Posted on Mon, Nov 21, 2016
Luke 23:33-43 (Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday)
Nov. 20, 2016
Reign of Christ Sunday (3rd Sunday of Advent)
Luke 23:33-43 “Costly Grace”
33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [34 Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38 There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43 He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Today’s text is not about the crucifixion of Christ as it is the fundamental story of what God endured to bestow mercy and grace upon the entire cosmos. Every moment of the past and every moment of the future, all the joys and sorrows, life and death, destruction and creation of all the cosmos comes together at the cross at this moment.
The story is about God bestowing mercy and grace upon the sinners, the rebels, the betrayers, and even those who would sellout Jesus, the one who loved them most.
I read an article by Dr. Gilberto Ruiz, Assistant Professor of Theology at Saint Anselm College Manchester, NH.
On September 30, 2015, the state of Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner, who plotted the 1997 murder of her husband, Douglas.
While in prison Kelly converted to Christianity and demonstrated that hers was a genuine conversion. Notably, she earned a theology certificate from Emory University and ministered to other inmates with a message of God’s love that gave them hope when they desperately needed it (a few of them had attempted suicide). As her execution date approached, a group of former inmates transformed by Kelly’s prison ministry joined many others who pleaded the state for clemency, including correctional officers, Pope Francis, and supporters using hashtag #kellyonmymind, and even Kelly’s adult children who had lost their father because of Kelly’s actions. All appeals that Kelly’s sentence be commuted to life in prison were denied, another reminder that criminal justice in the U.S. prioritizes vengeance over rehabilitation.1
My comment on this tragic story would be, humans had the chance and choice to extend mercy to a transformed individual, but in the end, but they didn’t.
Today’s text seems jarring at this time of the year. In the traditional sense, today would be the last Sunday of the Church Lectionary; we finish our year with the Reign of Christ Sunday, and begin a new year with the traditional beginning of Advent. Look at this text, and think about the theme of the day, the “Reign of Christ.” The word “reign” is a verb and a noun. As a verb: “Hold royal office; rule as king or queen.” As a noun: ”The period during which a sovereign rules.” But today’s text is all about the story about God’s Glory being manifest through the crucifixion of Jesus. The Reign of Christ is not of some royal ceremony installing Jesus as some sovereign over the people. The text is about mercy and grace and we are living within the “Reign of Christ.”
Luke 23:33-43 challenges us to expand our notions of who deserves mercy. Jesus is innocent of any charges leveled against him, yet he has been sentenced to death because he is a political threat to the religious and governing powers, and together they have found a way to justify their killing of Jesus in order to silence his proclamation of the Truth of God’s Kingdom. If it is a story about grace and mercy; it is about who deserves mercy, and how do we see grace. Do the two criminals sentenced to die with Jesus deserve mercy? Or are they where they should be, sentenced to death on a cross? Luke doesn't let us know what they did, but they seem to be resigned to their fate. Who else may deserve mercy in the story? Do the religious leaders who plotted Jesus’ death and are now encouraging the crowd to continue to deride Jesus deserve some kind of mercy? What about Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Caiaphas, or maybe the soldiers that nailed Jesus to the cross? In your heart, what do they deserve for their actions done against Jesus?
The reason the Gospels feature the crucifixion of Christ is for the sake of proclaiming the absolute power of God seen through the death and resurrection of Jesus. A Gospel becomes a proclamation of Good News because it proclaims mercy and grace for exactly these kinds of people, in the past, present and certainly into the future.
The passage is structured around three instances of mockery leveled against Jesus (verses 35, 36, 39). The first mockery is that Jesus was crucified alongside two criminals (verse 33), Luke’s narration does not dwell on the mechanics of crucifixion. Luke’s audience would have been well aware of the horrific details of dying by crucifixion. Through the Roman occupation, the people lived with the threat of crucifixion everyday. Nevertheless, the mockeries communicate how dismal things appeared to have become for Jesus. These taunts get closer and closer to him, giving us a sense that the forces of evil against Jesus were closing in on him. The religious leaders are close enough for Jesus to hear them; the soldiers, who had already taken his garments (verse 34b), people come right up to Jesus as they mock him; and the final act of derision comes from someone right next to Jesus.
Each of these taunts challenges Jesus to save himself as a demonstration of their perception of his identity. In their calls for Jesus to demonstrate his power to save, the leaders, the soldiers, and the criminal address him with titles that from their perspective add to the ridicule but represent valid affirmations of Jesus’ identity for Luke and his readers (“Messiah of God,” Luke 23:35, 39; “chosen one,” verse 35 “King of the Jews,” verses 37, 38). They ironically pronounce Christian truths about Jesus without realizing it, yet they are unable to see that Jesus’ identity as “Messiah,” “chosen one,” and “King” is inextricably linked to his crucifixion. The salvation Jesus offers takes place through the cross, not apart from it.
The very central visual symbol in almost every Lutheran worship room or sanctuary, is the cross, the cruel instrument of torture and death used by the Roman Empire that was reserved for slaves, violent criminals, and threatening political subversives.
This symbol is central because we confess, “It is here, on the cross, that God meets us.” Here on the cross, God makes God’s-self present…
In the abyss of our despair, in our deepest darkness God comes. In the painful reality of our mortality, our ultimate loneliness, our weakness, God encounters us. As we view the cross all of our human attempts to find God are exposed as illusions. We do not find God by…
Through the Cross of Christ, we do not find God, God finds us. Through the Cross God finds us in our darkness, our pain, our emptiness, our loneliness and our weaknesses and heals us.
When we think about this scene and our minds picture the pain and torture Jesus is going through, I pray many of us will also remember all the previous stories of Jesus’ life. We may even recall the promises of the prophets announcing the Good News that one day, a child will be born who will be Christ the Lord, Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace. We all have visions of the manger scene in our minds. Some of us (especially parents) will remember the scenes when, as a boy, in bustling Jerusalem, Jesus left Joseph and Mary and the group to return to the Temple to continue his discussions about God with the religious teachers. We have wonderful visions of Jesus’ baptism and the confused look on John the Baptizers’ face… when God’s voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to Him!” Then there are the temptations that Jesus endures and is victorious, a the many stories of Jesus healing, teaching, and through pure mercy, compassion and power, turning people who were once possessed by demons, or considered outcasts or untouchables into people praising God and wanting to follow Jesus where ever he would go… little did they realize, Jesus’ destination for our sake, was this cross…
We may think the ultimate moment in life might by birth, but that is just the beginning. Some may think watching their kids grow up and become independent adults is the ultimate moment, but then again, there are so many more events to come after that. Maybe it will be the day we have grandchildren, but now we have grown old enough and we know that there is still so much more to come… Maybe it is the twilight moments of our lives, the days we know that the time for this life’s journey is at an end. This is the time we can look back and recall all the amazing events, blessings, struggles, hardships and joys that God has brought us through… and then, because of the Cross, through faith, we will know that not even death will be the end of the story.
Like the Good News reminding us that on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, at the moment our time ends, we will be able to look back on all our history, and at the same moment look forward to all time… All because of the Cross of Christ, even when our bodies cease to function, we will be reunited again with our complete past, our complete present and our complete future. We will be in the complete and perfect now, with Jesus looking at us face to face. Amen.
1 Information about Kelly Gissendaner can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly_Gissendaner, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/29/us/georgia-execution-kelly-gissendaner/, http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/opinion/columns/story/2015/mar/15/sisters-who-struggle-kelly-gissendaner/293356/, and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-w-hawkins/kelly-gissendaner-should_b_8197754.html (all sites accessed May 23, 2016).
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