel writers never record Jesus presenting such a choice. Although, I’ve heard countless preachers point to our scripture lesson here in Luke 23, and try to say Jesus is presenting this choice, Jesus never does.
The irony is, that here in Luke 23, the chapter that has the story of the infamous thief on the cross that Jesus says will be with him in paradise, we are presented with a choice. And it is a choice that each person born into this world must make. We must choose our kingdom.
Jesus talked about “kingdom” more than almost anything else. Over 100 times in the Gospels Jesus announces that he is building the “Kingdom of God,” and implies almost every time that he needs people like you and me to help him. He taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, KJV).
Jesus’ message compels us to make a choice to live, work, pray and love in ways that bring God’s Kingdom to this world. And, just like I was taught growing up in church, making this choice is an urgent matter. In fact, I believe it perhaps is more urgent today than ever.
And it is in Luke 23 we learn that it was this urgent message that put Jesus on the cross.
The assembly [of the Elders of the people, including the chief priests and the scribes] rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.”
Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
He answered, “You say so.”
Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.”
But [religious supporters of Caesar] were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place [even here in Jerusalem, here in the capital city!].
And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate (Luke 23:1-11).
It is obvious that Jesus did not rile up the government and the religious establishment by asking people the question: “When you die, do you know where you are going to spend eternity?”
To understand exactly what Jesus is talking about when he talked about “Kingdom,” it is important understand something about the Kingdom into which he was born.
Rev. Joe Kay, UCC Minister from Ohio, describes the Kingdom of Caesar this way:
“It was a Kingdom ruled by the empire’s values of violence, dominance, supremacy, wealth, privilege, and self-interest. Life was cheap, and economic injustice was rampant.”
The empire’s leaders acted in narcissistic ways. As John Dominic Crossan notes in his book God and Empire, Caesar Augustus assumed the titles of “liberator,” “savior,” “redeemer,” and “lord.” He saw himself as the divinely chosen leader of the greatest empire in the world.
Caesar’s supporters praised him constantly and advanced his agenda. His base of support included religious leaders who were co-opted into doing the empire’s bidding in exchange for maintaining their own wealth, power, and privilege.
Religion and Rome were intertwined, working together to advance the empire. Then Jesus came along and challenged it all.”
In fact, this is exactly how his birth was announced by the Angels with the sentence:
“Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those with whom God is well pleased.”
As I mentioned during the season of Advent, this phrase is almost a direct quote from the decrees of Caesar Augustus.
Each time Augustus made an imperial decree to support the Roman occupation of the Near East, the following words opened the decree: “Glory to the most august Caesar (who was otherwise known as God in the Highest), and peace on earth to those with whom the god Augustus is well pleased.”
Thus, the Christmas angels sang the Emperor Augustus’ imperialistic words. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a royal decree: “Glory to God in the highest! There’s a brand new kingdom in this world!
Every time Jesus taught and preached about the Kingdom of God, Rev. Kay notes “he was essentially saying: you’ve already been born into Caesar’s kingdom, but now is the time to enter into a completely different realm. You need to be born again into God’s kingdom, into a realm that operates by values that are in stark contrast to the values of Caesar.”
Love rules in the place of selfishness.
Kindness in the place of cruelty.
Generosity in the place of greed.
Humility in the place of pride.
Social justice in the place of inequality.
Mercy in the place of fear.
And grace rules in the place of judgment.
It is important for us to understand that Jesus never talked about the Kingdom as if it were just some future event in the sweet bye and bye. He proclaimed that the Kingdom was already here—a place of unlimited love and unending compassion. A place where everyone is welcomed, especially the marginalized. A place where nobody is ever treated like an outsider. It is a place where even condemned thieves are forgiven and promised paradise.
It’s a place where healing is offered to all. It is a place where peacemaking is valued over warmongering, and where the lowly and the least are treated as the greatest.
The operating values of Caesar’s kingdom — power, greed, wealth, privilege, self-interest — are rejected, resisted and rebuked in God’s Kingdom.
And today, right now, we have a choice. Which kingdom will we choose? Whose values will we live and enact and advocate in our communities and our world?
It can’t be both. And as much as we want to, we can’t try to live with one foot in both worlds — that does not and will not work. As Matthew remembers Jesus teaching, “no one can serve two masters.”
It’s either one or the other.
And like I learned growing up in church, we can not avoid choosing, because not to choose is to choose. To simply go along with the status quo is a choice to support those who rule over it and protect it. If we do not challenge Caesar, we are in league with Caesar — we have chosen his kingdom over God’s Kingdom.
Also, as I learned growing up in church, we cannot delay making a choice. We can not afford to wait. And it is not because we may get into a car accident on the way home from church this morning. It is because the times in which we live are too serious, the problems of this world are too great and the hate in our world is too strong.
Furthermore, Jesus said the kingdom of God is not a future event. It is here, and it is now. And we are invited to become part of it at this very moment.
We have a choice to make… today.
As Crossan puts it: “God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter into it, live it, and thereby establish it.”
And everyone is invited to join. There are no barriers, no borders, no walls. All are welcomed and all means all, but citizenship does come at a cost. Choosing to establish God’s Kingdom in this world is a much more difficult than choosing which kingdom you want to live in the next world. For God’s kingdom unavoidably confronts and challenges the many Caesars that are always in our world, along with their ardent supporters and their devoted religious minions.
And they’ll use every one of Caesar’s tools to protect their privilege and power — bullying, harassment, intimidation, self-promotion, lying, verbal and physical violence.”
The gospels tell us that the kingdom of Rome and its religious supporters conspired to get rid of Jesus and his message to establish the Kingdom of God. And the same thing happens today.
The supporters of Caesar have completely changed the message of Jesus. They have twisted the gospel and perverted the faith. They teach that the Kingdom of God is a future place we experience when we die, not a place we are to live today. They say that the gospel is about personal salvation, not world transformation. They preach that Jesus wants to enter our hearts, not enter Jerusalem, Little Rock or Washington DC.
And at times, it feels like Caesar’s kingdom is invincible, that it is Caesar who will have the final say. The good news is that Good Friday is always followed by Easter Sunday.
“And in every moment we have trouble recognizing God’s kingdom in our world and in our lives, Jesus says: Look a little closer, love a little stronger, believe a little deeper. And you will see, it’s right here.”
And Jesus invites us all to enter this place of life, love, and healing right now.
Let us pray together.
O God, may thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.