Save yourself – And Us -- A Lectionary Reflection for Reign of Christ Sunday
33 When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.
35 The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”36 The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40 Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? 41 We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”43 Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”
What does the reign of God look like? We know what monarchy looks like: palaces, fortresses, thrones, and crowns. The President of the United States isn’t a monarch, but the trappings of the modern presidency rival that of any monarchy – only it’s not hereditary (at least not yet). A monarch is a person who wields power – sometimes absolutely. While most modern western monarchies are rather limited, with the monarch being little more than a figurehead. They may have the power of persuasion, but they don’t control the purse or the armies. But go back a few centuries and you will find a different picture. While the Roman emperors often styled themselves as gods, Christian monarchs could portray themselves as the human face of God – ruling by divine right they were answerable only to God. More often than not such monarchs focused their attention on themselves, doing everything they could to monopolize power.
As we come to the end of the church year, the lectionary tells us that it is Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday. Having begun the journey twelve months earlier in Advent, we have heard Jesus preach the good news that the realm of God is with us. But what does this realm consist of? What does it look like? Is there a throne? An army? A fortress? If we were expecting a grand entrance, the reading from Luke’s gospel points us in a different direction. God’s vision of the realm is expressed through a cross rather than a throne.
The creators of the lectionary have chosen a text that is typically read on Good Friday to express the nature of God’s realm. As we did on Good Friday we witness Jesus being led to Golgotha, together with two “criminals,” where the trio are nailed their crosses. It’s important to not here that crucifixion is not only a painful way to die, it is also designed to be a public spectacle. As is often true of public executions, a crowd gathers to watch the proceedings. We humans seem to have a morbid sense of curiosity, perhaps best exemplified by our need to slow down so we can taken in the carnage of a major accident. While we may not have the kind of gladiatorial bouts as in the first century, games like football or boxing or UFC touch are modern expressions of that lust for blood that is present in so many of us. Although most modern executions happen out of public sight, in earlier years executions – whether Roman crucifixions or hangings in the Old West – were designed to impress upon the people a message. If you disobey, this could happen to you.
Here we are, standing in the crowd at the foot of the cross. We’re waiting to see what will happen. If we listen closely we’ll hear Jesus speaking. He begins to pray: “Father forgive them, for they known not what they do.” Jesus may seek forgiveness for his tormenters, but they don’t seem interested. They have their own retorts, which remind us that in the eyes of the world, Jesus must have been a failure. He may have healed people and offered great sermons, but in the end he was just one more failed messiah. Listen to the crowd. In Luke’s portrayal, they share a common response: “If you’re the king/messiah – save yourself.” The criminal adds for good measure – “and us.”
There is a tension present in the New Testament. On the one hand, we find Jesus speaking of God’s realm being present then and there, but there’s also a sense that it is still to come. In fact, there is a great deal of anticipation, especially in Paul’s earlier letters. In 2 Thessalonians, we even find people being admonished to get a job and put food on the table rather than sit around waiting for the end to come. So, it’s not surprising that we hear the crowd calling on Jesus to prove himself to be something other than an abject failure. If you really are the Messiah, the King of the Jews, then save yourself. Surely you have the power to remove yourself from the cross. If not, then you have failed.
It is good to remember that nowhere does Jesus proclaim himself to be king. He instead refers to himself as “Son of Man” or simply – I’m a human being. Yes, he proclaims the kingdom of God, but not his own kingship. But the crowd has ultimately misunderstood what Jesus offered in the form of salvation. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson write:
But Luke’s leaders and soldiers misunderstand salvation, seeing it entirely in terms of the continuation of life or military “liberation” and not as the restoration of the people Israel through forgiving of sins, including the marginalized, feeding the hungry, or dying the death of a martyr, a witness, to all of these. (Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 249).
It is in his death, in his act of offering forgiveness to those who seek to kill him, that he demonstrates the kingdom. By doing this, he turns concepts of power upside down. It’s not that Jesus empties himself of power on the cross, but rather he exercises power in a way that redefines its nature.
If we go back into the previous chapter, we find the disciples arguing over who is the greatest. They are concerned about the privileges they would derive as Jesus’ chief lieutenants. Each jockeyed to be in the inner circle, so that when Jesus took over they could have the best jobs in the cabinet. None of them wants to be left back minding the store on the night Jesus gives his annual state of the realm address. But what does Jesus say to them?
25 But Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ 26 But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant. 27 So which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table or the one who serves at the table? Isn’t it the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27 CEB).
Jesus is present among them as one who serves. Therefore, this is where we’ll find the realm of God – among those not expected at the table. And again, in our day, it appears that Pope Francis is showing us the way to live out the values of God’s realm – in service to others, even as he lets go of many of the trappings of the papacy. It is not, that we must denigrate ourselves. It’s not that we do not matter to God or that we should not tend to ourselves in appropriate ways. We needn’t look at ourselves as persons full of shame. No, it is simply that Jesus shows us a different way of exercising power.
There is one who catches the message. It is the other person being crucified with Jesus. He doesn’t ask Jesus to get him off the cross, but simply to remember him when Jesus comes into the realm. And Jesus answers: “Today, you shall be with me in Paradise.” He may not completely understand the message – none of us do. But he was ready to receive the forgiveness that Jesus had sought for those who surrounded him.
As we celebrate Reign of Christ Sunday, may we embrace Jesus’ vision of that reign. May we understand what it means to exercise power in a way that is transformative rather than destructive. In doing this we will help inaugurate the realm of God, which is already in our midst, even if we don’t always perceive it. And most importantly we see it expressed in a word of forgiveness.