A sermon preached in Christ Episcopal Church, Sheridan, MT, by the Rev. Bruce McNab.
Christ the King Sunday. Proper 29, Year C. November 24, 2013. (Text: Luke 23:33-43)
What image pops into your mind when you hear the word, paradise? Do you see a pristine white beach, palm trees, and blue skies—something from a “Sandals” resort advertisement on TV? Or, maybe, your mental picture of paradise is more like Vegas—a fine hotel with Broadway-class entertainment, casino gambling, and great restaurants. When I was down in Texas a month ago some people down there told me they think southwestern Montana is a kind of paradise! Hard-working Americans tend to imagine “paradise” as a get-away-from-it-all vacation destination. I guess that’s because most Americans who have jobs work too hard at them and think too much about them. —But paradise is not a vacation spot, tropical or otherwise. And, as nice as the Ruby Valley is, it isn’t paradise.
When our Lord was nailed to a cross with a criminal crucified on either side of him, the three of them were in the most awful predicament any human mind could devise: hanging in pain from wooden crosses, dying slowly from asphyxiation and dehydration while a crowd of mostly sadistic spectators stood around and watched. —It was the worst fate imaginable.
We have no idea how much the two other men knew about Jesus before they met him in the courtyard of Pilate’s praetorium as the execution parade was lining up. If they could read, they could see the sign hanging around his neck and draw their own conclusion from that. Romans made signboards and put them on each person being marched out to die, signs naming the condemned person’s crime, which eventually would be nailed above the victim’s head. Jesus’ read: “This is the King of the Jews.” The other two had signs with just one word: one we might best translate as “bandit.” (The King James translation is “thief,” but bandit is better. They were highwaymen, armed robbers.) The two bandits were probably surprised by the crowd that lined the road as the three were led out to die, men and especially women grieving over the fate of the “King of the Jews.” —But not weeping for them. No one had sympathy for them. They were violent criminals who were getting exactly what they deserved. Evildoers.
As Luke tells the story—and as Luke alone tells it—one of the bandits listens to the taunts of the mockers and other unsympathetic characters gathered to watch Jesus die and decides to echo their jeers. As best he can, he turns toward the Man in the Middle and says, “Hey, you ‘Messiah’.
If you’re the King, why don’t you do something? Save yourself…and us!”
His fellow bandit hears him, leans out from his own cross and shouts back, calling across to him, with Jesus between them, “Man, why don’t you just shut up? Don’t you fear God? We’re all under the same sentence, but you and I deserve it. We are bandits. But this man, this “King,” hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he speaks more quietly to the Man in the Middle, even calling him by name: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
There’s a reason Luke records this brief dialogue in his gospel. The dying bandit defends the honor of the harmless, obviously doomed prophet hanging on the cross beside him, and says, “Jesus, don’t forget me when you’re finally sitting on your throne.” I think Luke tells us this because he understands the bandit on the cross as manifesting the faith of a true disciple—a converted mind, an astonishing faith, a mind-boggling faith, the kind of faith that can only be a gift.
Much earlier in his gospel, Luke has quoted Jesus as saying, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” This man condemned for the crime of highway robbery has quite literally “borne his own cross” and followed Jesus to Golgotha. Now his cross is planted beside that of Jesus. They are crucified together. He sees Jesus in agony, just as he is in agony. He sees Jesus dying, just as he is dying.
Logically, sensibly, the bandit should have assumed that if this Galilean carpenter-turned-prophet was ever going to have a kingdom and a throne, that possibility is now gone. The three of them there on Golgotha have fallen victim to the men who exercise the power of life and death in this remote outpost of Caesar’s empire. And in just hours they will be dead. Time has run out for them. —Or so it should seem.
Jesus has done nothing wrong, but still he will die—looking to all the world like a loser, not a king.
However, in spite of all that logic or sense should dictate, the dying highwayman appeals to Jesus using words only a true disciple would speak: “Remember me… Remember me…”
This is important, so please don’t miss it. A condemned and dying criminal sees what no other human eye can see at that moment when darkness begins to spread over Jerusalem and Judea. He sees the future. And he believes in that future. He sees victory, not defeat; hope, not despair; and eternal life in place of death. He trusts in that life he has seen embodied in the Man in the Middle, the King on the cross beside him. So he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And his King turns and says to him, “Truly, I tell you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”
Paradise is not a vacation spot. It’s neither Tahiti nor Las Vegas. It is something much, much better.
Paradise is the garden of the newborn world. It’s Eden before the Fall. It’s the time and place of new beginning, restored innocence, and loving communion between God’s children and their Father.
What does it mean for us who live in a republic called the United States of America twenty-one centuries after he was crucified, to say that Jesus Christ is our “King”? If the word “king” conjures up for us the image of some character from The History Channel like Charlemagne or Henry the Eighth, dressed in cloth of gold, with a purple cape around his shoulders and a jeweled crown on his head, holding an orb in one hand and a scepter in the other, with soldiers and flunkies on either side, that picture is useless, pointless and utterly misleading —even though we can travel the world and see thousands of pictures and mosaics and stained glass windows in churches that portray Jesus as exactly that sort of utterly worldly king.
Such art, impressive as it might be, makes no gospel sense at all. Jesus is indeed a king, our King. But the majesty of his kingship has nothing to do with pomp and circumstance, regal trappings, or what this fallen world calls “power” (though the Church still continues to confuse worldly prestige with spiritual power, just as it has for a very long time).
The truth is that you and I can only recognize Jesus as our Lord and submit to him as our King if we’re able, in the power of his Spirit, to put ourselves in the place of that bandit, condemned and dying on the cross next to Jesus, a real sinner in need of a real Savior. We can only grasp the truth of his kingship and his grace if we can see him living with us and dying with us, sharing our suffering, experiencing our shame, tasting our sorrow, and—in spite of all that, and through all that—giving us hope. Assuring us of the future. And breathing into us a new life.
Because the King chose to die for us and with us, the gates of Paradise are open. We can enter them