Bright Light in the Shadow of the Cross

A sermon based on Luke 23:33-43
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 24, 2019 * 2010
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Our lesson today is a difficult one. Jesus is a criminal being executed. We tend to think of Jesus as perfect, a good, law-abiding man of peace, but, that’s not how Jesus was understood by many at the time that He lived and died and arose and ascended, and even for a long while after. Some thought Jesus was odd, crazy . . . a rebel who broke the law. He died a criminal but also had an unflattering reputation in some quarters when he was alive. The Gospel of John tells us that “Many [were] were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” (10:20). The Gospel of Mark reports Jesus’ was gathering a following and curing people and casting out demons; and “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” (3:21). In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus himself had this description “‘the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (11:18-19).
In addition to a sort of “crazy party animal” reputation, Jesus also did stuff that Biblical and secular laws prohibited. He broke such laws– touching untouchables; working on the Sabbath; usurping powers reserved for Temple elite. He cured and healed people and cast out demons. He criticized those in power. He fraternized with shady people and outcasts. He claimed people were forgiven outside of the law. Today we’d even say that when Jesus overturned tables in the Temple he criminally trespassed, disturbed the peace and destroyed property.
Jesus rebelled against Rome and challenged it’s rule and leaders in unlawful ways. I know that we believe that Jesus was doing what was right even if it was unlawful, but it is still an inescapable fact that Jesus was a criminal. He crimes were not petty, they were capital. He was arrested, tried and convicted for acts of sedition. He got the cruel sentence Rome reserved for those who rebelled against it: Crucifixion.
Our Lectionary lesson casts a long shadow of a disreputable conviction and death, and counter-intuitively it was intentionally selected in the Lectionary for today, “Reign of Christ Sunday.” Which is also known as “Christ the King Sunday.” It is the day that mainline churches traditionally celebrate the end of the Christian calendar year. Next week we begin a new church year with Advent, the beginning of the hope that leads to the promise of the Christmas Season. That promise, that hope, is the Reign of Christ. On the surface our lesson seems like a very peculiar text to commemorate the Reign of Christ. It lifts up what is called in Christian theological circles “the scandal of the cross.” It is scandalous that Jesus was an enemy of the state, a rebel outlaw who broke laws in such ways that he was arrested and convicted and given the death penalty, and hung to die in shame in public. Christ the King died the death of a culturally reviled criminal.
So why? Why is this text chosen for “Christ the King Sunday?” It’s true that Jesus IS called king in the reading; but it’s a very mocking “King of the Jews, ” paired with a very mocking “Messiah.” As we heard
the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’”
Those mocking Jesus meant “Some king you turned out to be hanging here a powerless naked dying a lowlife.” But the author of Luke and the early Christian community – and God– are smart. Jesus the humble nobody who is mocked is a king who can do nothing, ACTUALLY turns out to be the King who IS Lord over everything. The joke (Macabre as it is) is on those who mock Jesus, those who side with earthly institutions that oppress humans and made Jesus a criminal for preaching, teaching and acting love out. The mockers mock that so low a man could be king. But we know the end game. Which is – for Christians– that the greatest of all royalty; Lord of lords, King of Kings is Jesus the Christ.
See, the early church experienced Jesus as Messiah and King and they found a way to embrace the scandal of the cross and turn it completely around. The early church made a mockery of mocking and killing Jesus that has endured for 2,000 years! God vindicates Jesus crowning him King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Jesus the Christ. The scandal becomes a catalyst for God’s coronation of Christ as King. Out of the dark shadow of the scandal comes the blazing bright light of God which far, far outshines the darkness. From the worse possible place Jesus delivers love and compassion to enemy and neighbor, to the culture’s highest, to the culture’s lowest. Against the powerful who hung Jesus up to die neither God nor Jesus seek vengeance. Jesus does not call down armies of angels to destroy or defeat them. He makes the opposite power move invoking the mightiest tool in the universe, love – which is God.
Jesus uses love to forgive the doers of the heinous acts in the lesson. For those who are torturously killing him on the cross, Jesus mediates the Sacred and Holy by praying this astonishing prayer in our lesson: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” For what should be enemies, Jesus has love, demonstrates love and offers prayers of love. Jesus has no enemies, all are loved and offered forgiveness. Jesus embodies love . . . God on earth. Jesus is God incarnate at that moment in those very acts on that awful cross.
We are called to strive to be God incarnate too. Jesus as a fully human being showed that it can be done. Yet the story indicates that our salvation is not dependant on our doing it as well as Jesus did. We can be saved from our lesser selves just by our efforts to love. This lesson can be found in the kind criminal who on his own cross has compassion for Jesus, who strives to side with the oppressed and shows that he recognizes and turns away from his old ways of sin. Jesus exchanges his last words to another kind and caring human on a cross of their own. The other person rebuked the other criminal who was mocking Jesus and pointed out
we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
[Jesus] replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Two types of humans get to paradise in our lesson One is Jesus who embodies God and the full potential of humankind. The other, an imperfect person who turned toward God and love, and strived to be better. I dare say like each of us and those we are remembering today. All that the kind criminal on the cross did was repent and show love toward God, self and others. That’s enough to get to paradise. And you know what? There is no hellish consequence in the story for anyone, even those who mistreat Jesus. Jesus forgives them, loves them without them asking or even changing their ways. Jesus’ love has absolutely no strings attached. Even those who are up to no good are loved and offered forgiveness. That’s Grace, the no-strings-attached-love we talk a lot about here.
Some Christian argue that Jesus must be “believed in” (as the they tell us to believe) or horrible consequences will unfold for eternity. They claim Jesus’ love has strings attached. But that is belied by our lesson. Conditions on Jesus Way to God’s love are manmade. They are not made by Jesus who on the cross loves all steadfastly and offers forgiveness without condition. Access to paradise is also not narrowly limited to right belief in the story. One means of access is, of course, perfect incarnation of God as Jesus managed toward everyone even his executors. Another means is repenting and showing love toward God, self and others as the kind imperfect person next to Jesus did. The promise of the story– the Good News– is that on Jesus’ Way humans strive to love, value and forgive one another and when we do, the Reign of Christ becomes what rules our lives . . . and it breaks in.
May the Reign of Christ rule in our lives. May it break in more and more.