The Earthly End
This week’s text is Luke 23: 33-43. This is the passage of Jesus dying on the Cross between two criminals. This text marks the last Sunday on the church calendar, commonly referred to as Christ the King Sunday. It would seem an odd text to use as a celebration of our King, yet it points directly to the inversion of earthly values that God has set in motion through His Son. This earthly end of Jesus’s ministry is but the beginning of the expansion of God’s Kingdom into this world.
Jesus reigns as King even though He is humiliated and executed as a common criminal. So much is He treated as a common criminal that He is placed between two actual criminals. These two, I think, represent us. We too are criminals and frankly guilty as hell. It is between and among us as guilty sinners that Jesus performs what I think is the act that transforms Him into our victorious savior.
Living It to the End
Jesus reigns victorious because He refuses to submit to anything or anyone but the will of His Father. Jesus has talked repeatedly up to this point about forgiveness, including loving and forgiving your enemies. Here, at the end, He delivers. He lives this reality in real time. Without even being asked, Jesus offers His forgiveness to those who are killing Him. Can you imagine! He shows us the path of true discipleship and the love of God, and in so doing shows us the path to living a fully human life. He stays steadfast and true even in the face of scorn and ridicule from those still beholden to the values of this world. In so doing Jesus completely reverses all that we think we know about God’s kingdom. Of course, this all becomes manifest by the reality of the resurrection, which changes everything.
Which Criminal Are We?
The real question for us is which criminal are we. Obviously, we are guilty and as unworthy of God’s forgiveness as those who killed Jesus. The amazingly Good News is that we do not need to be. Jesus offers us His forgiveness without qualification or condition. All we need is to believe. The tale of the two criminals shows us the two paths before us. One criminal askes Jesus to “save yourself” and of course “and us”. One gets the distinct impression that this criminal does not give a fig about Jesus, but only wants his own life spared. This is the path chosen by many of us.
The second criminal is of stouter faith. He acknowledges his guilt and Jesus’s innocence. Instead of mockery, this criminal asks Jesus to remember him when He comes into His kingdom. He is directly and out of nothing but hope asking Jesus to intercede on his behalf with His Father in Heaven. He has nothing to offer Jesus but this hope and faithful request. Talk about not trying to get to Heaven via an external work. What work could this man perform while hanging on a cross? We can perform no work worthy of God either, given our fallen state. The Good News is neither we nor the criminal in this passage need to. Like this man all we need to do is ask. Out of pure faith and with no regard for his earthly life, this is exactly what this man does. Jesus, of course grants him his prayer and promises him a place in Paradise, just as He has promised us this place for those who believe.
So at the end of the church calendar year this is indeed a fitting text. Jesus through His sacrifice on the Cross (and the resurrection yet to come) provides the grace for us that saves. In the process He offers an astounding level of forgiveness to those murdering Him and thereby becomes the full human being that God wants us all to strive toward. Then we see what true faith looks like. Not wanting to live forever in this earthly realm but rather in faithful hope and prayer for God’s grace and forgiveness. Our hope should be that we can follow the path of the criminal who placed all his hope in the one who can save; the Jesus who became the Christ on the Cross.
Praise Be to God